Instruments | Country

From its roots, country music has been associated with simplicity – in melody, in subject-matter and in instrumentation, and it is this that has perhaps ensured its longevity.

However, all good musicians make their craft look simple, and the history of country music is packed with virtuosos, from the pioneering banjoist Earl Scruggs, through Bill Monroe’s unmistakable bluegrass fiddle, to the masterful guitar-playing of Chet Atkins.

Country music has come a long way since the banjo-on-the-porch days of early hillbilly, but many musicians have remained true to the early sound. Instruments that seem to have an ill-defined place in other types of music have come to characterize the country strain. One of the earliest and most enduring of these is the banjo – that homely mainstay of early vaudeville that is one of the most recognizable sounds in country recording. It has survived and been given a new lease of life in the talented hands of The Dixie Chicks. And where, of course, would country music be without the guitar? Acoustic or electric, from its Spanish origins, and brought into the limelight by The Carter Family, many country musicians since then have made it their own. The recording pioneers such as Eck Robertson and John Carson made their names on the ubiquitous fiddle – an instrument that lends itself equally to the soaring melancholy of a ballad or the toe-tapping lilt of western swing.

Alongside these staples stands a host of other instruments – from the piano, drums and mandolin to the dulcimer, washboard and harmonica – that have seen periods of popularity and decline during the ebb and flow of changing country styles.


The banjo is a refinement of an instrument brought to the Americas by slaves from West Africa. Banjos were often used in early twentieth-century minstrel and vaudeville shows, but more as a comic prop than a serious musical instrument. Pete Seeger and other artists in the forefront of the 1950s folk-music boom were crucial in raising this instrument’s profile. Around the same time, banjo master Earl Scruggs, playing first with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and later with guitarist Lester Flatt, as Flatt And Scruggs, developed an intricate, three-finger picking style. In so doing, Scruggs raised banjo-playing to a new level of virtuosity and established the instrument’s importance in bluegrass music. More recently it made a return to mainstream country in The Dixie Chicks’ lineup, as played by Emily Robinson.


An off-shoot of the lute, the mandolin assumed its present-day eight-string form in early eighteenth-century Italy. The Gibson Guitar Company’s early 1920s introduction of the F-series mandolin, with its enhanced tone and volume, laid the groundwork for the mandolin’s rise in traditional country and bluegrass music. It was Kentucky-born Bill Monroe, often lauded as ‘the father of bluegrass music’, who thrust the mandolin to the forefront as a rhythmic and lead instrument when...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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