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Bluegrass, Original American Music – A Short History on the Instruments, Specifically the Banjo

Bluegrass Music has existed in America for over 100 years. Although it wasn’t originally called Bluegrass. The name “Bluegrass” was coined by Bill Monroe, who is often credited with its rise in popularity. However, the heart and soul of this musical genre goes back to the 1800s.

Bluegrass music developed with the help of Irish immigrants who brought their Celtic musical tastes to the American South, especially rural Appalachia. Irish music and instruments blended well with domestic instruments developed by southerners. The instruments are often homemade or made from improvised objects to keep the tempo of the music being played. Almost everyone who wanted to play became a part of the full musical sound.

Music could be made from the bones of dead animals or hard pieces of wood. These are commonly called ‘bones’ and are held in pairs in each hand and used as percussion instruments. They are very useful in keeping the time and tempo of the music. Bones are becoming popular again and are typically made from the rib bones of cattle. Although sometimes very dense hardwoods are used and even tempered with fire to increase the “ringing” and percussive nature of the sound.

Glass or ceramic jars that have been blown into. These pitchers are sometimes partially filled with water or other liquid to change the size of the interior and thus change the sound of blowing sideways through the opening of the vessel.

Ordinary household spoons. A pair of these were held in one hand and then ‘slapped’ or tapped on the other hand, knee, thigh or various parts of the player’s body to achieve different sounds and percussive sounds.

Scrubbing board designed for washing clothes. These were held in a vertical position against the player’s chest. A metal pot, a pick, and even finger picks were used to comb the “waves” of the surface of the scrubbing board up and down. Doing this to a tempo adds another percussive sound to the mix of music.

A “jaw harp” that has a piece of spring steel that is plucked by holding it between the teeth. This plucking action results in a tonal vibration that reverberates through the player’s mouth. By changing the shape and size of the oral cavity, different sounds, sounds, etc. are created. This instrument again gives a percussive character to the music played.

These musicians used almost anything that made noise, especially noise that could be controlled in tempo or played to replicate notes and chords. Metal, glass or ceramic objects that make a musical sound when rattled. Very hard or hardened hard pieces of wood that can be easily hammered together. Practically anything that makes noise that can be controlled according to the melody and tempo of the music.

People gathered on a neighbor’s porch, barn, or even around a fireplace in the open field. Music, camaraderie and fellowship with family and neighbors lasted until the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes today’s gatherings and festivals take up entire 3- and 4-day weekends, up to week-long events.

The state of Georgia hosts a series of Mountain Festivals every summer. These are a great way to experience the music, the artists, the other fans, and if you don’t mind spending some time traveling around the state, you can literally spend the summer at a variety of events. I’m sure other southern states offer similar events, I just happen to know Georgia’s.

Of course, the more “sophisticated” instruments were also used in this restrained musical style. Typically a guitar, a fiddle, a bass guitar, a mandolin and a banjo. Although these instruments were not available at every gathering, typically a good mix of different instruments provided entertainment. A gathering of musicians usually gathers around 2 or more of these instruments. If the number of musicians becomes too large, they simply split into smaller groups, leave enough space between them, and start again.

The Banjo: The 5-string banjo is reputed to be the only instrument developed in America. All other instruments are from other parts of the world. Including the banjo, which usually had 3 or 4 strings. The original banjo was brought to the United States during the years of the slave trade. Banjo-type instruments are still widespread on the African continent today. One rather large instrument is “Akonting”. It is a skin stretched tight over a large gourd with a long stick for the neck and 3 strings.

The banjo was quite simple to make, a piece of animal skin stretched tightly over a large gourd or other hollow vessel. Strings were made from the guts and tendons of slaughtered animals. The neck is sometimes made from just one stick of the right size.

The man credited with the 5th string to the banjo, or “banjer” as it is sometimes affectionately called, was an itinerant minister named Joel Sweeney. The fifth string is shorter than the other 4 and is tuned to be the highest note. It alternately strummed in combination with the other strings, giving a “drone” sound to the melody being played. The 5th string on the banjo is still used in much the same way today, but some of the more experienced players will even get nervous and play different notes on the 5th string.

Of course, there were as many ways to pluck or play the strings as there were people who played them. Some played the instrument by plucking, some picked with their thumb and one finger. These were the two most characteristic styles. Sometime in the 1930s, a young boy named Earl Scruggs inherited his father’s banjo when his father passed away. He started teaching himself to play at a young age of only 4, with the help of his brothers and sister.

He was playing one day when he was quite young, 8-9 years old, and realized that he was actually playing with his thumb, index and middle fingers. This was the beginning of what is now known as the 3 Finger Style or Scruggs Style. It is the favorite style of Bluegrass players worldwide today.

The 4-string banjo or tenor banjo is also alive and well. It is typically strummed and is mostly used in “Dixieland” and Irish/Celtic styles of music.

Another popular way to play the 5-string banjo is known as the “old style” or “fragile”. This means using your thumb to pluck the strings that play the lower notes, and alternately plucking or plucking the other strings. This type of game fell out of favor for many years, but is now making a strong comeback. At various “banjo camps” around the United States and the world, Scruggs and Old Time pickers gather and come up with many creative ways to blend their musical styles.

Time and space do not permit an in-depth article on the banjo and other original instruments. The information contained herein does not claim to be 100% accurate in the report. This is simply a synopsis of the authors understanding of the topic. My desire is to give you a little tease to pique your interest. Then you can learn more with the help of the countless information available on the Internet.

There are also places where you can find and buy copies of this original American music and song. Pick up one of the cheap instruments or make your own. Pick, strum, rattle, jingle, tap or stomp your foot or whatever you want to the tempo and melody of the music. You will soon be immersed in the history and mystique of a centuries-old form of music that has been enjoyed for hundreds of years…and more than likely…much longer!

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