Blue Yodel #53 – Dictionary of Bluegrass Slang

This is Blue Yodel #53, the same number of times that local bluegrass band The Remington Riders of Free Dirt, Texas, played their signature song, Remington Ride, at a wedding on November 19, 1995. It was band policy to play the tune whenever someone requested anything by ZZ Top. An insistent drunk egged them on thinking he was hearing his favorite band’s greatest hits. The Remington Riders broke up after the gig, but later re-formed as The Obnoxious Pull-Offs.

This week I thought I’d take a first crack at compiling a dictionary of bluegrass slang. That should tell you a lot about my social life.

I started making a list and then asked some friends if they had any contributions. (Okay, it was mostly Facebook, but I know if I were ever in trouble those people would like me.) If it wasn’t on the original list, I cite the person who sent it.

I’m sure this is just scratching the surface—and feel free to use Scratching the Surface as a title for a banjo tune. If you think of something you don’t see here, please contribute below. There are some I had not heard before; I especially like pork chop, sent by Charlie Sizemore.

If this goes well, I plan to start selling the dictionary door-to-door. A digital version will probably be easiest to carry.

A Dictionary of Bluegrass Slang 

Being a Compendium of Select Words & Phrases Spoken & Overheard by People Gathered Together to Play & Listen to The Bluegrass Music.

Ain’t No Part of Nothin’ – (Mary Katherine Alden) Bill Monroe quote for describing something particularly bad. Triple-negative with a twist.

Arch-Top – (Ned Luberecki) A raised-head banjo. The kind of banjo Ralph plays.

B chord –  (Megan Lynch) Referring to things as B chord means they are the best of their kind. “These Mallomars are B chord!” Said to have been coined by Terry Baucom.

Boom-Chick – Downstroke rhythm guitar style, alternating bass strings (boom) with off-beat quick strum (chick). Also, the first name every all-female band thinks up and discards – The Boom Chicks.

Boom-Chuck – See Boom-Chick.

Cheater – Capo (see Clamp).

Cheaters – Scruggs-Keith banjo tuners. See Risers, Twisters and Whiners.

Chunk-uh-a-la-foo – (Alan Munde) Verbal description of a G-run from Jimmy Martin. The last syllable “foo” lands on the final third-string open G of the run.

Chop – Off-beat rhythm usually played by the mandolin, fiddle, dobro, and/or guitar player.

Clamp – Capo (see Cheater).

Devil’s Box – A fiddle. Playing the instrument was thought to be sinful.

Diamonds –When the bass (or any instrument) rings for a certain number of whole beats. When bassist Irl Hees plays diamonds, you could say that diamonds are an Irl’s best friend.

Doghouse Bass – Acoustic bass.

Drive – The kind of bluegrass rhythm that great players have. You know it when you hear it. Also, what bluegrass bands do when not playing.

Drop Chord – (Ira Gitlin) meaning a flat-seven chord. “Little Maggie, that’s got the drop chord in it, don’t it?” See Off Chord.

Flat-Top – (Ned Luberecki) Dreadnought guitar or John Duffey’s hairstyle.

Gangnam Style – This entry fulfills the requirement that everything must include a reference to Gangnam Style.

Gear – (Tommy Goldsmith) Key that a song is played in. “What gear is this in?”

Good ‘Un – (Ned Luberecki) Any good song, or a reference to the tune Sally Goodin. See Minner-Dipper.

Herringbone – Any of the fancy-styled D-model Martin guitars. Also, suits occasionally worn by Del McCoury.

High Baritone – The baritone part moved up an octave and sung above the tenor. Also, the part some people claim to be singing when they’re actually singing unison with the lead.

Hook It – (Eric Bannister) The first time I heard it was at Bean Blossom several years ago when Dave Evans banjo player took off, Dave kept yelling “Hook it! Hook it, now!” See Mash.

Hound Dog – Resonator Guitar. See TIFKAD.

Jimmy Martin Ending – An abrupt, muted stop at the end of a song, as in Hit Parade of Love.

Kick-Off – To begin a song. A rare football term used in bluegrass.

Low Tenor – The tenor part moved down an octave and sung below the baritone. The part some people are actually singing when they think they’re singing baritone.

Mash – After 2005, to play fast with great drive. “Let’s mash.” Before 2005, an abbreviation for sour mash whiskey or a 70s tv show.

Minner-Dipper – (Ned Luberecki) I was never sure if Jimmy Martin used this for banjo or mando, but it’s a good’un either way. See Good ‘Un.

Off Chord – Any chord that’s not G, C, or D. Any minor chord. See Drop Chord.

Pork Chop – (Charlie Sizemore) All down-stroke boom-chick rhythm guitar style. This is a Jimmy Martinism. He’d say “Listen there at Melvin [Goins]: pork-chop, pork-chop, pork-chop . . .”

Potatoes – A shuffling fiddle kick-off that sets the tempo. Goes like: Nah-na-na-nah-na-na-nah-na-na-nah. See Taters.

Poverty Box – (Chris Rogers) Any of the bluegrass instruments. See Devil’s Box.

Quile – (Jon Weisberger) Harley Gabbard used to use the word quile, as in quile down – “I think I’ll go to the bus and quile down for a while.”

Rawhide – (Tommy Goldsmith) Exclamation said to indicate ending a tune as in the Monroe instrumental Rawhide.

Risers – Scruggs-Keith banjo tuners. See Cheaters, Twisters, and Whiners.

Spikes – (Ned Luberecki) Banjo 5th string capo made from small spikes usually at the 7th, 9th, and sometimes 10th frets. Sometimes referred to as Railroad Spikes.

Tater-Bug – (Ned Luberecki) Round-back mandolin. Heard from Mike Compton.

Taters – See Potatoes.

TIFKAD – The Instrument Formerly Known As the Dobro. See Hound Dog.

Turn-Around – A brief chord progression that introduces a song, or a repeated ending to a song.

Twisters – Scruggs-Keith banjo tuners. See Cheaters, Risers, and Whiners.

Whiners – (Jon Weisberger) Scruggs-Keith banjo tuners. See Cheaters, Risers and Twisters.

Wires – (Darcy Whiteside) Strings. “Gotta change my wires.”

Y’all Sounded Good Up There – A two-word expletive.

Yankee double-picking – (Ira Gitlin) Melodic banjo playing. Mike Munford heard this one at the Sandpiper, a Baltimore bar.

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About the Author

Chris Stuart

Chris Stuart is a writer and songwriter living in San Diego. He was the 2008 recipient of the IBMA Print Media Person of the Year award, co-writer of the 2009 IBMA Song of the Year, and past winner of the Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting contest in bluegrass and gospel categories. You can follow him on Twitter @cvstuart, on Facebook, and at On Tuesdays you can find him having fish tacos at Roberto’s in Del Mar.

  • Tim McGaughy

    Sears and Roebuck turnaround – a turnaround using many chords like Beaumont Rag. Every chord in the catalog.

  • Jack Lawrence

    I call my capo “The Hillbilly Chord Arranger.”

  • Stewart Evans

    I like “drop-back chord” for the flat 7. Can’t remember where I first heard it, but since then, I always feel like taking a step backwards on the fourth bar of “Love Please Come Home”…

  • Nick Barr

    Being a follically challenged fiddle player, I use this one a lot.

    “Hair” – The sawing that a fiddle player uses to set the tempo for a fiddle tune. Usually used on open strings: “A” first and second strings, “D” second and third strings, “G” third and fourth strings, and for fiddle players who play an instrument they call “my five string” not meaning a banjo but their fiddle, “C” fourth and fifth strings. The typical eight saws would be referred to by saying “I’ll start with eight hairs” and the sound would be “hair anda hair anda hair anda hair anda hair anda hair and hair and a hair.” See potatoes and taters.

  • Nathan Holly

    I always call my banjo a ‘gut-bucket’, especially considering the size of my gut!

  • Dick Bowden

    OK, here are four more.

    Tag Ending, or “Tag It” (common in New England): Repeating the final line of a sung verse or chorus to end a song.

    Baroop Pung Da: I named the next to the last lick Earl played in each “A” part to Foggy Mt. Chimes this onomatepia (sp?). Baroop is the slide up the 4th string, Pung is a high G, and Da is a D. Earl played something similar as a fancy finger-picked guitar lick as the next to last bit of a break, it’s called Baroop Pung Daddle Da (has an extra fast couple of notes at Daddle.

    Shave and a Haircut: The young folks don’t know this term, but it’s the old name of a common ending to tunes, used by Earl, Ralph, etc. that sounds like “Shave and a haircut, two bits!”

    Hillbilly Ending (heard around Nashville): When someone mistakenly keeps playing after a nice arranged ending like Shave and a Haircut, and everyone jumps in and just thrashes 6 or 7 more chords in the same meter as Shave and a Haircut to “cover” the mistake. Sort of a double ending.

  • Roscoe Morgan

    “They really gave you the clap on that one”-An old guitar player (George Helton)used to say that to me in the ’70s if the audience liked my mandolin break.

  • Roscoe Morgan

    Put it on up there in G4″- playing in the key of B. Used to hear people say that when I was a kid. Marty Raybon said it a lot when I worked with him. Great memory.