Homegrown Music: Discovering Bluegrass

By Stephanie P. Ledgin | Go to book overview

5

Fiddling to Flatpicking

Instrumental virtuosity is often an understatement in bluegrass; it is akin to high art. When watching or listening to the profusion of phenomenal players, one might be quick to believe they are from another planet. How do their fingers stay attached when flying across those strings? How do they get the equivalent of three marching bands' worth of notes out of one instrument? Certainly those hot licks weren't learned in elementary or even high school music classes.

Listening to and watching bluegrass being executed brings to mind words such as riveting and enthralling; it can leave you dumbstruck. And while first-generation musicians were no slouchers, today's bluegrass musicians are setting new standards, striving higher than ever before to find new notes on the scale and novel ways to let them loose.

To discover bluegrass, one has to remember that the “sound” is everything. Undeniably, song lyrics are vital, but without the instruments as backdrop to the words, there just would not be bluegrass. Well, okay, with the exception of spine-tingling quartet gospel singing sans instrumentation.

Fiddle tunes, for example, are one of the backbones of bluegrass, whether portrayed on fiddle, banjo, mandolin, or dobro. Strip down the music to some of the old duets of just fiddle and banjo talking to each other and you will hear the quiet but invigorating soul of the music. Just as in any music, you cannot close the dictionary and understand fully what bluegrass is until you have listened to it.

Ensemble interaction is the essence of bluegrass, but it takes individual instruments and players to make a group. Discussed in preceding chapters are the parallels bluegrass runs to jazz. Key to that is improvisation. Take a basic melody and expand from there. It could be with classic hot bluegrass licks or airy jazzlike explorations. One by one, group members will take a

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