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Musical Instruments


Instrument Definitions


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 "Wildwood Flower"



Brought over 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 boundaries.

Listen to banjo player Earl Scruggs perform "Pike Country Breakdown"



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 Fiddle Blues"



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 strings.

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":



Two types 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 1950s.


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 the Opry.


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 spotlight today.

Listen to fiddlers Bob Wills and Louis Tierney perform "Take Me Back To Tulsa":



The 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 "Workin' Man Blues"



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 performance.

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 Blues"



A member 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 Gibson USA.



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