yet more bluegrass blogging...

kenneth said:

What is the minimum bluegrass lineup? Suddenly I'm having ideas about a project. Would four people work, or is that too few? I'm thinking bass, banjo, fiddle, rhythm guitar. All would sing. Is that enough, or would we need another soloing instrument (mandolin/Dobro)?

9:02 PM

You know, i love to think about things until there's almost nothing left to think about. Almost...

It's that almost that gets me, too.

What i mean is this: I love knowing just a little too much about everything--only thing is, i don't really want to know everything about anything. Got that? In other words i'm what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about a character in The Great Gatsby: "he was that most limited of creatures: the well-rounded man..."

Anyway, one of the things i love knowing just enough about to be dangerous is bluegrass music. I know more about it than your average bear cares to discuss, and not enough to be an interesting conversationalist for a musicologist. (oh...and one other thing these limitations of mine mean, by the way, is that you can't really take what i say as fact. Like, i may have gotten it wrong, or even totally made it up.

Like, for instance, recently i told alison--and i swear i thought this was the truth--but i told alison that owls don't have buttholes. Well, evidently i said this authoritatively enough that she went and told some friends that owls don't have buttholes. They believed her, too. Well, turns out i was wrong. Owls do indeed have a butthole of sorts: it's called a cloaca according to a new friend of mine that works at a birds of prey place down here in charleston. )

alright. On to what i have to say about the topic at hand, right?--which, of course you, kenneth, and everyone else should take with a grain of salt.

Now first off, (and i know you know some of this music crap, kenneth, but i'm just talkin') first off, i've played enough music for white people to know that almost each and every one of them, when you start playing a song they like, will start clapping on the one and the three beats. It happened just tonight, as a matter of fact.

Here's what that means: You know how songs can begin by someone enthusiastically hollering "one, two, three, four!" and then the song starts? That's because most american songs--especially rock and roll songs are written in what's called 4/4 time. the simplest way to understand this is that, obviously, there are four beats in a measure.

Now, all those beats have a certain job, and have certain instruments to play them. The first beat and the third beat, or the "down beats"--where all the white folks clap along like albino seals--is usually played by the bass player and by the drummer's kick drum (the big drum on the floor). The second beat and the fourth beat, or the "back beat," is where the good stuff is--these two beats are played by the snare and possibly the downward strum of a guitar. The back beat is where all the rythym and soul of music is found--and explains why white people can't unlock their hips when they dance--they're too damn busy beatin' on the one and three. There's no shake in the one and the three (which also explains why the whitest of all musical forms is the march: it only has two beats--both of which are essentially down beats.)

Now, contrary to what is probably popular belief, properly played bluegrass is not especially very white music. Bluegrass loves the two and the four. (one of the reasons for this is that bluegrass is southern music, and just like good southern food, was entirely stolen from african americans.)

Alright. Here is finally the answer to kenneth's question: The question isn't whether you need another "soloing instrument." sure, just a fiddle and banjo as soloists can get tiring, but the more important issue is that you almost have to have a mandolin--just like the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, played. The reason is that in bluegrass, since there are no drums, the bassist plays the one and three. The two and four are held down by the mandolin "chopping." So that just like "kick, snare/kick, snare" defines rock and roll, "boomp,chop/boomp, chop" defines bluegrass. That chop is one of the most single important elements in good bluegrass.

Now, that said, a fiddle can actually chop the two and four--and many fiddle players do--but they don't do it all the time. Fiddles, because of being one of the only instruments with any amount of sustain, are there more to add musical color than a rythmic effect, and therefore are better not utilized as "choppers."

Now, you might ask, what happens to the chop when the mandolin takes a solo? well, that's when the banjo takes over chop duties. When the mandolin player is through with his/her break, then the banjo goes back to its original roll of "driving" the rythym forward (or, to put it another way, it takes back over "subdividing" that 4/4 time into tinier increments like 8th and 16th notes which gives bluegrass that fast, frenetic quality it has.)

So, in a complete attempt to say something that has no foundation in fact at all (well, not really) i'd say this about what constitutes the lineup of a real bluegrass band:

I think a real real bluegrass band is, at minimum, a five piece: guitar, bass, fiddle, mandolin and banjo. If you have to settle with a four piece then i'd personally go with a mandolin over a fiddle since (as far as bluegrass goes) i'd rather hear a killer beat than killer notes.

whew! man, i sure can talk a lot...


Kenneth said...

That makes perfect sense. I forgot about the chop. I'm glad I asked.

The Mom said...

That even made perfect sense to a white musician who doesn't "do" bluegrass! I think you done pretty good, Walter...and I usually like to hear you talk.

B said...

Walter - I am slowly discovering more and more cool things about St. Louis...as well I reckon I should, seeing as how I've been here for just over 3 years now. Anyway, what I discovered this week (and kind of new indirectly) is that St. Louis has a LOT of bluegrass. a LOT. In fact, I enjoyed the Jeanette Williams Band (who's got an 18 year old mandolin player that kicks serious ass) at the last performance of this year's Bluegrass Playing at Grant's Farm (it's not near as cool as the Biltmore, but this is the family home of the Anheiser Busch family, which is now a free-to-the-public animal reserve). I don't know that you or any of your bluegrass peeps would be interested in trekking this far come the months of August and September, but if so, let me know and I'll find some info.

Keep pickin' and grinnin'. :)

- b