10 Different Types Of Bluegrass Instruments You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Though the term “bluegrass” may seem a bit unfamiliar to some of you, fear not. You’ve heard it multiple times in various cartoons, movies, and soundtracks!

Simply, bluegrass highlights the traditional elements and forms of this genre. Bluegrass bands typically play folk songs exclusively on acoustic instruments. The lyrics and melodies are simple as well.

When it comes to instruments used, bluegrass lacks the use of percussion. Let’s take a deeper look at ten different types of bluegrass instruments you should know.

1. Fiddle

Fiddle” is a colloquial term for the violin. The difference in terminology is due to what style is being played on the instrument. A violin is used more in classical music. The Fiddle, on the other hand, is used in country music, bluegrass, and other folk music.

A Fiddle tends to have four strings and comes in different sizes and shapes. It can either be played with a bow or by strumming or plucking. Steel strings are often used because they produce a brighter tone compared to synthetic strings.

Notably, fiddlers are often highly skilled in fiddling rather than violinistic traditions. As such, don’t expect them to follow the rules that violinists observe. This means you might see them holding the instrument in a “wrong” way. Or they don’t use the chin or shoulder rests.

Due to the fast tempo of bluegrass, a lot of fiddlers use a flatter bridge. This makes it easier and faster to keep the tempo. One of the most famous fiddlers is Michael Cleveland. He won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Fiddler of the Year Award… 10 times!

2. Banjo

Next, we have the Banjo, a stringed instrument. While there are many different types of banjo, it’s the five-string version most commonly found in bluegrass bands. It’s also played in the “Scruggs style,” a three-finger picking style named after the legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs.

The Banjo has a body typically made of wood. It has a head over which a thin membrane is stretched over a cavity, and this forms a resonator. The membrane was traditionally made of animal skin, now of plastic, and is usually circular.

The Banjo produces a bright, percussive sound that gives bluegrass a distinctive sound. The performer typically plays a series of rapid, rolling arpeggios known as “rolls.” These help create the fast, driving rhythm of the music.

The player also plays single-note melodies and chordal accompaniment, adding depth and complexity to the sound of the band.

Related: Check out our list of the best banjo players here.

3. Mandolin

Another core instrument in the string-based bluegrass genre is the Mandolin. It is considered not only as essential as the banjo but also as easy to learn as the guitar, given its fewer strings.

Though there are several types of Mandolin, the archtop mandolin is commonly used in bluegrass, that’s thanks to Orville Gibson of Michigan, who was awarded the patent for the design. The archtop mandolin is similar to the violin, especially the carved soundboard and back.

What makes Gibson’s Mandolin special is the design of the sides of the instrument. These are made from a single piece, also carved, and it improves the resonance. There are no internal braces. His overall design leads to the instrument having a louder sound than other designs.

Strumming patterns are crucial on the Mandolin to give it that traditional folk vibe. The father of bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe, was famous for his unique skills in playing the Mandolin.

In ensembles, larger Mandolins are used. Several Mandolins can be played in quartets or in Mandolin orchestras. In the latter, guitars serve as accompanying instruments.

4. Dobro (Resonator Guitar)

Dobro is the name of an American guitar brand owned by Gibson. At the same time, it refers to all wooden single-cone resonator guitars. It was invented by the Dopyera Brothers, immigrants from the Slovak Republic.

A resonator guitar is an acoustic guitar. Sound is produced when strings vibrate through the bridge to the metal cones or resonators. Resonator guitars are different from acoustic ones in that they are louder. This is only fitting since the sound of an acoustic guitar is drowned out by other instruments in orchestras.

Resonator guitars found their place in bluegrass after electric amplification helped increase the volume. The metal resonator built into the Dobro acts as an amplifier.

Josh Graves was a bluegrass musician who introduced the resonator guitar to bluegrass music. He played the instrument using the Scruggs style.

5. Ukulele

We usually associate the Ukulele with Hawaiian songs. That’s probably because the instrument gained popularity in Hawaii. Did you know that it’s also one of the string instruments used in bluegrass? And believe it or not, it’s not Hawaiian! The Ukulele, a plucked instrument, is of Portuguese origin.

The cheaper Ukuleles are usually made from plywood or laminated wood. At the same time, the expensive ones are made of solid hardwoods. It consists of four nylon strings. The size and construction dictate the tone and volume.

There are several kinds of Ukuleles. One is the bass ukulele which sounds like a double bass when amplified. The other one is the banjolele.

Bluegrass strumming on Ukuleles is common. It has been said to be the starting point of several famous pioneers like Peter Rowan. He said playing bluegrass on his Ukulele allowed him to play faster using a pick.

Among the most popular ukulele players is Jake Shimabukuro. He was known to combine several elements of different genres like jazz, folk, bluegrass, and more.

6. Upright Bass

An Upright Bass is the same as a double bass or bass. They are named differently according to how they’re played and what style is used.

Bass and double bass are used more commonly in the classical music genre. The upright bass term literally refers to the instrument’s position while being played. That is what is frequently seen in bluegrass bands.

These bass instruments are the lowest-pitched string instrument, as well as the largest, in an orchestra. They usually measure six feet and consist of four or five strings.

Though it doesn’t usually have a complex role and mix of strings in bluegrass, the bass still brings stability and holds the rhythm well. Since the bass is considered too big to always be in bluegrass bands, the Upright Bass is used instead.

Related: Check out our list of the best Bluegrass bands here.

7. Harmonica

There has been a bit of debate on whether or not the Harmonica is a bluegrass instrument. In fact, it’s only occasionally that you see a Harmonica in bluegrass music. Still, that earns this instrument a spot on our list.

The Harmonica is a wind instrument and not a string type, which makes it a bit harder to accompany the bluegrass genre explicitly. There are many types of Harmonica, including the diatonic and the chromatic.

In bluegrass, the chromatic Harmonica seems to work best. A good player can produce a fiddle-like sound and keep up with fast melodies. Plus, if the performer uses the C key, he can handle chord changes and transitions.

Among the most famous harmonica players are Charlie Mccoy and Deford Bailey. McCoy, in particular, appeared in several albums of the bluegrass duo Flatt & Scruggs.

8. Lap Steel Guitar

At this point, you may get confused between a resonator guitar and a Lap Steel Guitar. After all, they look too similar. In addition, Lap Steel Guitars are played much like a Dobro.

The main difference between the two is that the Lap Steel Guitar is plugged in. That means that it is louder than a Dobro. Think of Dobro as an acoustic guitar, where the volume depends on your fingers. The sound is distinctive, but then you’ll have to exert more effort in playing.

On the other hand, the Lap Steel Guitar is like an electric guitar. The tone is more direct and cleaner. This is advantageous when playing the instrument in a band.

Though the Lap Steel Guitar may seem a bit challenging to master at first, it’s one of the most rewarding instruments when you get the hang of it. Bluegrass musician Josh Graves is credited with having introduced the instrument in bluegrass music.

9. Accordion

Next, we have the Accordion. This is a free-reed aerophone from the family of box-shaped instruments.

There are several types of accordions. The basic nature is that the keys and a bass casing on two sides of the inflating and deflating instrument push air to produce the notes.

To play, the accordionist compresses the bellows at the same time pressing the keys. Air flows across the reeds, causing them to vibrate and produce a sound.

The first bluegrass band, Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys, originally had an accordionist. She was Sally Ann Forrester, considered the first woman in bluegrass. The band employed her as their accordionist from 1943 to 1946.

The Accordion is most commonly used in the developing genre called “NewGrass” or “Progressive Bluegrass.”

10. Acoustic Bass Guitars

Last but not least in bluegrass music is the Acoustic Bass Guitar, or ABG. Bluegrass bands usually prefer the bass fiddle. But if the ABG is chosen wisely, it is among the bass line providers in bluegrass bands.

The ABG has a hollow wooden body that could be similar to or perhaps larger than an acoustic guitar. The ABG is also similar to the double bass, as both have usually four strings. But it is different from the acoustic guitar as the ABG is tuned at a lower pitch.

What’s good about the ABG is that it not only produces a metallic sound from the strings. But it also produces an abrasive and reverb tone. Just like other string instruments in the bluegrass band, you can strum, pluck, or use a bow when playing the ABG.

Summing Up Our List Of Musical Instruments In A Bluegrass Band

Bluegrass music is here to stay, as are these varied instruments. Who knows? There may be more instruments added to the lineup as the genre progresses.

Whether you’re a fan of bluegrass or not, we hope that you have a new appreciation for the instruments on our list. After all, bluegrass won’t be bluegrass without them.

And we should be thankful for these instruments because they give us music that we can enjoy.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.