What Really is a Bluegrass Band?

A bluegrass band is unlike most bands you see performing because of the various instruments being played. If you’re interested in forming one, here are several types of musicians you’d need to look for.

Banjo Player

While this instrument is rarely seen in mainstream bands that perform pop or rhythm n blues (RnB) music, the banjo plays a critical role in bluegrass music. Generally speaking, banjos are responsible for giving bluegrass music its “drive”. They play an even more important role with faster songs. You could occasionally hear them play solos but more often than not, they serve as backup.

Mandolin Player

Here’s another instrument that’s even lesser known or seen than the banjo. If not for Nicolas Cage’s movie, the mandolin might even be less popular than it is now. Mandolins get a lot of solo time so if you don’t have a mandolin player yet, make sure you pick one who won’t mind having the spotlight on him or her longer than usual. Compared to the banjo, mandolins play a more critical role with slower songs. For most people, legendary bluegrass artist Bill Munroe is considered the ultimate role model for mandolin playing.


It was the second generation that placed greater significance on guitar playing. Solos, however, are rare and mostly considered optional. One thing you’ll notice with bluegrass guitarists is how their strumming is relatively quiet but with endings that are rather strong and increasing in volume. Strumming styles are also quite dynamic.


This is a common instrument used for folk and country music so you’ll more likely to find your fiddler playing the aforementioned genres as well. Fiddlers are often given a chance to do solos but rarely play backups.


A bluegrass band can only groove to the music with a bassist. In the early days of bluegrass music, bassists had tried hard to keep the same tempo of other instruments. But now, most bassists had stuck to the originally bouncy beat of their chosen instrument. Bassists are rarely given a chance to do solos, but when they do, these usually include a bit of slapping.

Autoharp Player

With an autoharp, you don’t need a certified expert to include in your bluegrass band because the beauty of this instrument is how the structure itself gives away the position of the notes that you need to play. Your autoharp player, however, has to make sure that he plays the notes in a harmonious beat rather than one by one.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Firestone January 23, 2011 at 7:09 am

I play a resonator guitar. Is that not included as a bluegrass instrument?

Wayne Taylor January 25, 2011 at 6:36 pm

What about the Dobro?? It seems to be making inroads into Country, as well as Bluegrass.

Flatpicker January 26, 2011 at 12:00 am

Hmmm…that could be an oversight!

Flatpicker January 26, 2011 at 12:01 am


theresa redden January 28, 2011 at 12:36 pm

My idea of a bluegrass band- is the sound!!!

nothing compares to it!!-awesome-

Flatpicker January 28, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Thanks Theresa!

August Busch February 16, 2011 at 9:02 am

These past few years I have had to work as a single, moving to a new town and not yet finding the right picking companions. I can play the whole band and take 3 or 4 instruments with me, although I can can play only one at a time. And I sing songs that are trios and quartets with beautiful harmonies that I can hear but an audience can’t. It’s challenging to work like that because Bluegrass is so much better with a group of hearts in a groove together, but it’s Bluegrass just the same, and it keeps me sane. People love picking and songs from the heart and always want more.

I play the acoustical music people love whenever I can, and for nothing if I have to. I think that’s part of what makes Bluegrass Music what it is, don’t you think?

Bob Lucas February 26, 2011 at 8:50 am

The banjo is a backup instrument? Really? Don’t tell Earl, Don, Sonny, J.D., Alan or anyone about this. LOL. As far as mainstream bands, they’re definitely showing up more in country groups as well as groups like Old Crow Medicine Show and the Avett Brothers even though the Old Crow guy plays a 6 string banjo. Then there’s the Dixie Chicks’ Emily Robison. So the banjo is becoming more visible in other types of bands, not strictly bluegrass like it once was.

What makes a bluegrass band? Acoustic instruments, beautiful harmony and songs that are not commercialized to the point that you can’t tell one band from another.

Love your site Corey. 🙂
Bob Lucas

Flatpicker February 26, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Thanks for the comment Bob!

Jean Hogan March 9, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Thanks for including the lowly little autoharp! Wow, I couldn’t believe you did that, as it seems to be object of some adamant opinions in this area.

The main difference, to me, between country and bluegrass is the lack of drums. I can barely stand the pounding of the things!! I play some stand up bass and love that sound sooo much better than drums.

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