Bluegrass Heaven is in the Details

Dec 13, 2022 | Welcome Column

Ah, life is full of heavenly pleasures, and some of these are obvious, but often, the real thrills are more sublime.  Bluegrass is full of these types of delights.

Take the ubiquitous G-run, for example.  Almost nothing defines bluegrass guitar (although there is a banjo version I have heard played simultaneously by 14 banjos at a jam) like the G-run.  Early definers of this are Lester Flatt (with a very simple but perfect rendition, played with a thumbpick!) and Jimmy Martin (who knew how to really punctuate the transition from verse to chorus.  Del McCoury really knows how to drop G-run in the right spot too. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it fascinating that a simple riff can define the role of a fairly quiet instrument in an otherwise pretty noisy ensemble.  Raise your flagon to the humble, yet powerful G-run!

Another go-to sound in bluegrass is the ch-ch-ch fiddle intro. Sometimes rendered as a the ch-t-ch-ch intro, it’s a fair warning that wonderful things are about to happen.  I’m not a fiddle player so maybe this riff has a more formal moniker.  I have heard this riff described in a more coarse way (best described as the SOB intro), but whatever you call it – you know it when you hear it, and it’s like an old friend coming to visit.

I mentioned banjo earlier and I ain’t ashamed.  There’s a banjo intro that is so deeply ingrained in bluegrass, all you have to say is “standard Scruggs intro” and everyone in the jam circle knows what’s coming.  This 3 notes ascending chromatic riff is almost solely used by the banjo, and it’s alway effective

In case the reader thinks I’m making fun of bluegrass for being hackneyed or simplistic, nothing can be further from the truth.  The tidbits described above are not cliches – they are beloved markers in bluegrass that help listeners feel transitions in songs – they actually aid in the storytelling.  The intros set the mood, and the familiar mid-song touches, (like the G-run and a bass transitional riffs) bridge parts of the songs together. 

You can play bluegrass without these markers, but if you’re going to have the desired impact, you better have something else to direct the mood of the songs.  A song can’t just be an even path from beginning to end – something has to provide dynamic range.  Appalachian stoicism doesn’t allow for histrionics like Michael Bolton, so there arose more subtle indicators of mood and force.  Longtime bluegrass fans react to these things like Pavlov’s dogs.

Of course bluegrass needs innovations – all artforms do.  But the most successful artists incorporate familiar elements with their bolder excursions. The secret to pulling it off is to respect the details!

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