Which instrument most epitomizes bluegrass music?

Our poll this week is bound to generate some sparks.

We want to know which instrument in Bill Monroe’s original bluegrass band most epitomizes bluegrass music. Is it the beloved, all-powerful, everybody-loves-it 5 string banjo, or one of those other supporting instruments?

Let us know how you see it.

We look forward to your comments wondering how we could have left out the resonator guitar, harmonica or accordion.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.

  • Marty Henrickson

    Banjo will win, obviously, but I voted for mandolin, Monroe’s instrument.

  • Dennis Jones

    No Banjo;No Bluegrass. More so, No Earl Scruggs Banjo;No Bluegrass.

  • Ivor Trueman

    The question is loaded, and yes the banjo is the most obvious instrument that epitomizes ‘bluegrass’, but for me ‘bluegrass’ is Bill Monroe & without his incendiary mandolin, there would be no bluegrass. With no disrespect to Earl, his banjo pickin’ transcended the bluegrass genre.

    Vocalisation, and harmony weren’t included as an option, but they rank pretty high on my list too.

    The Robert Cantwell book “Bluegrass Breakdown” contains the best dissection & analysis of what consists of bluegrass music and it’s roots, tho’ it’s a bit heavy going.

    On and on…

  • Michael Prewitt

    As Bill would sometimes say, the most important instrument in a band is the fiddle…I mean, its so important that we sometimes use 3 at the same time…never heard of triple banjos, though I guess you could…and Tony Trischa probably has done it 🙂

    I guess most important isn’t the same as “epitomizing” though, they’re all important in their respective roles, you take one out, and I don’t know if you have true “bluegrass” anymore.

    The most epitomizing instrument is probably the banjo or the mandolin, but I’m voting for the fiddle anyway 🙂

  • Brennen P. Ernst

    I almost said Mandolin, but the question was which instrument “epitomizes” bluegrass, not which instrument is most important to bluegrass. I had to answer fiddle, certainly the most versatile instrument in bluegrass and the instrument best at replicating the vocals, which are truly the most epitomizing “instrument” in bluegrass.

    • Michael Prewitt

      Right on, sir.

      What other instrument is as equally suited to Orange Blossom Special as it is to the Lonesome Moonlight Waltz? And in addition to its versatility, nothing else comes close to exciting a crowd like a smokin’ hot fiddle player playing some sort of breakdown. And as you said, it can mimic the lonesome vocal twists and turns so integral to bluegrass music like no other instrument.

  • Jon Weisberger

    Seems to me that “epitomize” is a poor word to be using here. Merriam-Webster says that it means “to serve as the typical or ideal example of” something. But while a musical performance is an example of bluegrass, no instrument as such is. One might fairly ask which artist’s music epitomizes (serves as the typical or ideal example of) bluegrass – and I have no doubt that the question would serve to generate some sparks – but not which instrument does.

    Furthermore, isn’t it true that bluegrass is fundamentally a band music? Is a banjo player working on his rolls in a room by himself playing bluegrass? Or is she practicing to play bluegrass – when she plays with a band? Same question goes for the other instruments; I would argue, for instance, that a fiddler standing up by himself and playing is by definition not playing bluegrass, even if the tune is “Blue Moon Of Kentucky.”

    • My post… my choice of words. =)

      • Jon Weisberger

        I thought I was being nice in not pointing out that it was obviously written by a banjo player – “the beloved, all-powerful, everybody-loves-it 5 string banjo,” indeed ;-).

  • BlueBilly Grit

    The question was. “Which instrument in Bill Monroes’ original band most epitomizes” In Bills original band the banjo was not played 3 finger style as it is today in bluegrass. It was played clawhammer style by Stringbean I believe. This was before Earl joined the group. So the instrument from the original band that most epitomizes bluegrass has to be the mandolin. The style Bill created is the same style used today with variations built on that style.

    • Actually, it says in “Bill Monroe’s original bluegrass band.” You are right that Mon’s first band didn’t include 3 finger banjo, but the 1946 band that is widely known as the first to really represent the new sound (Flatt, Scruggs, Wise, Watts) is the one I had in mind.

      • BlueBilly Grit

        Oh O.K. John, well that changes everything. It is the banjo hands down then.
        Mark BBG

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  • Mike Vaughn

    I voted for the bass mainly because I play it and because the timing tends to go to the hot place when the band is trying to pick bluegrass without one.

    • this is a great point. there are bluegrass bands without fiddle, banjo, etc, but there are few bands that can be considered bluegrass without having a bass player. very interesting.

      • Dennis Jones

        Since we have been celebrating the life of Jimmy Martin over the past few days on WNCW…how many other stations did BTW? …several cuts from The Louisiana Hayride ’58-’60 were played. Jimmy, JD and Paul…only, no bass. It couldn’t be more Bluegrass. Far more Bluegrass, leaps and bounds more than any “Big Tent Band” pretends to be or is claimed to be by those with The Agenda with a bass.

        • Jon Weisberger

          “Since we have been celebrating the life of Jimmy Martin over the past few days on WNCW…how many other stations did BTW?”

          SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Junction did.

          • Dennis Jones

            Multiple days?

          • Jon Weisberger

            Yes. And it wouldn’t surprise me if WAMU/bluegrass country.org did, too.

  • Shawn Cramer

    I say the mandolin epitomizes (and yes I believe the definition fits) is the soul of a bluegrass band, Monroe’s chop chords sets the sound to differentiate between bluegrass and other similar genres. And I am a guitar player and beginning bass fiddle player, but you need those chop chords to really get the bluegrass sound, IMHO.

  • Jeff Kolitz

    I Wanted to weigh in on the ”Which Instrument…” debate.
    Gotta say Banjo;
    Which other style is Banjo played in? Any time there’s a Banjo being played, whether it’s in jazz, classical, country, celtic or whatever, people will say it sounds ”Bluegrassy”.
    All the other instruments can be found in other styles; indeed, guitar in most and bass in ALL other styles. Fiddle; Country and classical, Mandolin; country, folk, and certain ethnic styles (Italian, Greek, Turkish etc.)
    John Q. Public has trouble identifying a song or tune as being ”bluegrass” UNLESS it has a banjo!
    You can have a band with guitar, bass, mandolin and/or fiddle and people will call you a ”Folk Band”, even though all you play is bluegrass. But add a banjo, and you are automatically called a ”Bluegrass Band” even if you play other styles of music! YOU ALL KNOW THIS TO BE TRUE.

    • Lynwood Lunsford

      You are dead on the money Jeff Kolitz! The addition of Scruggs’ banjo to the Blue Grass Boys, was the “big bang”, if you will, of what we call “Bluegrass” today. Everything has expanded from that moment……..what I call the defining moment!

      • Dennis Jones

        And yet there are people who will argue that this didn’t happen and doesn’t matter if it did 🙂

        • Jon Weisberger

          You mean, like Bill Monroe? 😉

  • Jon Weisberger

    Interestingly enough, there’s next to no chop on the records made by that original band…

  • Shawn Cramer

    I really don’t know when this recording was made, but it sounds like Ol’ Bill is chopping pretty good to me. But I also listened to the song “Heavy Traffic Ahead” and the chopping is not nearly as prevalent. Interesting point Mr. Weisberger. Now I have one more thing to try and discern while enjoying Bill’s music. Thanks. LOL

    • Jon Weisberger

      That version of “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” comes from later – it’s post-Elvis, and more importantly, post-Jimmy Martin; it was when Martin was playing guitar with the Blue Grass Boys that Monroe began to chop more.

      Compare, for instance, the original recording of “Bluegrass Breakdown” here: http://youtu.be/k5bGe4fpLHs with the latter version at http://youtu.be/1MQCKH24Koo . It’s not a huge difference, but it’s a distinct one. And in general, Bill used a straight chop considerably less than a player like, say, Bobby Osborne or many of the more modern players.

  • Chris Jones

    I’ve heard the theory that Monroe didn’t chop in “the original band” because the band was already so rhythmically powerful (true) that he didn’t need to. I don’t really buy this, though, because then you’re suggesting that Jimmy Martin wasn’t providing strong enough rhythm! On the other hand, session bass players were used in the 1950s on the records and others were taken on the road, so maybe it was up to Bill and the guitar and banjo player to be setting the pace, making the chop a useful tool.

  • Chris Jones

    Shawn, that’s Monroe’s 1950s (post Elvis) version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky”. As great as his original was, that one’s hard to beat.

  • Shawn Cramer

    Chris, didn’t he originally do Blue Moon of Kentucky in 3\4 time all the way through? And it wasn’t until after Elvis released his version that he changed the time? That seems to be the story I remember hearing at some place and time anyway.

    • Jon Weisberger

      That’s correct – although there’s an additional wrinkle, which is that he talked the Stanley Brothers into recording a very Elvis-influenced version before he went back and re-recorded the song himself. And BTW, note that the second version – the one you posted, which is what he used, and pretty much everyone else has used, as the norm ever since – has no banjo on it!

  • Shawn Cramer

    Thanks for the info Jon. Mr. Monroe was not only a great musician and band leader, it sounds like he was a pretty sly dog business wise too!