Guide Through Bluegrass Terminology

If you’re just getting into bluegrass (or you’ve come across a word you’ve never seen before), here’s a handy guide to the basic terminology of bluegrass.

Banjo: A four-, five-, or six-stringed circular-framed musical instrument closely related to the guitar, originally developed in Africa. A typical instrument of bluegrass.

Bluegrass: A musical genre with roots in Appalachia folk music of the 17th century, though many people attribute its actual “birth” to Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in the ’30s.

Clawhammer: A banjo playing style typical of American old-time music. It incorporates a down-picking style, with the hand in a claw-like shape (hence the name). It is a highly rhythmic style.

Fiddle: A bowed string musical instrument, also known as a violin.

Flatt, Lester: A guitarist and mandolinist best known as a onetime member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and later formed part of The Foggy Mountain Boys, better known as Flatt and Scruggs.

The Foggy Mountain Boys: An American bluegrass band formed in 1948 by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs after the two left Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Two of their most famous songs include the instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” which was created for use as a theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies television series.

Grand Ole Opry: A country and bluegrass music stage concert and broadcast held every week in Nashville, Tennessee, that began in 1925 as a one-hour “barn dance” and eventually became a much larger, famous venue and concert. Many of the legendary bluegrass artists have played here, including Bill Monroe.

Guitar: A four- to 18-stringed musical instrument, though six is the most common number of strings. One of the typical instruments of bluegrass.

Jam: A gathering of bluegrass pickers (see “pickers”) who get together to play bluegrass.

Lick: A particularly impressive series of notes played on an instrument.

Mandolin: A lute-based string instrument in which its strings, typically eight but sometimes more, are picked. One of the typical instruments of bluegrass.

Monroe, Bill: Known as “the Father of Bluegrass,” Monroe is often credited with the emergence of bluegrass as a distinct music genre.

Newgrass: A subgenre of bluegrass where electric instruments, drums, and other instruments are introduced. Also called progressive bluegrass.

Pick/Picking/Picker: A reference to the style of playing, a picker is one who plays a bluegrass instrument like the banjo or guitar.

Scruggs, Earl: The “inventor” of the three-finger style, Scruggs was a famed banjoist that once was a member of the Blue Grass Boys and later part of the Foggy Mountain Boys duo.

Scruggs Style: A banjo playing style that uses the thumb, index, and middle fingers to pick the strings. It is now the most common style of banjo playing.

Solo: During a song, one player may “stand out” and play above the others.

Standup Bass: A very large, low-pitched bowed string instrument related to the violin. One of the typical instruments of bluegrass. Also known as the double bass, upright bass, string bass, etc.

Three-Finger Style: See also “Scruggs style.”