Bluegrass music evolved from an earlier type of country music we now call old-time music. As it’s commonly played, old-time music is a mostly instrumental stringband style with a beat that’s designed for square dancing. As such, the music is spirited and upbeat.
The main lead instrument in old-time music is the fiddle. The fiddler normally chooses the tunes, sets the rhythm, begins the tune, and signals to the other musicians when the tune will end. Another key ingredient in old-time music is the banjo, which is played in what is called “clawhammer style.” This is a rhythmic style with the right hand striking or brushing down on the strings.
An old-time band would also feature a guitar player who keeps the rhythm and plays a few runs, but does not play the melody. Additional instruments in an old-time band often include a string bass, which keeps the rhythm, and occasionally a mandolin player, who plays chords and also helps keep the rhythm. In old-time style, the instruments generally all play together all the time, with no breaks or solos. The melodies used in old-time music tend toward the traditional tunes brought over from the British Isles by Scots-Irish immigrants in the mid to late 19th century. Newly composed tunes are rare in old-time music.
Although bluegrass evolved from old-time music, it is now quite different. In contrast to the happy, danceable sounds of an old-time stringband, bluegrass music is often sad music based on themes of hard times. One tongue-in-cheek writer called it “A celebration of pain.” Bluegrass music is mainly a vocal style, where the instruments support the voices. The typical bluegrass singer sings at the top of his or her vocal range, and often there are two, three, or four part harmonies.
The songs themselves often dwell on themes of loneliness, heartbreak, and nostalgia. In contrast to old-time music, which is strongly fiddle-influenced, in bluegrass no single instrument dominates. Instead, the banjo, fiddle, mandolin, or guitar take turns playing breaks or solos, while the other instruments play back-up. In bluegrass style, the banjo is played with finger picks in a three-finger style as developed by Earl Scruggs, from Boiling Springs, North Carolina.
In some ways, bluegrass is akin to jazz or Dixieland, because the instruments taking solos or breaks freely improvise off the main melody, while the rest of the band lays down a solid rhythmic foundation. In addition to influences from jazz and Dixieland, bluegrass also draws heavily on the blues. This is expressed most often in notes played by the fiddle and sometimes the mandolin and the guitar. Some bluegrass singers also sing an occasional “blue note.”
So to put this in a nutshell, old-time music is mainly an upbeat instrumental dance music while bluegrass is a vocal style where the instruments freely improvise. In old-time, the fiddle is boss, and in bluegrass, most often the singer takes the lead.
For more information about bluegrass music, check out Wayne Erbsen’s popular book, Rural Roots of Bluegrass. This book is richly illustrated with 107 vintage photos and includes history, lyrics to 94 songs, musical notation, chords, playing tips, and historical sources for each song. Includes profiles on the Bill Clifton, Bill Monroe, the Blue Sky Boys, Bradley Kincaid, the Callahan Brothers, Carolina Tar Heels, the Carter Family, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, the Coon Creek Girls, Earl Scruggs, Eck Robertson, Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Fiddlin’ John Carson, G. B. Grayson & Henry Whitter, Jimmie Rodgers, Karl and Harty, the Lilly Brothers, Monroe Brothers, the Morris Brothers, Riley Puckett, Samantha Bumgarner, Vernon Dalhart, Snuffy Jenkins and Wade & J. E. Mainer. 6″ x 9″, 180 pages.