My Favourite Bluegrass Guitarists
We all know how it feels when someone asks “what kind of music do you like”. If you’re like me you freeze and can feel like you’ve never actually listened to any music at all…
So I’ll try to answer a question that I often ask myself and that’s dear to my heart – who are my favourite bluegrass guitarists?
In no particular order:
The Godfather. Arguably one of the most important genre defining players in any style, his playing is the first thing to come to mind when you think of bluegrass guitar. He also lived the bluegrass life to its fullest, whiskey, women and all. If you added up the hours spent by budding bluegrass players trying to decode his licks you could probably crack cold fusion. Also a beautiful singer, everything he does seems completely effortless. Interestingly I was told that his favourite music to listen to was progressive free jazz which is an insight into how you build that kind of musical depth, no matter what style you actually play – listen!
My favourite album: Church Street Blues – listen to the title track
A bluegrass machine. The energy and fluidity with which he churns out eighth notes would seems almost mechanical were it not for the beautiful musicality, tastefulness and simplicity that he manages to weave into his playing The quality of his tone is superb even at tempos where most players are chasing the metronome. Watch some of his videos online, I never knew a simple G chord could sound that good. These qualities are also the reasons for his success as a session player – watch him play with the Dixie Chicks!
My favourite album: Not Far From The Tree – listen to Big Sciota
One of my favourite guitarists – period. He can play as fast and technically as anyone but there is a unique personal freedom in his style. Even when he is playing the most traditional of bluegrass tunes he somehow manages to transcend the genre while staying firmly within it and is always recognisable. Watch the video of him playing Cherokee Shuffle with Andy Falco and Josh Williams, truly unbelievable playing! His original instrumentals are also excellent, as is his playing with the Punch Brothers.
One thought on “Favourite Bluegrass Guitarists”
Re; Bryan Sutton’ and “I never knew a simple G chord could sound that good”.
I remember co-producing a recording session in Nashville with legendary Cajun accordionist Jo-El Sonnier, and Bryan Sutton was the acoustic guitarist on the session. I had know Bryan for a number of years but had not heard him play such a simple two-chord, non-featured guitar part before. What an amazing experience to hear two chords so perfectly in tune! A more memorable musical moment than many hot guitar solos, remarkable for its rarity.
A couple of lessons to draw from this: there was a bass player on the session (Memphis guy Bob Wray, as I recall), so Bryan knew he didn’t have to play any low strings, so he could play on just the top 4. And, it being a Cajun song, a style in which a ‘modal’ approach is appropriate – after all, this music, originally of French folk origin by way of Acadia (Maritime Eastern Canada-pronounce Acadia in a slow southern drawl and voila! Cajun!) was rarely played with chord changes in mind – he could avoid the 3rds of the chords. It’s the 3rds of chords (i.e., the B in a G chord, the F# in a D chord) that pose the biggest obstacles to multiple notes sounding ‘in tune’.
So, try this: play a G chord on the top 4 strings only by barring strings 1 and 2 at 3rd fret with your left hand 1st finger, leave the 3rd string open, fret the 4th string at 5th fret with left hand 3rd finger. For the D chord, 4th string is open, of course, left hand 1st finger plays 2nd fret of 3rd string, left hand 2nd finger plays 3rd fret of 2nd string, pinky extends to 1st string 5th fret (make sure your thumb is somewhere close to behind the 3rd fret and not planted down near the nut!). Use your tuner to fine-tune the notes while holding chords in place. You just might find that sweet spot that Bryan found that day.
Jim Prendergast, Portsmouth NH and Nashville TN http://www.millpondmusicstudio.com