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Bluegrass Instruments

Learn more about the different kinds of bluegrass instruments.

The banjos used by bluegrass bands usually have five strings. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
The banjos used by bluegrass bands usually have five strings.

Bluegrass instruments come from many diverse cultural traditions and ethnic groups. The ukulele has roots in Hawaiian culture, the mandolin dates to early Mesopotamia and the banjo was developed by African American slaves.

These cultures and others combined their musical styles to form a new musical tradition that is unique to the United States -- bluegrass music. Like the country that gave birth to it, bluegrass music is the result of a melting pot of traditions. Some bluegrass instruments, like the fiddle, have been altered from their original states to fit the conventions of bluegrass.

History of Bluegrass Music

Dating back to the 1600s, bluegrass music developed out of the musical traditions of many different American immigrant groups, according to the International Bluegrass Music Museum. Bluegrass incorporates elements of ballads as well as the music of the Irish, the Scottish, the English and African Americans.

Bluegrass is sometimes called country music or mountain music because the country's earliest settlers used bluegrass instruments to create music to tell stories about their lives and their connections to the land. Over time, singing became an increasingly important element of bluegrass music. The Monroe Brothers, a duo from the early 20th century, were among those musicians who helped popularize vocals in bluegrass music.

Universities, television and festivals helped increase the popularity of modern bluegrass music. Modern bluegrass was also inspired by other musical forms, such as jazz, rock and gospel.

Types of Bluegrass Instruments

Bluegrass music is made from a variety of different instruments from countries all around the world. The following are the most common bluegrass instruments:

Banjos. Banjos are made with different numbers of strings. For instance, the banjos used by bluegrass bands usually have five strings. Other types of banjos are used in jazz music and by guitar players. However, banjos are mostly associated with mountain music.

Ukuleles and banjoleles. A Hawaiian instrument, the ukulele has four nylon strings. Different sized ukuleles produce different sounds, such as baritones and sopranos. The banjolele is a hybrid of a ukulele and a banjo. On a banjolele, the ukulele neck is attached to a banjo pot.

Mandolins. The mandolin is a short lute instrument with vibrating strings. Lutes date back thousands of years, first appearing in Mesopotamia in 2000, B.C. Mandolins, which are played with flatpicks, are rhythm and lead instruments in bluegrass music, which does not use drums. Mandolins produce a melodic sound.

Bluegrass guitars, acoustic bass guitars and dobro resonator guitars. Although historically not a lead instrument in original bluegrass bands, the guitar is now used as either a lead or a rhythm instrument in bluegrass. Acoustic bass guitars produce lower frequency sounds. Dobro resonator guitars are another type of guitar occasionally used in bluegrass music.

Fiddles and bass fiddles. A fiddle is a violin that has been altered for use in country or bluegrass music. Fiddles have flatter bridges than violins. The flatter bridge means that arm movements can be shorter. In bluegrass music, the fiddle is sometimes used as a lead instrument. At other times, it fills in melodies. Bass fiddles can be electric or acoustic.

Dulcimers. Dulcimers have many different names, such as Appalachian dulcimers, American dulcimers and fretted dulcimers. The dulcimer is a four-string instrument that contains drone strings and double strings in high D. It is said to have a haunting sound.

Autoharps. Autoharps have 15 or 21 chords. They are not really harps, but are closer to an instrument called a zither. According to the University of Michigan, zithers are neckless sound boxes that can be plucked.

Lap steels. Sometimes called a Hawaiian guitar, a lap steel has raised strings. To play the Hawaiian guitar, a musician holds the instrument in his or her lap and plucks the strings.

Harmonicas. People play harmonicas by blowing air into the reed chamber of the instrument. The different lengths of the reeds produce different tones. Harmonicas are sometimes used in bluegrass bands but are not essential.

Accordions. An accordion has a bellows. The instrument is played by pushing together and pulling apart the bellows. Different pitches are generated through the compression of the bellows.

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