Old Time and Bluegrass Music

My New Mexico friends Bruce Thomson and Wayne Shrubsall recently conducted a workshop dealing with string band music and the differences between old time and bluegrass music. They’ve given me permission to share their notes from this event, which are hereby posted for your edification.

The Difference Between Bluegrass and Old Time Music
Toby Adobe & Moby Adobe

An OT banjo is open-backed, with an old towel (probably never washed) stuffed in the back to dampen sound. A BG banjo has a resonator to make it louder.
An OT banjo weighs 5 pounds, towel included. A BG banjo weighs 40 pounds.
A BG banjo player has had spinal fusion surgery on all his vertebrae, and therefore stands very straight. If an OT banjo player stands, he slouches.
An OT banjo player can lose 3 right-hand fingers and 2 left-hand fingers in an industrial accident without affecting his performance.
A BG banjo needs 24 frets. An OT banjo needs no more than 5, and some don’t need any.
A BG banjo player puts jewelry on his fingertips to play. An OT banjo player puts super glue on his fingernails to strengthen them. Never shake hands with an OT banjo player while he’s fussing with his nails.

A BG fiddle is tuned GDAE. An OT fiddle can be in a hundred different tunings.
OT fiddlers seldom use more than two fingers of their left hand, and uses tunings that maximize the number of open strings played. BG fiddlers study 7th position fingering patterns with Isaac Stern, and take pride in never playing an open string.
An OT fiddle player can make dogs howl & incapacitate people suffering from sciatic nerve damage
“A good OT fiddle player?” now there’s an oxymoron
An OT fiddle player only uses a quarter of his bow. The rest is just wasted.
The BG fiddler paid $10,000 for his fiddle at the Violin Shop in Nashville. The OT fiddler got his for $15 at a yard sale.

An OT guitarist knows the major chords in G and C, and owns a capo for A and D. A BG guitarist can play in E-flat without a capo.
The fanciest chord an OT guitarist needs is an A to insert between the G and the D7 chord. A BG guitarist needs to know C#aug+7-4.
OT guitarists stash extra picks under a rubber band around the top of the peghead. BG guitarists would never cover any part of the peghead that might obscure the gilded label of their $3,000 guitar.

It’s possible to have an OT band without a mandolin.
Mandolin players spend half their time tuning their mandolin and the other half of their time playing their mandolin out of tune
OT mandolin players use “A” model instruments (pear shaped) by obscure makers. BG mandolin players use “F” model Gibsons that cost $100 per decibel.

A BG band always has a bass. An old OT band doesn’t have a bass, but new time OT bands seem to need one for reasons that are unclear.
A BG bass starts playing with the band on the first note. An OT bass, if present, starts sometime after the rest of the band has run through the tune once depending on his blood alcohol content
A BG bass is polished and shiny. An OT bass is often used as yard furniture.

A BG band might have a Dobro. An OT band might have anything that makes noise including: hammered or lap dulcimer, jaw harp, didgeridoo, harmonica, conga, wash tub bass, miscellaneous rattles & shakers, or 1 gallon jug (empty).

All the instruments in an OT band play together all the time. BG bands feature solos on each instrument.
BG bands have carefully mapped-out choreography due to the need to provide solo breaks. If OT band members move around, they tend to run into each other. Because of this problem, OT bands often sit down when performing, while a BG band always stands.
Because they’re sitting, OT bands have the stamina to play for a square or contra dance.
The audience claps after each BG solo break. If anyone claps for an OT band it confuses them, even after the tune is over.

OT songs are about whiskey and food.
BG songs are about God, mother and the girl who did me wrong.
If the girlfriend isn’t murdered by the third verse, it ain’t Bluegrass
OT bands have nonsense names like “Hoss Hair Pullers” “Fruit Jar Drinkers” and “Skillet Lickers”. BG bands have serious gender-specific name like “Bluegrass Boys,” “Foggy Mountain Boys,” and “Clinch Mountain Boys”
The most common OT keys are major and modal (i.e. minor). BG uses major, mixolydian, Dorian and minor keys
A BG band has between 1 and 3 singers who are singing about an octave above their natural vocal range. Some OT bands have no singers at all.
A BG band has a vocal orchestrator who arranges duet, trio and quartet harmonies.
In an OT band, anyone who feels like it can sing or make comments during the performance.
All BG tunes & songs last 3 minutes. OT tunes & songs sometimes last all night.

BG band members wear uniforms, such as blue polyester suits and gray Stetson hats. OT bands wear jeans, sandals, work shirts and caps from seed companies.
Both the Stetsons and seed caps cover bald spots.
Chicks in BG bands have big hair and Kevlar undergarments. Chicks in OT bands jiggle nicely under their overalls.
A BG band tells terrible jokes while tuning. An OT band tells terrible jokes without bothering to tune.
BG band members never smile. OT band members will smile if you give them a drink.
You can get fired from a BG band for being obviously drunk on stage.
BG musicians eat barbecue ribs. OT musicians eat tofu.
BG musicians have high frequency hearing loss from standing near the banjo player. OT musicians have high frequency hear loss from standing near the fiddler.

A BG band travels in an old converted Greyhound bus that idles all weekend with the air conditioner running full blast, and fumigates the county with diesel exhaust. The band’s name and Inspirational Statement are painted on both the side and front of the bus in script lettering.
An OT band travels in a rusted-out 1965 VW microbus that blows an engine in North Nowhere, Nebraska. It’s pretty evident that their vehicles don’t have air conditioning.
BG bumper stickers are in red, white and blue and have stars and/or stripes on them. OT bumper stickers don’t make any sense (e.g. “Gid is My Co-Pilot”)
BG musicians stay on the bus or at the nearest Motel 6. OT musicians camp in the parking lot.

About Peter Feldmann

Peter Feldmann has long been a musical mainstay in Santa Barbara and Southern California. Besides actively performing bluegrass and old time music with a variety of groups, Peter is also known as a bluegrass historian, collector, music consultant, teacher, and producer, both of live concerts and radio/tv programs throughout the area. His music has been heard in clubs, concerts, saloons, universities, pre-schools, at weddings, wakes, parties, barn-raisings, calf-ropings, rodeos, auctions, fund raisers, wine tastings and chili cook offs. Peter founded Santa Barbara's Old Time Fiddler's Convention (1972), UCSB's Old Time Music Front (1964), and The Bluebird Cafe (1971). Through these and other outlets, he was the first to bring many prominent folk, blues, and bluegrass artists, including Bill Monroe, Mance Lipscomb, The Stanley Brothers, The New Lost City Ramblers, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Rose Maddox, the Balfa Brothers, and many others to the Santa Barbara area. Peter also helped others access the music by teaching privately, and in group classes for Santa Barbara Continuing Education, UCSB Extension, and McCabes Guitars. He was the first on the West Coast to produce and market instruction Lps - three on How To Play Country Fiddle, and one each on Clawhammer Banjo, and Maybelle Carter Style Guitar. He still presents lectures on country music history at UCSB, Santa Barbara area libraries, and for various interest groups, festival workshops, etc. In 2006, he presented his monograph titled "The Big bang Of Bluegrass Music" (describing the origins of bluegrass 1938 - 1946) to the worlds first International Music Symposium at the University of Kentucky at Bowling Green. He has also been very active in radio, television, and film work, producing weekly shows on country and bluegrass music over a 21 year period on various commercial and public stations. Peter currently maintains three music-related websites, a music blog, and an entertainment service company, "BlueGrass West!", based in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California. Peter performs tunes and songs from the heart of America's musical treasure chest. His shows can include fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Well-known as a historian and teacher, Peter is first and foremost an entertainer, sharing his respect, energy and love for the music with his fellow musicians, friends, and audiences.
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31 Responses to Old Time and Bluegrass Music

  1. Peter says:

    Speaking of Wayne and Bruce, I’ll be doing some shows with them in New Mexico and Texas later this week. Check the “calendar” page for more information.

  2. Pingback: Old Time vs. Bluegrass « Fiddlefreak Folk Music Blog

  3. Ron Kodish says:

    I finally have a definitive answer when one of our festival patrons asks this very question, with regard to our Old Time festival host band, The Hillbilly Gypsies (www.thehillbillygypsies.com) and one of our straight up BG performers! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Adalfredo says:

    One must ask, will this time I spent on antique violin be worth it. I think you’ll find that locating information on antique violin is incredibly easy. So far I have not seen a more effective Antique instrument.

  5. Great post. Just don’t forget the importance of the violin in the music scene! I think many bands can do better if they add a violin or two.

  6. Just Sandra says:

    Great post/piece, here, but just one question; “BG musicians eat barbecue ribs. OT musicians eat tofu.” ??? Someone get this line backwards??? 🙂 LOL Otherwise I’d say it is “Right On,” and got a good laugh, being an ‘old time listener!!’

    • Pete says:

      Wonder if you can barbeque tofu….

    • Ernie Hill says:

      I’m with you Sandra, about tofu. I play old time, eat meat, don’t stank, ain’t skeered, no stickers at all on my VW bus though my Beetle hath two. High end guitar, $20 fiddle. Change strings every ten years whether they need it or not.

  7. BG bands never smile? That must be the reason for their terrible jokes.

  8. Chris Via says:

    I hope people dont take this observation serious. Its the most false and stereo-typicle piece of gibberish Ive ever read. I play Old time banjo, and never stuff the back. My heros on old time banjo played old Gibsons with resonators. Im also a long bow fiddler, and use all the fingers. As do all of the folks Ive studied. We sing plenty, and our Guitar player, and his brother knows enough chords to make most BG guitarists put’er back in the case. What a slap in the face to Good Old Time Music in general.

  9. Chris Via says:

    I also own a BBQ business called Old Virginia Smokehouse. Never heard of TOFU.

  10. kjc says:

    BG musicians know the tune when it starts; OT musicians know the tune by the time it’s done.

  11. Chris Via says:

    I have a sense of humor. This just doesnt trigger it for me pal. Neither do your snide comments. Can someone post an opinion representing the side that this joke tears down without a pointless, personal jab from you?

  12. WTBanjo says:

    I think this post should be re-titled Bluegrass vs. URBAN REVIVAL Old-time, because the stereotypes are all about the urban revival side of old-time music, which is largely because those folks are the ones who spend time relentlessly advertising themselves. That’s why everyone has the (false) idea of old-time music. Tofu, stuffed banjos, and 2 finger fiddlers might be all the rage in California or New York City. But I don’t know too many old time musicians born and raised in the south that resemble any of these stereo-types.

  13. Obie Adobe (estranged cousin of Toby & Moby) says:


  14. I agree with WTbanjo says:

    And this unnecessary perpetration of stereotypes misses the point of old time entirely … it was and still is dance music.

    • Pete says:

      I have got to point out that, to some of us old-timers anyway, “old time music” covered a much wider spectrum than the phrase often seems used for today. Sure, string bands playing for dances were considered old time, but so was the music of the original Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon, Jimmie Rodgers, the Dixon Brothers, Buell Kazee, and many, many musicians whose music could not in any way be construed as dance music.

      This tendency to constrain a descriptive term is unusual to my experience. It usually works the other way where an adjective spreads out to such an extent as to become relatively meaningless (eg., “bluegrass”).

  15. Bob Dunn - Just a Messenger says:

    As Ron Thomason of the Dry Branch Fire Squad says,
    “There’s a fine line between being able to play Old Time Music, and Not Being Able To Play At All”.

  16. Tom Draughon says:

    Some fine “Old Time” musicians just introduced me to this essay, and we all howled with laughter. The essay we read had been augmented to include references to Celtic bands as well. BTW, I have played in Bluegrass bands, with some of the finest OT player in the world including Ralph Blizzard and Bruce Greene, and even done a stint in a Celtic band. I find this to be a light-hearted piece of humor that exaggerates peoples’ personal foibles. From the posts above it appears that it hits too close to home for some thin-skinned types. Get a life, wake up, and learn to laugh at yourselves, folks! When you get so serious about your genre of music it takes all the fun out of it. And if it ain’t fun, why bother? I thought this was a great piece of wit.

  17. Billy Kearney says:

    I second Tom’s comment – this was funny and meant to be.
    Geez, Chris, lighten up. I know who you are and I know about your work with the Reed family. I found this blog to be more of a bluegrass poke than an old time poke.
    And remember, without the revivalists, there would be none of Henry Reed’s music out there to share with the world, because a revivalist recorded him.

  18. Jody Kruskal says:

    Well, I thought it was about as funny as anything you can read. It has always been a mystery to me that I can play old-time on the concertina and it sounds just fine, but BG just does not work for me. Now I know why. If you want to hear just how cool OT sounds on the concertina check these out:

    Bravest Cowboy – cow punchers, desperados and pioneer women http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npgPo-3jxKk

    Wreck of the Six Wheeler – old trains, wrecks and hobos

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  20. Pingback: Unofficial Old Timey, Brother Duets, Bluegrass, Newgrass, Progressive acoustic thread - Page 3

  21. Bill says:

    Thanks for the hoot – appreciate it 🙂

  22. Pierre Rose says:

    I needed a belly laugh today…thanks for providing it…!

  23. Kayonthehill says:

    I love this! And I totally get the part about OT players eating tofu. Here on the east coast, a lot of young hipsters and hippies are into OT music as we see them at festivals all the time. Also, the BGs are very serious about their stage presence (especially the older ones), so I appreciated your observations about their costumes. But the comment about what each group travels in is the best and so true from the events we’ve been to. Since this is all in fun, I think each group can laugh at the generalizations made. My daughter performs all these music and jams with all of them and she agrees. This is funny!

    • Glad you enjoyed this Karen. Of course, the old time scene has changed in many ways since the time I was learning the music in the late 1950s – early 60s. I love both old time and bluegrass, and often think of Bill Monroe as the world’s last true old time musician.

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