A reed instrument developed
in early 19th century Europe, the accordion is worn like a vest and
consists of right and left hand keyboards which are connected by a
bellows. Notes are produced by the bellows pushing air through
valves which are controlled by the keyboard. The accordion is used
primarily in conjunto, tejano and cowboy musics. The late
accordionist Clifton Chenier set the standard for contemporary Cajun
players like Zachary Richard. Basil Duhon, who works with Grand Ole
Opry star Jimmy C. Newman, offers a cajun-style approach to the
instrument while Flaco Jimenez is the most popular accordionist
playing conjunto today.
Listen to accordion player Pee Wee King perform "Tennessee Waltz":
A member of the zither family,
the autoharp is played by strumming its strings with one hand while
the other hand controls a bar which damps those strings not in the
chord. First brought to prominence in country music by Ernest "Pop"
Stoneman in the 1920s, it was later made famous by Sara Carter of
The Carter Family. Folk musician Bryan Bowers is one of today's
leading practitioners of the autoharp.
Listen to autoharp player Mother Maybelle Carter perform
originally from Africa, this four- or five-stringed instrument first
made its mark in the travelling minstrel and vaudeville shows
beginning in the 1840s before becoming a mainstay in the hillbilly
string bands of the 1920s. Played by such Grand Ole Opry stalwarts
as Uncle Dave Macon, Stringbean Akeman and Grandpa Jones, it wasn't
until the late 1940s that Earl Scruggs turned the banjo into a lead
instrument with his "three-finger roll" technique developed during
his stint with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. Today's high-profile
banjo players include Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka who have both
stretched the instrument beyond its traditional country
Listen to banjo player Earl Scruggs perform "Pike Country
A stringed instrument which
provides a rhythmic "bottom" for the melody line. Basses come in all
shapes and sizes including the one-string washtub bass found in jug
bands, the four-string acoustic standup (or "bull fiddle")
favored by bluegrass and rockabilly bands, and the electric
four and five strings used in most contemporary country.
Listen to string bass player Ellis Padgett perform "Lonesome
A precursor to the steel guitar,
the Dobro was invented by the Dopyera Brothers in the 1920s and
modeled after the Hawaiian "slack" or resonator guitar. A twangy
cousin to the slide guitar, the Dobro is played face up with a
series of finger picks and a metal bar which is used to fret
Grand Ole Opry member "Bashful Brother Oswald" first popularized
the Dobro as one of Roy Acuff's Smoky Mountain Boys before Flatt
& Scruggs sideman Josh Graves made it a mainstay in bluegrass
music. Jerry Douglas and Mike Auldridge (Seldom Scene, Chesapeake)
are today's acknowledged masters of the Dobro, both using
pyrotechnics and an enlarged musical palette to introduce the
instrument to a wider audience.
The drums were not a part of the
original instrument configuration used in country music. A
contemporary drum or "trap" set usually consists of a bass or "kick"
drum, a snare, tom-toms, cymbals and a set of "sticks" with which to
hit the drum "heads."
Drums were scorned by early country musicians as being "too loud"
and "not pure," so much so, in fact, one story has Bob Wills'
drummer being forced to play behind a curtain at the Grand Ole Opry
in December 1944. With the rise of rock 'n roll in the '50s,
Nashville purists were more adamant than ever about keeping drums
out of their music. By the early sixties, however, it was the rare
country band that didn't have a drummer.
Listen to drummer Buddy Harman perform "Cathy's Clown":
of dulcimers have been used over the years in country music. The
best known is the long, three-stringed mountain or
Appalachian dulcimer which is strummed or plucked with a
quill, pick or just the fingers and often used to accompany singing.
Jean Ritchie rose to fame playing the Appalachian dulcimer in the
The hammered dulcimer consists of sets of strings
stretched across two bridges which are affixed to a trapezoid-shaped
box. Originally from the Middle East, it is played by striking the
strings with small hammers. In the 1920s Mrs. G. R. Cline played the
hammered dulcimer on the Grand Ole Opry. Today, Alissa Jones, the
daughter of Opry great Grandpa Jones, continues that tradition on
Colloquial for "violin," this
bowed string instrument dates back to the Middle Ages, having first
been brought to America by settlers from the British Isles. Before
the rise to prominence of the guitar and vocal in country music, the
fiddle was the main lead instrument. As mountain music's popularity
gave way to vocalists like Jimmie Rodgers, the fiddle was eventually
relegated to a back-up instrument. Later, fiddles played a major
part in the development of Western swing music before enjoying the
featured role they now play in both bluegrass and cajun music.
Great fiddlers of the past include Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Clayton
McMichen, Tommy Jackson and Howdy Forrester, while Alison Krauss,
Vassar Clements and Charlie Daniels help keep the fiddle in the
Listen to fiddlers Bob Wills and Louis Tierney perform "Take Me
Back To Tulsa":
six-stringed acoustic (aka "folk") guitar has
its origins in Renaissance Europe and was originally used in country
primarily as a rhythm instrument. Maybelle Carter of The Carter
Family was the first artist to popularize melody lines on the
guitar, blazing a path that "pickers" like Merle Travis and "Mr.
Guitar," Chet Atkins soon followed.
Most guitars in today's country music are electric and are
often as awash in rock "effects" as they are in country twang.
Pickers who have distinguished themselves in contemporary country
include Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs and Steve Wariner.
Listen to electric guitar player James Burton perform
Invented in Europe in the
1820s, the mouth harmonica has a series of chambers containing reeds
which vibrate as the player inhales and exhales. Because most
harmonicas are in a single key, it's not unusual to see a musician
use a multiple of "harps" over the course of a night's
One of the first musicians to record in Nashville was harmonica
player and Grand Ole Opry regular DeFord Bailey. After joining the
Opry in 1926, Bailey toured extensively with the likes of Roy Acuff
and Bill Monroe, before leaving the Opry in 1941. Today, the
tradition of the harmonica in country music is carried on by players
like Mickey Raphael in Willie Nelson's band and Nashville session
aces Charlie McCoy and Terry McMillan.
Listen to harmonica player DeFord Bailey perform "Ice Water
of the lute family, the mandolin came to America from Italy in the
19th century. It is a fretted instrument with four pairs of strings
and has a range similar to that of a fiddle.
While players like Robert Gardner of Mac and Bob did much to
popularize the instrument early on, no one did more to solidify the
mandolin's importance in the history of country music than Bill
Monroe. In fact, the founding father of bluegrass centered the
entire music around the steely sound of his mandolin.
Those following in Monroe's footsteps include Jesse McReynolds of
Jim & Jesse, Opry star Bobby Osborne of the Osborne Brothers,
Texas Playboy Tiny Moore and Jethro Burns. The resurgence of
bluegrass has spawned a renewed interest in the mandolin. Players
currently expanding the Monroe tradition include Ronnie McCoury, Sam
Bush, David Grisman and Tim O'Brien.
Listen to mandolin player Bill Monroe perform "Big Mon"
The piano is
made up of a series of levers and linkages whose strings are
hammered when activated by playing the keys with the fingers. An
integral part of country music from its inception, the piano hit its
stride with western swing in the mid 1930s as typified by the
playing of Moon Mullican. Later, as country and R&B gave birth
to rockabilly in the '50s, the piano became the lead instrument as
found in the recordings of Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich, among
others. During the Nashville Sound years, Floyd Cramer and others
played piano on hundreds of recordings. Today it is more common to
hear an electric piano or a synthesizer than an actual acoustic
piano on a country record.
Composed of a
flat sound box with strings stretched across it, the zither is
played horizontally with either a plectrum or the fingertips.
Originally brought to Europe from the Middle East by European
traders, the zither made its way to America in the late 18th century
where it underwent radical changes, eventually emerging as the
Appalachian or mountain dulcimer.
Photos courtesy of Gruhn Guitars, Inc. and
Grand Ole Opry Archives. Photos of Gibson instruments courtesy of