Starting bluegrass guitar lessons is fun and exciting, and odds are you’ll have a lot to learn! Guitar teacher Samuel B. shares a few things you’ll want to do before you get started…
Bluegrass is as much a piece of American musical culture as jazz, blues, country, gospel and early rock and roll. All of these styles (save for jazz) are based on the same three chords: C, F and G7th. Three of these styles (blues, country and gospel) are based on a slow rhythm that allows the guitarist room to experiment with varied melodic patterns within the space of a single chord.
What sets bluegrass apart from these other categories is not its chord structure, but the way that its chords are played – hitting the bottom string and strumming the chord only once. Bluegrass picking must be in perfect sync with the fast-paced rhythm that this pattern imposes. There are a few things you can do before you start your bluegrass guitar lessons to begin recognizing and appreciating the intricate melodies you will eventually be learning to play that stem from this rhythm.
1. Do a Lot of Listening
One piece of songwriting advice that resonates with me is this: determine what specifically moves you about your favorite songs and copy those elements in the ones you write. Comparably, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the music of various bluegrass artists (I recommend Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, and Alison Krauss), in order to get a clear idea of who you want to sound like (or perhaps not sound like).
If you live in or near a music-friendly city, go to a few local bluegrass shows. They need not be held at sports arenas nor should you treat these outings like field research. They’re just opportunities to surround yourself with the music and let it sink in over a sandwich and a drink. Bring a friend or other loved one and share the experience.
2. Do a Guided Visualization
In order to a gain a more in-depth understanding of the music and why it matters to you, listen to your favorite piece of bluegrass music with your eyes closed and then write down what it made you think of. What’s familiar to you about the sound? What isn’t? Is there a specific landscape or region of the world that came to mind? If so, who was there? What was this person or these people doing? What colors do you remember from the scene? What sounds? What smells? Was anyone serving food? If so, what do you suppose it would have tasted like? Would anything pertaining to your sense of touch have been relevant? If so, what did it feel like?
In a manner similar to what I described about the shows, your visualization should not be treated like it’s supposed to be prize-winning literature. Your answers need not be relevant to the music in any historical or socially significant way – just true to how it made you feel and what it made you think of.
3. Consider Joining a Bluegrass Song Circle
If you’re already familiar with first-position chords (the ones on the first three frets), a song circle will provide you a chance to learn some new tricks as well as introduce you to a network of other musicians you might perform or record with in the future. Above all, song circles will actively engage you with bluegrass music and musicians in a communal format unavailable in one-one-one bluegrass guitar lessons. What you’ll learn in the lessons will compliment what you learn in the circle and vice versa.
4. Practice Your Scales
You probably saw this one coming a mile away, but scale mastery is pertinent to every genre. Bluegrass is certainly no exception. Unless you want to play only chords, practicing scales (particularly major ones) is the only way of improving your dexterity, as well as your familiarity with the notes that comprise the form. Start with the major scale in C, and learn it backwards and forward:
Then, take it up a full step to D, and do the same:
5. Do Some Research About Appalachia
If you’re a serious musician (or are at least intent on becoming one), you’ll want some understanding of what inspired your specific genre to come through in your playing. You’ll want to know about the daily livelihoods and struggles of the people who originally made the music. How did they provide for their basic needs, such as food, clothing and shelter? What were their personal struggles (medicine, family life)? Their professional ones (industrial)? In what ways do you suppose all of these daily uncertainties inspired their music?
One of my favorite books about the region is October Sky. Written by former NASA engineer Homer Hickam Junior, it chronicles the slow collapse of a West Virginia mining town. While bluegrass music is a mostly pleasant and playful-sounding form, its inspiration lies in the rugged, desolate and often bleak environment its original makers inhabited. Your goal as a musician should be to paint a both colorful and heartfelt portrait of this environment.
Don’t wait to get started with your guitar lessons! Search for a guitar teacher now.
Samuel B. teaches beginner guitar lessons in Austin, TX. He teaches lessons face-to-face without sheet music, which is his adaptation of Japanese instruction (involving a call-and-response method). Learn more about Samuel here!
Photo by Elvert Barnes