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A reed instrument developed in early nineteenth century Europe, the accordion is worn like a vest and consists of
right and left hand keyboards that 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. Flaco Jimenez is the most popular accordionist playing conjunto today.
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.
Banjos are plucked or strummed stringed instruments whose distinctive tones stem from the strings being supported
by a bridge that rests on a tightly stretched skin membrane. Historically, American banjos are descendants of a
broadly related family of lutes developed in West Africa from earlier Middle Eastern models. The slave trade brought
banjo prototypes to the New World, where such powerful transforming forces as nineteenth-century minstrelsy and
mass manufacture changed the banjo and its associated playing styles many times over.
The family of banjos today includes four-string tenors (similar to the standard banjo but with a shorter neck and no
fifth string), plectrums (so called because they are played with a plectrum and, in form, identical to the standard banjo
but with no fifth string) and six-string guitar-banjos. Most common now is the five-string banjo, where the "fifth string"
is a short string usually tuned to function as a high drone or "chanterelle." Five-string banjos may be found in openback folk or old-time types using gut or steel strings and also in resonator-backed variations, almost always steelstrung. Banjos may be fretted or fretless, acoustic or electric, mass-manufactured or individually handcrafted.
The banjo is visually and aurally one of the most recognizable instruments associated with country music. To early
recordings and broadcasts of country music, the banjo brought not only its distinctive frailing or finger-picked sounds,
but also its African and minstrel connotations. In both the nineteenth-century minstrel show and the early twentiethcentury country music show, banjo players typically played comedy roles and were often musically marginal, although
they were significant symbolically and for their tonal contributions within an ensemble.
Beginning in the 1940s, Pete Seeger's revival of the five-string banjo to accompany folk music began to introduce the
instrument to new northern and urban audiences. At the same time, the emergent sound of bluegrass music, built in
large part around the stylistic breakthrough into a smooth three-finger picking style of Earl Scruggs, began to
stimulate yet another renaissance for this ancient instrument. Today the banjo is enormously popular around the
world, particularly the five-string form played in bluegrass and other forms of folk and country music.
- Thomas A. Adler
- Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford
University Press.
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.
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 and 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 1950s, Nashville purists were more adamant than ever about keeping drums out of their music.
By the early 1960s, however, it was rare that a country band didn't have a drummer.
First brought to America from the British Isles, the fiddle has always been one of the principal instruments in country
music. Recorded country music began when Texas fiddler A. C. "Eck" Robertson recorded for Victor in New York in
1922. Beginning in 1923, sales of recordings by another fiddler, John Carson of Atlanta, led to the active exploitation
of white southern rural music by the phonograph industry. Fiddlers such as Clark Kessinger from West Virginia,
Clayton McMichen from Georgia, Charlie Bowman and Arthur Smith from Tennessee, and Doc Roberts from
Kentucky recorded extensively during country music's first two decades and influenced many fiddlers in succeeding
The fiddle lies at the heart of many country music styles. Bob Wills and Milton Brown built the western swing sound
around the fiddle. Although fiddlers were rare in mainstream jazz, many young fiddlers in Texas and Oklahoma in the
1930s and 1940s eagerly listened to and took musical ideas from jazz violinists Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, and
Stephane Grappelli. Cecil Brower, J. R. Chatwell, Hugh Farr (Sons of the Pioneers), Cliff Bruner, Joe Holley, Johnny
Gimble, and many others learned how to make traditional fiddle tunes swing, and to take hot choruses on new songs
such as "Stay All Night, Stay a Little Longer," "Take Me Back to Tulsa," "Fat Boy Rag," and "San Antonio Rose."
Bill Monroe likewise put the fiddle at the center of the bluegrass sound. Monroe was greatly influenced by the music
of his uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, who was a master old-time fiddler from Kentucky. Monroe not only recorded many
tunes that he learned from his Uncle Pen but also wrote dozens of new tunes in the fiddle tune mold. Many Monroe
compositions, such as "Jerusalem Ridge," "Big Mon," "Wheel Hoss," and "Brown County Breakdown," have become
staples of the current bluegrass fiddler's repertoire. Most of the musicians who defined bluegrass fiddle style,
including Chubby Wise, Tommy Magness, Bobby Hicks, Merle "Red" Taylor, Benny Martin, Richard Greene, Vassar
Clements, and Kenny Baker, have toured or recorded as members of Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. Other fiddlers, such
as Paul Warren, Clarence "Tater" Tate, Jimmy Buchanan, Scott Stoneman, Stuart Duncan, and Blaine Sprouse, have
also made an impact on bluegrass music.
Mainstream country artists such as Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, Ray Price, Buck Owens, Porter Wagoner,
Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and Ricky Skaggs (an expert fiddler himself) have featured fiddlers prominently in
their touring bands and on their recordings. Fiddlers such as Dale Potter, Tommy Jackson, Tommy Vaden, Howdy
Forrester and Tommy Williams played on the road and in recording sessions with a variety of country singers. Mark
O'Connor, a prodigiously talented multi-instrumentalist who is best known as a fiddler, dominated the CMA
Instrumentalist of the Year Award competition throughout the 1990s.
Fiddling had existed in the United States for nearly three centuries prior to the beginning of country music as a
commercial popular music genre, and has its roots in European dance music traditions. The word "fiddle," in several
variant spellings, has been used to designate various bowed stringed instruments since the twelfth century, and when
the violin emerged in the middle of the sixteenth century, it acquired the name "fiddle" as an informal appellation. In
its early years the violin was used primarily as a dance instrument, and it has maintained this function in a wide range
of folk music traditions throughout Europe and North America. Early violinists playing for dancers probably performed
a preexisting body of dance music; the "modern" fiddle tune repertoire is rooted in the body of tunes and tune types
that crystallized throughout the British Isles and Ireland, and in places settled by people from these areas, in the midto late eighteenth century. However, only a minority of the tunes current among American fiddlers can be traced
directly to Old World antecedents, and it is probably incorrect to view American fiddling in terms of an imported
tradition that developed its own characteristics in the New World. Rather, independent development of local styles
seems to have occurred more or less simultaneously in many different parts of the English-speaking world, including
various regions of the United States.
Fiddle tunes typically consist of two distinct melodic sections, each of which is played twice in an AABB pattern for
one complete execution of the tune. The tune is repeated several times in a performance, sometimes with variations.
In the context of a bluegrass or western swing band, players of other instruments will also take turns at playing the
melody, or in improvising solos based on it.
Country fiddling reflects a considerable amount of cultural synthesis. For example, the sliding into and out of notes one of the distinguishing features of southern fiddling - is generally thought to be a stylistic trait derived from AfricanAmerican music. Popular fiddlers such as Arthur Smith and Chubby Wise brought this bluesy trait to commercial
country music. The Cajun music of French Louisiana has long had a tangential, but persistent, relationship to
mainstream country music, with fiddling being perhaps the most distinctive Cajun music element that has influenced
country. Aspects of repertoire and style of the German, Czech and Hispanic communities in the Southwest have been
incorporated into the fiddling of that region and, by extension, into regional commercial country styles.
-Paul F. Wells
- Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford
University Press.
After delta blues, country music was the first style of popular music based around the guitar, and the prominent guitar
lines in the recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family helped bring the guitar forward in the early thirties to
become the dominant stringed instrument of the twentieth century.
The guitar had evolved in Europe by 1800 from a lute-like instrument, with paired strings, into its present form with six
single strings. It was refined in America into two major styles: the flat-top, perfected by 1850 by C. F. Martin of
Nazareth, Pennsylvania; and the “arched-top” (with a top carved in the manner of a violin), invented by Orville Gibson
of Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the 1890s.
Prior to the 1920s the guitar had been a refined parlor instrument that was overshadowed in American popular music
by (chronologically) the lute, minstrel banjo, mandolin and tenor banjo. By the end of the 1920s, however, players
were finding the guitar to be more versatile and better suited for the new music than the banjo. Used as either a solo
instrument or as part of an ensemble, the guitar could be strummed; its individual strings could be “finger-picked” in a
variety of patterns; or single strings could be picked with a plectrum for solos and instrumental fills. In addition to
Jimmie Rodgers (who played a Martin) and the Carter Family (with Maybelle Carter on a Gibson), pop artist Nick
Lucas and jazz players Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson helped bring the guitar into prominence.
The first viable electric guitar was introduced by the Rickenbacker company in 1932, giving guitarists the volume
necessary to compete with other instruments in a big band setting. In 1950 Leo Fender of Fullerton, California,
introduced an electric guitar with a body of solid wood that produced greater sustain and a sharper tone than the
traditional arched-top design. The brilliant, piercing Fender sound was adopted by West Coast country guitarists,
including Jimmy Bryant, Bill Carson (with Hank Thompson), Eldon Shamblin (with Bob Wills), and Don Rich (with
Buck Owens). For several decades Nashville session players such as Chet Atkins, Hank Garland and Harold Bradley
preferred the warm tones of the Gibson and Gretsch archtop electrics, but the “hot” Fender style - as played by such
notables as James Burton, Albert Lee, Ray Flacke and Vince Gill - eventually prevailed as the signature guitar sound
of country.
- Walter Carter
- Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford
University Press.
Invented in Europe in the 1820s, the mouth harmonica has a series of chambers containing reeds that 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.
Derived from the ancient lutes of renaissance Italy, the mandolin came into its present form as a short-necked
instrument with eight paired strings in early eighteenth-century Naples, and it has endured as an important instrument
in Italian popular music. Minor composers of the time wrote music for the mandolin; later operatists such as Handel,
Mozart, and Verdi scored occasional passages for the instrument when atmospheric touches were needed.
Otherwise the mandolin was regarded as a minor-league instrument with limited possibilities.
In the United States, mandolin orchestras, with mandolas, mando-cellos and even an occasional mando-bass, were a
popular feature of community life in many areas early in the twentieth century. A few early recordings were made by
soloists Valentine Abt and Samuel Siegel. Giovanni Vicari and Giovanni Giovale recorded some virtuoso pieces for
Italian catalogues in the 1920s. Russian-born Dave Apollon headed a crack mandolin ensemble that toured the
vaudeville circuit and made two memorable records for Brunswick in 1932.
Luthier Orville Gibson introduced the flat-backed, scroll-bodied mandolin in 1898. When designer Lloyd Loar
introduced his improvement of this design, the Gibson F-series mandolin in 1923, the model's improved tone and
greater volume enhanced the mandolin's appeal, as did Bill Monroe's distinctive use of the F-5 model in the 1940s
and beyond.
Earlier, blind minstrels Lester McFarland and Robert Gardner (Mac & Bob) had formed a popular duo whose songs
were spread via broadcasts from WLS in Chicago and their popular records. Their singing and mandolin/guitar
accompaniments inspired a host of brother-style duets in the 1930s, notably the Blue Sky Boys and the Monroe
Bill Monroe became the mandolin's first country-style virtuoso and brought the instrument into new prominence when
he joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1939 and featured it on his records in 1940 and thereafter. His mandolin, combined
with his group's instrumental and vocal blend, helped define the genre that later became known as bluegrass.
Some important stylists in the 1940s, such as Paul Buskirk, Ernest Ferguson, Tiny Moore, Jethro Burns (Homer &
Jethro) and Red Rector, developed individual approaches of their own. By 1950, however, the Monroe bluegrass
model dominated. Even unique performers such as Jesse McReynolds (Jim & Jesse) and Buzz Busby drew on
Monroe's example, as have mandolinists such as Bob Osborne, John Duffey, David Grisman, Butch Baldassari and
- Dick Spottswood
- Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford
University Press.
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.
Pedal Steel Guitar
In 1939 Alvino Rey, a pop steel guitarist and leader of a big band, teamed with machinist John Moore to design a new
type of electric steel guitar-one different from the nonpedal, solid-bodied, electric "lap" steels that were popular for
nearly a decade and traced their origins in part to the wide use of steel guitars in the music of Hawaii. The Gibson
Guitar Company introduced this instrument as the "Electraharp," its pedals and mechanical system able to alter
various string pitches to create smoothly voiced and modulated chords.
The first country musician to take the instrument seriously was Speedy West - an obscure, California-based steel
player who approached patternmaker Paul Bigsby to build a three-neck, four-pedal model, which West acquired in
February 1948. West first recorded with the instrument on Eddie Kirk's 1949 rendition of "Candy Kisses." From 1950
through 1956 West used the pedal steel guitar on hundreds of country and pop recordings. Bud Isaacs, another
buyer of Bigsby's craft, pioneered the instrument in Nashville, and his solo on Webb Pierce's 1954 hit recording of
"Slowly" inspired steel guitarists across the nation to adopt pedal steels or to adapt their nonpedal instruments to alter
string pitches with homemade mechanisms.
In 1955 Buddy Emmons, who played a Bigsby pedal steel with Little Jimmy Dickens's Country Boys, joined Shot
Jackson to build the first Sho-Bud pedal guitar. Fender began making pedal steels in 1957, designed with the help of
Speedy West. Sho-Bud models, however, became a favorite among country steel players due to their quality and the
company's Nashville roots.
Pedal steel designs gradually stabilized (though many players had their own variations). Most had two eight-string
necks, four or more pedals and two or three knee levers. Many players tuned one neck to E9 (suitable for commercial
country accompaniment) and one to C6 (favored for western swing or jazz). In Nashville other pedal steel greats
emerged, including Pete Drake, a Nashville "A-Team" member skilled at playing commercial accompaniment behind
singers. Others included Curly Chalker, Hal Rugg, Lloyd Green, Buddy Charleton, Sonny Garrish, Doug Jernigan,
Paul Franklin, Bruce Bouton, and Dan Dugmore. In California, Ralph Mooney, renowned for his work with Wynn
Stewart, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard, epitomized the high-pitched Bakersfield style, later using that same
technique with Waylon Jennings's Waylors. Many large and small companies manufactured steels, including Gibson;
Fender; MSA, founded by Texas steel player Maurice Anderson; and Emmons, founded by Buddy Emmons after he
and Shot Jackson parted company. Though pedal steel has risen and fallen in popularity through country's changing
trends, it remains one of the music's most identifiable sounds.
- Rich Kienzle
- Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford
University Press.
First used by African-Americans, the washboard or "rub-board" is played by moving a fork or thimbles over the
board's corrugations to produce a loud, staccato rhythm. Originally made popular by jug and washboard bands, it is
now most commonly found in zydeco music.
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.