Bluegrass Corner

Bluegrass Singing

Bluegrass music, for sure, is characterized by high intensity, virtuosic musicianship on all the acoustic instruments—banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, sometimes Dobro, and upright bass. But, the gold standard bluegrass product (think Bill Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs) also involves harmony singing of a particular style. Let’s take a look at what it is and where it came from.

First, some music basics. Music in bluegrass and other genres is comprised of chords. Chords are made up of two or more notes played at the same time that sound good, or “harmonize,” together. In the typical western scale there are seven notes. Any combination of these notes can form a chord. In bluegrass the most common chord is comprised of the first, third, and fifth note of the scale. This is a major chord. This basic chord can be modified by adding notes, for example the 7th note, to make a 7th chord. Or, the 3rd note can be flatted to make a minor chord. There are many strategies and options for modifying basic chord structure. The instruments play these various chord forms in making up the music.

Singing in bluegrass music is similar. Typically, bluegrass songs have three people, each singing one of the notes in the major chord. The voices can add notes or change notes just as the instruments can, e.g., a 7th can be added (requires a 4th singer) or a 3rd can be flatted, and so on. The person singing the lowest note in the chord is called the baritone, the middle note singer is the melody, and the highest note singer is called the tenor. Forget what these terms mean in other forms of music; the foregoing is their bluegrass definition.

With these basics in mind, a bluegrass band can get creative with its vocals. They can take that low baritone note and have the singer sing it up an octave so it becomes the highest note being sung. This chord “inversion” produces the classic bluegrass “high lonesome” sound so characteristic of bluegrass singing. A bass vocal can be added as a fourth note in this arrangement, as is commonly done in bluegrass gospel tunes.

This approach to singing bluegrass music with a high lonesome sound was established as the standard by Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys in the 1940s. It was adopted and carried forward by other leading early bands like Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, right up to the great vocal groups of the present like the Lonesome River Band, the Gibson Brothers, and many more. If you listen carefully you can hear the three-part chord singing, typically with a high baritone, and you know, instantly, you are hearing bluegrass music.

Being Bluegrass Thankful for the Holidays. We have much to be thankful for in San Diego where we have so many bluegrass resources. We have three strong and long-running nonprofits that promote acoustic and bluegrass music in San Diego: the San Diego Bluegrass Society, the North County Bluegrass and Folk Club, and San Diego Folk Heritage. We have jam sessions and open mics on a regular basis, typically two or three per week! We have a fabulous Bluegrass Festival called Summergrass, which is held every August, presenting three days of top entertainment. We have street fairs, special concerts, and special events. We have one or two bluegrass camp outs per year. We have venues to hear bluegrass and other genres of acoustic music on a regular basis, including LeStats, Acoustic Music San Diego, and more. And, of course, we have the San Diego Troubadour keeping us informed with its free newspaper.

Let’s all take a moment to be thankful for the rich resources in our backyard and to commit ourselves to an even better 2020 with even more bluegrass music. It is through music that we can find comfort and peace. Happy Holidays to all!

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