Anyone that plays bluegrass guitar will tell you that there’s really nothing like it. The sounds that emanate from the guitar are so unique, yet at the same time familiar in their folksy rhythms. While listening to someone play bluegrass guitar is a wonderful experience in and of itself, that experience increases tenfold by learning how to play yourself. If you find that you are interested in playing bluegrass guitar, here are 10 essentials that will have you mastering bluegrass in no time.
1. The most basic aspect of learning guitar of any form is that there are chords that you form with your fingers on the strings of the guitar. These chords are typically marked by a full letter, with each chord including what is known as a “minor” form of it. Following this, there can be chords marked with a 7, such as A minor 7 or D major 7. Forming these chords will produce different sounds, allowing you to play a tune by stringing together a selection of chords.
While there are a plethora of chords, only the most common ones are needed in order to play bluegrass guitar, though you may want to learn the others as you become more proficient. The 10 most essential chords are A major, A minor, B major, C major, D major, D minor, E Major, E minor, F major, and G Major. These are also some of the simplest chords, and shouldn’t take too much practice to learn. However, when learning to play bluegrass guitar, the chords that will allow you to efficiently play most songs are the C, D, E and G minor chords, which help to create that lively and folksy sound.
2. It’s also essential that you choose the right type of guitar for playing bluegrass music. As there is no specially designed bluegrass guitar, already established guitars are what you’ll be looking to buy. All bluegrass guitar music is played with an acoustic guitar, as an electric does not produce the same types of sounds. This acoustic guitar should be the typical six string with a flattop body, which can be identified by the circular opening at the base of the strings.
3. Once you understand the basics of the chords and the type of guitar you should own, you need to come to an understanding of which playing style best suits you. Above all, bluegrass music is about having fun and being excited, which is exactly what your playing style should emanate. In a bluegrass band, playing rhythm is the most common playing style. It’s meant to be a background beat that is supposed to stay constant while the lead plays their own note. Most of what’s required to play rhythm is to simply learn and utilize basic chords.
4. When playing rhythm, you will find that the basics associated with the play style revolve around bass notes. These notes are played similar to a bass guitar and require a bass strum in between a pick. Picking and strumming is the basis of any style of guitar playing, though lends itself fully to bluegrass. When holding your left hand in a chord position, such as A major, your right hand will either be used for picking or strumming. Picking will focus on one string, while strumming a note goes over all six strings. After you’ve spent sufficient time doing the pick, strum, pick, strum method, try to mix it up a bit and add multiple picks or strums at certain places.
Once you learn how to play rhythm, it’s important to try your hand at playing lead, as this can greatly help you to effectively play bluegrass guitar and increase your overall skill-set. Playing lead requires an extremely quick tempo that will be tested during lead breaks. Lead speeds can go up to well over 200 beats per minute. While you shouldn’t expect to master this straight away, it will help you to play rhythm more effectively. There are a few other playing styles as well, but they are more challenging and aren’t essential for playing bluegrass.
5. It’s said that practice makes perfect, and the best way to practice is by using a metronome. This simple mechanism will help you to keep a steady pace, which is highly useful when learning bluegrass. As you get better, simply up the speeds on the metronome to test yourself further.
6. Playing bluegrass guitar is a fun and oftentimes social event. As this is the case, you should play with others as often as possible, creating jamming sessions that will help you improve as you listen to other playing styles.
7. Focus first on the simplest bluegrass tunes that you can find. Practice those for an hour or two every other day if you can find the time, as this will allow your overall speed to increase. After your speed increases to an acceptable level with one song, somewhere around 200-250 beats per minute, then you should move on to a tune of a higher difficulty, allowing you to work your way up a ladder of difficulty that will increase your skill level.
8. When practicing by yourself instead of jamming with friends, try to make sure that the time you set aside goes uninterrupted. Doing so will allow you to stay focused on the content, which is particularly useful when you’re first beginning to learn chords.
9. While learning to play by yourself is obviously essential, it is important to have someone with actual knowledge about bluegrass observe how you’re doing as you progress, being able to tell you whether or not the chords are right or if you are keeping up a good bpm ratio. Being able to have someone correct you when you make a mistake is great for learning consistency and identifying your general weaknesses.
10. Lastly, try not to focus on the small things. Everyone makes mistakes when playing bluegrass guitar, even those who have been playing for years. You want to be loose and confident when playing, which requires patience. When you’re standing out there playing for friends or guests at a party, the first thing they will be able to tell is if you’re tense or nervous. The beats won’t come off as fluidly as they should, and you’ll be left wondering what you’re doing wrong. Learn to focus solely on the music and understand that keeping an even and consistent tempo is the most important aspect of playing bluegrass.