Bluegrass and Country music may appear to be very similar to outside or novice listeners, but there are differences between them. Many listeners will also stand firmly on one side or the other when it comes to which music is “better” than the other. It is important to note that any music is important music to those who benefit from the sound. Opinions on genres “besting” each other are purely subjective.
I grew up in Kentucky which is the home of bluegrass music. I also grew up less than an hour’s drive from Nashville Tennessee which is country music capital. I have been exposed to both of these types of music for the majority of my life. There are quite a few differences between the two but they also have some similarities.
Bluegrass music uses acoustic instruments while country music makes use of electric instruments. Country music has a focus on lyrics and storytelling whereas Bluegrass music emphasizes instrumental showmanship. Nearly all musicians often play an instrumental solo during a Bluegrass song.
Bluegrass may also be more improvised rather than structured like country music. The following chart will help to illustrate some of the main differences between these two genres of music.
|Instruments (acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, etc.)
|Instruments (electric guitar, electric bass, steel guitar, drums, etc.)
|Inspiration (rock-in-roll, storytelling)
These are just a few of the reasons why bluegrass and country music are different. There are many more, especially to the trained ear or lover of one or both genres. There are also ways to tell them apart once you’ve learned these differences. You may even find yourself appreciating these genres a bit more after taking another listen to some of their songs!
Differences Between Bluegrass Music & Country Music
Let’s dive deeper into the differences between these two genres. Country music came about earlier than bluegrass, around 1920. Bluegrass was short to follow around the 1940s after its breakaway from country roots. Bluegrass focused on more blues inspirations rather than the twang of country.
Hardcore bluegrass fans will tell you all the things a true bluegrass song needs:
- Acoustic Guitar
- Upright Bass
- No electric instruments (unless it’s the bass – some bluegrass bass players use an electric bass)
- No percussion instruments
While this list by no means encompasses all bluegrass music, it is a starting point for novice listeners to spot a bluegrass song or artist. You may have even heard a song start to play in your head that you immediately thought of while reading those instruments. It may have also helped you realize whether a song you heard truly is bluegrass or country.
Next, country music tends to stick to similar setups when it comes to writing and performing the songs. Oftentimes country music will have a twang sound to it, both in instruments and singers. Bluegrass may have a similar singer, however, they do not try to elicit the same sound heard from a country singer.
The singing in bluegrass music isn’t usually the centerpiece of a song. Those who listen to bluegrass music, including me, may look forward to hearing the solos (or breaks) from the musicians of the various instruments during the song.
Lastly, many artists will label themselves as bluegrass or country artists during live performances. Oftentimes you will hear one or more artists proclaiming their devotion to the genre or labeling various cover songs as such. This is not to say that country artists won’t sing bluegrass and visa versa.
What Kind Of Instruments Does Each Music Play?
Here are some instruments you will commonly hear in either country or bluegrass music. Often the instruments alone can be a great indicator for which type of music you are listening to on the radio:
1. Acoustic Guitar
- This instrument is found in both country music and bluegrass music.
- Country music utilizes the electric guitar but the electric guitar is not found in bluegrass music.
2. Bass Guitar
- Both genres make use of a bass guitar but you’ll often see an upright, acoustic bass in bluegrass music. You’ll find an electric bass almost always in country music.
- Oftentimes this instrument is the staple of bluegrass music. It’s common in country music as well but nearly all bluegrass music has this instrument.
- Another staple of bluegrass music, the banjo, gives the genre more of the “hillbilly” sound. Although, most bluegrass artists are not a fan of that term.
- The banjo isn’t commonly found in country music but there are some country songs that utilize the banjo.
- A popular instrument in bluegrass and has a distinct sound that is easy to pick out.
- Sometimes heard in country music but most modern-day bluegrass bands make use of this instrument.
6. Pedal Steel Guitar
- This instrument is common in country music and rarely heard in bluegrass music.
- Fun fact, this guitar is tough to play. It is a staple in the country world as well as a commendable instrument for any musician to play.
7. Resonator Guitar (Dobro)
- The resonator guitar is louder than a standard acoustic guitar and has a distinct sound. This is a common instrument found in bluegrass music.
- Drums appear often in country music due to the percussion element to the genre. Bluegrass uses mostly stringed instruments and lets multiple instruments be the percussion in their song.
9. Instrumental Solos
- A common theme in bluegrass music is to include instrumental solos, which are not as common in country music.
- This can be another indicator of whether or not you are listening to country or bluegrass music.
What Sort Of Sound Does Each Genre Have?
Firstly, both genres have distinct sounds that help tell the two apart. It may not appear that way at first, but after taking a second listen, you can pinpoint the differences. Here are some details you should pay attention to the next time you listen to a country or bluegrass song:
Listen To The Setup
Most country music follows the same setup when producing a song. They follow the setup of storytelling and chorus. Their songs are structured to be performed the same way each time. Bluegrass music tends to be more improvised sounding, with more instruments having their time to shine rather than focusing on lyrics alone. You may never hear the same bluegrass song twice if performed at different venues or settings.
Electric Instruments Versus Strings
If you hear electric instruments such as electric guitar, you are most likely listening to country music. More stringed instruments, as well as more instruments in general, is a good indicator that you’re listening to bluegrass.
Blues Or Honky-Tonk
Bluegrass music often stems from the blues and jazzier sounds and influences, while country music relies on the honky-tonk or rock-in-roll sound. Both genres were influenced by blues and jazz; however, the bluegrass sound kept these features while country music tended to change as decades went by.
Recorded Or Live
Given its improvised nature, bluegrass music is often enjoyed live over a recording. Not that bluegrass music is not recorded, but as a medium is often more enjoyed in a live setting. Country music can be enjoyed both as a recorded sound or in a live setting. Since it’s a more structured setup, it does well in both mediums.
How Do The Artists Showcase Their Sound?
Artists of both genres have a love for their music, as all artists do. Many often showcase this devotion by promoting the sounds of their genre. Country music stars do this by the way they dress and talk, as do bluegrass bands. There are some differences between the two genres to help better tell them apart.
One factor to think about is the setup of the band:
- Bluegrass artists are often bands, meaning there are multiple people who make up the entity rather than a single artist or small group of singers.
- Bluegrass artists are generally all very good musicians. The main singer will likely be a large contributor to the overall instrumental sound of the group and will perform instrumental solos during a song.
- Country music often focuses on one singer or a small group of singers, rather than showcasing the entire band behind the sound.
- Country artists will often be trying to follow a specific aesthetic such as wearing cowboy hats, boots, or plaid shirts.
- Bluegrass artists tend to have more of a folky look with a slight favor of formal wear.
Another factor is where artists are performing. Many country artists will travel with other country artists while on tour or at a record signing event. More often than not, if you are at a country music festival, you will hear more country than bluegrass. The same is true for bluegrass festivals. That is not to say that either genre would not cover the other’s music or have bands present from other genres.
Lastly, consider what the artists tell you. Many will directly label their music as either country or bluegrass. If they are covering songs from different genres, they will announce it and pay homage to the music. Their albums will most likely also label their music as what kind of genre they fall under. When at a live performance or concert, there will most likely be signs everywhere showcasing the genre. When in doubt, consult the internet!