Bluegrass vocabulary checklist

A longtime friend of mine in Austin, TX, mandolinist Paul Glasse, recently posted in social media about his professor dad having fostered in him the habit of looking up words he didn’t know or wasn’t sure of, in order to learn the complete definitions, pronunciation, etc. This is in contrast to just using your best guess and moving on, as many of us tend to do. Inspired by that family tradition and his dad’s early encouragement, Paul now maintains a list of words on his iPhone that he has recently looked up, like “perdition,” “obstreperous,” and “dray,”. This is, of course, a great way to expand your vocabulary. I’m now trying to maintain a similar list, which includes “prorogue,” “guacamole,” and “job.”

And, not to brag or anything, but I didn’t have to look up “dray.” I knew that was from the classic country recitation, The Deck of Cards: “When I see the dray, I think of . . .”

I got to thinking, though: what about the expansion of our bluegrass vocabulary? We do sort of have our own language, and it’s largely unknown to the outside world. Unfortunately, there’s no easily accessible reference source for looking these words up. Our aural tradition isn’t serving us well in this case.

I’ve had a tendency in this column to rely heavily on in-jokes, the kind that would only be appreciated (or sometimes not) by those within the bluegrass community. I’d like to take a different approach this week by catering instead to those who may be new to this music, or who perhaps are completely unfamiliar with bluegrass, having stumbled onto this website accidentally while surfing around for “”

Here are some of the essential bluegrass words (and some phrases) important for the novice to be familiar with. This list is by no means complete. I’ve included second definitions where I know them:

Capo: noun 1. A device placed on the neck of a banjo or guitar (never a mandolin, except when playing that country music) used to raise the pitch of a song and transpose it into a different key while still fretting the chords of the original key.  2. A captain in the “Cosa Nostra.”

Mash: verb 1. The act of playing a medium tempo, downbeat-heavy style of bluegrass, usually in the key of B (with capo, see above), as popularized by The Lonesome River Band and other groups.  2. The mixture used to produce distilled corn liquor, or sometimes a reference to the liquor itself, as in “Drink That Mash and Talk That Trash”

High Baritone: adjective 1. Describes the highest harmony part in a vocal trio, in which the lowest part is singing the melody or “lead.” It’s the part just above the tenor. Not a reference to vocal range.

Low Tenor: adjective 1. Describes lowest harmony part in a vocal trio in which the  melody or “lead” is the highest part. It’s the part just below the baritone. Not a reference to vocal range.

High Bass: adjective 1. A bass part sung by someone who isn’t really a bass singer, because no one else was available to do it.

Box: noun 1. A guitar, as in “this old Martin box.”  2. A cube-shaped receptacle.

Project: noun 1. An album of recordings, or “record”: “we’ve just started working on a new project in the studio.” 2. A planned task or enterprise.

Tone ring: noun 1. Banjo thing.

Resonator: noun 1. Banjo thing. 2. Metallic dobro thing.

Pot: noun 1. Banjo thing. 2. A container used for cooking or storage. 3. Legal in Canada and several U.S. states.

Break: noun 1. An instrumental solo: “Now your fiddle break comes right after I whup her brother and her pa and sing a chorus.” – Doc Watson  2. An intermission taken during a multi-set performance, especially in a bar or night club: “We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back. We have CDs for sale in the back there, including our mandolin player’s brand new ‘project,’ Eight Strings and a Pick.”

Diamond: noun 1. A Nashville studio term referring to a musical stop in the rhythm section, while allowing the chord to ring. 2. A precious stone derived from carbon, generally not affordable to bluegrass musicians.  3. plural Diamonds, see “Jack of . . . I have known you of old.”

7 chord: noun 1. A flat 7 chord, from the Nashville Numbers system.

Off chord: noun 1. A flat 7 chord, or any minor chord.

Chop: verb/noun 1. The act of playing a partially dampened, “closed” chord on the mandolin on the “back” or “off” beat of the measure. In the noun form, a reference to the chord itself: “You’ve got a solid chop there. You should work out fine. Can you drive a bus?”

Roll: noun 1. A series of notes played in a three-note sequence with finger picks, most often on a banjo, the most common pattern being: 

thumb-index-middle, thumb-index-middle, thumb-index-middle, thumb-index-middle, thumb-index-middle, thumb-index-middle, thumb-index-middle, thumb-index-middle, thumb-index-middle, thumb-index-middle, thumb-index-middle, thumb-index-middle, etc. 

This can also be simulated with a flat pick on a mandolin or guitar, and is then called a “cross-picking roll.” 2. (verb) The act of lying in one’s sweet baby’s arms, while effecting a turning motion, often while laying (or lying) around a shack, waiting for the return of a mail train.

Pick: verb 1. The act of playing bluegrass music: “What time do we pick?” “We should pick some time” or “Let’s get a 12-pack and pick all night!” 2. To choose or select something.

Jam-buster:  noun 1. A song or tune introduced into a music “jam session” that the assembled players couldn’t possibly learn on the spot, causing the rapid dissolution of the “jam” itself. Examples: Wichita Lineman, Little Rock Getaway, anybody’s unknown originals. 

IBMA: noun 1. Acronym for the International Bluegrass Music Association, headquartered in Nashville, TN.  2. Acronym for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual trade show, festival and awards show. Alternative readings of acronym in reference to the trade show: “I’ve Been Mostly Awake,” and less commonly, “Incessant Bullsh**ing and Milling Around,” or “I’m Bringing My Antibiotics.”

Flange: noun 1. Banjo thing