Bluegrass Guitar: How to Play Great Bluegrass Rhythm Guitar
Noted bluegrass music historian, published author, and Fellow of the American Folklore Society – Dr. Neil Rosenberg – has been empirically involved with bluegrass music for several decades. His documented opinions and keen observation of bluegrass music are respected in the chronicles of bluegrass history. In an article he published in Bluegrass Unlimited 6 (Feb, 1972): 5-8 he discusses an epiphany of the Osborne Brothers that launched the bothers’ trademark vocal style. The epiphany – the typical bluegrass music devotee is more enthralled with the vocal nuances of a bluegrass tune than they are with the intricacies of a well played instrumental. Translation – vocals are king.
So what does this have to do with playing bluegrass rhythm guitar? Well, it should begin to give you a sense of what your predominant role as a bluegrass guitar player is when performing – keeping the rhythm. If you listen to some of the very early bluegrass recordings you’ll notice that the guitar rarely took a lead break other than a few bass runs between chord changes. Along with the bass fiddle, they were the rhythm section. So, as a polished bluegrass guitarist is it essential that you develop a persistent sense of timing and understand how your playing contributes to the successful performance of a particular song. Work on alternating bass string patterns, bass runs between chords and offer several variations of the infamous G-Run pattern to keep it interesting. And remember – don’t compete with the vocalist even if it’s you.
It is also important not to over-strum when playing bluegrass guitar rhythm; some people refer to this as banging or hammering your guitar. Over-strumming dampens the sound by not letting each string resonate sufficiently thereby projecting more plectrums (pick clicking or chopping) than string vibration. A beautiful melodious guitar strum is when you can hear each note in the chord distinctly and crisply. Other important things contribute to note clarity as well such as the quality of the guitar and the quality of the strings.
Good quality bluegrass rhythm guitar is predominately wrist action. If you’re moving your arm very much chances are you may be hammering your guitar. It’s all in the wrist. By focusing on the wrist action you can sustain a tight efficient pattern that lends itself to rapid bass runs, arpeggios, and when given a lead; precise McReynolds’ roll style picking, and flat-picking. I find it helpful to plant my little finger on the fingerplate (pick guard) to establish a firm picking and strumming zone and minimize arm movement.
On those rhythmic occasions when given the opportunity to launch a guitar lead break take into account that you must maintain the original tempo of the song and once your break has been completed you must return to your rhythmic responsibility. Lead breaks are most vulnerable to inadvertent tempo changes so be aware of other players and their breaks as well. And if necessary, along with the bass player, bring them back to the original tempo. In the words of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 BC) – "Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity." Now go philosophize.