When we think of bluegrass music, we may think of front porches, jam sessions with friends and summer festivals. Banjos, mandolins, guitars, fiddles, basses and maybe Dobros are signature instruments. But drums? Is there a place for drums in bluegrass music?
It depends on how you define bluegrass music. Drummers have no place in traditional bluegrass, narrowly defined by the example of “the father of bluegrass,” Bill Monroe and other midcentury bands. But there is room for drummers in progressive bluegrass, a growing and evolving sub-genre with ongoing influences.
This turns out to be a fierce controversy in the bluegrass family. There is also a related question: Given the inherently pulsating nature of bluegrass music, are drummers necessary?
Do Bluegrass Bands Have Drummers?
Traditionalists will tell you, “Absolutely not, by definition.” Progressives will reply, “Sure they can. Why not?”
How Traditional Bluegrass is Defined
1) Bluegrass repertoire
A bluegrass band does not have to cover all of these bases but may include:
- Folk songs
- Gospel hymns
- New compositions in these styles
2) Bluegrass style and techniques: cadences, progressions, licks, picks and strums
3) Bluegrass instruments:
For traditionalists, this is tightly defined as only those instruments included in Bill Monroe’s band, The Blue Grass Boys, and absolutely no others:
- Mandolin (Bill Monroe)
- Guitar (Lester Flatt)
- Banjo (Earl Scruggs)
- Fiddle (Chubby Wise)
- Bass (Howard Watts, also known as comedian “Cedric Rainwater”)
Notice there is no drummer on this list. Because bluegrass music is, by nature, already very percussive and rhythmic; there is little need for a drummer. And, given the lean finances of most bands, there is no incentive to add an unnecessary member.
How Progressive, Modern or Avant Garde Bluegrass or Newgrass is Defined
The lack of agreement on a name for non-traditional bluegrass is a clue to how it is defined: It isn’t. An approximate definition would be likely to include
- Traditional bluegrass repertoire
- Traditional bluegrass instruments
- Traditional bluegrass progressions, licks, picks, strums, and other techniques
But these elements are neither mandatory nor exclusive. Where modern bluegrass really loses the traditional fanbase is when it also includes:
- Bluegrass covers of popular songs and music from other genres
- Electric instruments instead of strictly acoustic instruments
- Non-traditional instruments such as keyboard, accordion, harmonica, hammer dulcimer, mountain dulcimer
- Percussive instruments like the tambourine, shaker, washboard, or a full drum kit
The more far afield from the traditional parameters a band chooses to go, the less happy a traditionalist will be about anyone still calling it “bluegrass.”
But musicians are still free to apply bluegrass instruments and techniques outside of Bill Monroe’s universe and to integrate influences from other musicians, instruments, and genres. And some of them do just that.
How Traditional Bluegrass Came to Exclude Drums… Until It Didn’t
To understand the drum question, it helps to have some history.
A Brief History of Bluegrass Music
Bluegrass music, a form of American roots music, arose in the Appalachian region around North and South Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, which is “the Bluegrass State.”
According to this article, 17th century immigrants from England, Ireland and Scotland settled in this region, bringing their folk instruments and traditions with them and writing songs about their lives, hills, and farms. The kinship between Irish and bluegrass fiddle tunes is no accident.
As is the nature of folk traditions, bluegrass evolved. The banjo, originally an African instrument brought to America with slavery, was embraced and developed. Christian hymns and gospel songs, from both white and black communities, were also picked up.
A Wider Audience
With the advent of recording and radio technology, this “country” or “mountain” music received wider recognition as well as some codification under the umbrella of “country music.” The Monroe Brothers (Bill and Charlie) were very popular in the 1930s. After their split in 1938, Bill formed “Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.”
Bluegrass Gains Definition
Perhaps the flashpoint in the solidification of traditional bluegrass as we know it came in December 1945 when 21-year-old Earl Scruggs joined the band and it contained a mandolin, a guitar, a banjo, a fiddle and a bass. Although this grouping of the Blue Grass Boys only stayed together for three years, by the late 1950s “bluegrass” referred to this genre.
Why Drums Were Not Part of Midcentury Bluegrass
One reason drums were excluded may have been technological. Concert amplification equipment was not sophisticated enough to balance drums and vocals in the 1940s and early 1950s. Consequently, many venues banned drums. This included the Grand Ole Opry, which was a keystone in career trajectories.
One theory is that in order to get a booking there and tour elsewhere, Bill Monroe strategically chose a configuration that did not need a drummer. Others followed suit until technology offered more options.
Breaking The “No Drum” Rule
Bluegrass evolved before 1945, and as early as 1948 it continued to evolve as Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs broke away and formed their own band, the Foggy Mountain Boys. They added a Dobro and occasionally had a drummer according to this article.
Their guitarist, Mac Wiseman, later joined Bill Monroe’s band before launching his solo career where he was sometimes accompanied by drums. These and other “first generation bluegrass musicians” were not afraid to include drums after amplification technology allowed better balance.
How Progressive Bluegrass Arose
Some musicians enjoy creativity within limits, but only up to a point. Then they want to see what happens when you bend this rule, or break it, or break several. It is up to you whether that is rebellious, innovative, or part of natural genre proliferation in a time of abundant musical influences.
While bluegrass festivals arose in the 1960s, concurrent innovations in popular music began to grow into the impressive genre proliferation we have today. Boomer and subsequent generation bluegrass musicians, who usually grew up far from the roots of bluegrass in the Appalachian hollows, often take that experimental spirit into their bands.
Some of the many notable musicians who launched progressive bluegrass include:
In addition to groups attached to these players, these bands are on progressive bluegrass playlists: The Seldom Scene, The New Grass Revival, Nickel Creek, The Punch Brothers, The Dillards, Trampled by Turtles and Hot Rize.
Newer musicians and groups emerge all the time.
Rhythm in Bluegrass Music: Why Drums Are Not Needed
Boom Chuck: The driving rhythms of bluegrass bass and mandolin balance the absence of drums in what is called “boom chuck.” In a four-beat measure, the upright bass or bass guitar emphasizes the first and third beats, substituting for a bass drum and providing the “boom.”
The mandolin emphasizes beats two and four with “chop” strokes, replacing a snare drum and providing the “chuck.” This creates a boom-chuck-boom-chuck pattern. The banjo, guitar and fiddle overlay extensive complexity above the boom chuck.
A Few Words About Clapping at Bluegrass Concerts
Although some musicians encourage it, clapping during bluegrass concerts is not necessarily welcome. It can challenge the cadence of the band, especially when tempo changes are part of the performance. An additional problem arises when the venue is large enough for there to be an audio delay as the music travels to the rear seats and the clap travels back to the stage. Some fans tap their fingertips to join in the energy without detracting from the performance.
It may also be annoying to both the band and other audience members if people clap on beats one and three instead of on the two and four. There are even T-shirts and mugs that assert, “Friends don’t let friends clap on 1 & 3.”
When Is Bluegrass No Longer Bluegrass?
Does progressive bluegrass have any defined limits? If there are drums, some K-pop vocal influences and the lyrics are Korean, can it still be considered bluegrass? Like musical taste, it’s really up to you.
Conclusion on Bluegrass Drum Inclusion or Exclusion: A Matter of Opinion
If you define traditional bluegrass as the tight legacy of Bill Monroe’s 1945-48 band or the next ten years or so of bluegrass arrangements, then there is no room for drums. If you are a fan of sub-genres, crossover arrangements or progressive bluegrass, then you might feel there is room for drums. Why not?
But based on the rhythmic techniques of the core bluegrass instruments most enthusiasts will agree that drums are not necessary whether or not they are “allowed” into the bluegrass scene. And many fans will still enjoy bluegrass-derived groups that include drums, even if they don’t count them as fully bluegrass.