My New Mexico friends Bruce Thompson 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.
PERSONALITIES & STAGE PRESENCE:
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.