Bluegrass vs. other genres — what makes it bluegrass?

Hi friends! In this video, I talk about what distinguishes bluegrass music from folk-influenced rock/pop, as well as what distinguishes it from old-time music.

Click here to register for the Rippin’ Bluegrass Fiddle Soloing Course


And here’s the listening list I promised:


Classics and Modern Classics

Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys – Little Maggie

Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys – Uncle Pen

Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard – The One I Love Is Gone

Del McCoury Band – Nashville Cats

Dolly Parton – Travelin’ Prayer (This video is hilarious! Great performance. And yes, to the haters: I know this is a Billy Joel song. But Dolly’s version is straight-up bluegrass.)



New Grass Revival – Can’t Stop Now

Alison Krauss & Union Station – Oh Atlanta

Here’s what it sounds like when rock and pop influences are conscientiously introduced into bluegrass by pickers who are deeply rooted in the bluegrass tradition. Hear how it’s radically different from the classic stuff, but the instrumental playing is still very much based on how the more traditional bands play?

Compare this to jam bands that may casually be called “bluegrass” but might really be incorporating folk influences into rock and pop music, rather than the other way around. (It’s worth noting that the musicians above don’t necessarily market these recordings as “bluegrass,” either.)



You might also like:

Megan Lynch Chowning on Texas style vs. Bluegrass.

Salt Creek: 1, Kat: 0, and what you can learn from my epic fail.

What to play when you don’t know what to play.

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Salt Creek: 1, Kat: 0, and what you can learn from my epic fail.

I tried to teach “Salt Creek” to one of my students the other day. I totally failed.


Maybe you’ve heard this old chestnut:

Q: Why do fiddle tunes have names?
A: How would you tell them apart, if they didn’t?

I picked up “Salt Creek” by ear in a jam session at some point over the twelve years I’ve lived in Bellingham.  It was not a commonly played tune in Eastern Washington while I was growing up there, but around here most bluegrassers and old time players know it.  Several bands I’ve played with have reinforced it in my memory–in fact, I played it just a couple of weeks ago when I sat in with David’s Drinking Band at Honey Moon. DDB plays a cool, complexly arranged medley of “Salt Creek” and “Red Haired Boy”, which makes sense because both tunes are in the key of A mixolydian.

When I wanted to give “Salt Creek” to my student, I first looked through all the books I had close at hand, but for some reason none of them contained a usable version of the song. So I decided to teach it by ear….

Perhaps you see where this is going. No matter how far into my memory I dug, I could only remember one or two bars of “Salt Creek,” after which it would morph into “Red Haired Boy,” a tune I’ve known much longer and have taught many more times. Finally I had to give up on “Salt Creek” and teach a different tune. Embarrassing, and wasteful of the student’s time. Darn it.

After she left, I looked up “Salt Creek” on YouTube. The first video I found was an excellent one of guitarist Doc Watson. I didn’t need it to be a fiddler in the video, since my goal was just to remember how the tune went in order to jog my muscle memory of how to play it. Forty seconds into the video, I was ready to notate the song.



The moral of this story for you.

Given a choice between learning a tune by ear or learning it from sheet music, do you have a strong preference? If you do, I highly recommend putting some time into getting more comfortable with the thing you avoid.


Consider some pros and cons of each method, using my “Salt Creek” story as an example:

Learning the tune by ear meant…

…I could pick it up in the moment from musicians around me in a casual setting, instead of being limited by the lack of available sheet music. I didn’t have to sit glumly watching everyone else play a tune I didn’t know.

…my version fit the way my friends were playing the tune. Sometimes if you learn a tune from sheet music, you’ll find that the people you around you know it radically differently, to the point that it can be difficult to play it together. This is especially true if you and the person who notated the tune are in different parts of the country or world.

…I didn’t need to learn from another fiddle player or from fiddle-specific sheet music. I don’t remember who first taught me the tune, but it was probably a banjo, guitar or mandolin player, since I am usually the only fiddle player in a given band or jam group.

…once I’d learned it, it was forever in my muscle memory (somewhere). It is much, much easier to memorize a tune learned by ear—in fact, if you can’t yet play from memory a tune you’re learning by ear, you haven’t learned finished learning it. On the other hand, to learn a tune from sheet music, then memorize it, is a two-step process. Most people don’t really complete the second step for the majority of the tunes they learn this way, so as time passes tunes are more likely to pass out of memory entirely.

But did learning “Salt Creek” by ear help me call up the tune when I needed it? Clearly, it did not. So having it in a book would have been super handy.

Reading sheet music would have meant…

…that it would have taken me under a minute to find the spot in the tune where I was going off track, and see at a glance what I was supposed to be playing instead.

…that I could send the music home with the student, so she would have a reference to help her remember the tune later, too. Anytime you don’t have time to adequately memorize a tune, you will need the music. (Or a recording, I guess, but that’s often less practical for a variety of reasons: you can’t make a recording unless you have a gadget with you, and you won’t be able to use it later unless you put time into sorting and labeling your recordings. Recordings also don’t help you if you’re trying to play along with others who already know the tune, whereas sheet music gives you the option of sight reading.)  Sheet music is easily and quickly shared, not only between teachers and students, but also among friends.

You need both skills: learning by ear and reading notes. Start doing whichever thing you’ve been avoiding.

If you’re phobic of learning by ear, get someone patient to teach you a tune (even if that “patient someone” is just a YouTube video that you can rewind and replay as much as you want).

If you’re need to develop competence at notereading: here’s “Salt Creek” and “Red Haired Boy” so you can practice hacking your way through the tangle of dots and lines. I’m sure you’ll do much better than I do with not getting the two tunes mixed up. If you don’t know where to begin with reading notes, start with, and mark the name of each note on the sheet music as it comes up in the flashcards. ( might be more useful to you if you’re not a fiddle player.)

If you’re a guitar player who needs to work on reading tablature, Google “xxxxxxx tabs”, but replace “xxxxxxx” with the name of a pop or rock song you like. You should also be able to use Google to find a tutorial that helps you understand what the numbers and lines and letters mean.

Of course, if you want a less self-directed approach to any of these projects, I would love to help you with any of the above.

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How to find your way back to practicing after a crazy summer

Here comes September.

Are you getting ready to settle down after a busy summer? I know I am. I’ve had some great opportunities to travel, some of it for music, some of it for teaching, and some of it just for me. All in all it’s meant frequent upheavals in my routine, so much that I hardly remember what it is I normally do during the rest of the year on, say, a Tuesday. Sound familiar?

The days are getting shorter, though. Some of you (or your kids) are getting ready to return to school. The volunteer pumpkin growing out of my compost pile (I have no idea how it got there!) is growing large and starting to think about orange. Are we a little run ragged from our summer adventures? Is it time to buckle down into a routine?

Let’s be honest here about what I’m really getting at: has your practicing–or even your music-making in general–fallen by the wayside this summer?

Yes, well, it happens to the best of us.

Try any or all of these ideas that appeal to you or seem manageable:

  • Take a class – Well, you knew that was coming, but you have to admit it’s a great idea. Community, accountability, and new information dosed out in manageable bits. Check the menu at the top of this page to see what classes I’ve got coming up for you.

  • Get a CD or three from the library – What’s on your “to look up someday” list? Names you’ve heard, genres that intrigue you? Jazz, Cajun, Norwegian, Quebecois, 20th-century classical, Gypsy/Roma, indie rock?

  • If you don’t know where to start, pick a name from this list that you don’t know, or whose music you haven’t spent much time with, and stick your toes in the water: Kenny Baker, Stephane Grappelli, Andrew Bird, Vassar Clements, Mark O’Connor, Nickel Creek, Kevin Burke, Natalie Macmaster, Laurie Lewis, Byron Berline, Joe Venutti, Doug Kershaw, Lisa Germano, Alison Krauss’ earlier stuff.

  • Go see some live music! Any genre or instrumentation has the potential to inspire you to get going again, but of course if there’s a fiddler/violinist in the band that’s especially great.

  • Make a list of things that would be fun to learn sometime, even if they are the “wrong” genre or seem totally out of reach to you now. (My list right now includes the Sibelius violin concerto and the guitar instrumental “Flatland”.)

  • Pull that book off the shelf and put it on the music stand. If you’re like a lot of us, you have some books that seemed really exciting when you bought them, but you haven’t really gotten around to doing much with them. Pick one and get to know it. What’s in it? Sightread some tunes.

  • Get out those voice memo recordings from any camps or workshops you went to this year, last year, five years ago. Yes, I do that too. Find what’s useful, delete the rest.

  • Revisit songs you learned a long time ago and don’t really remember how they go anymore. You’ll find relearning is a different experience than learning them in the first place.

  • Make a date to play music with a friend. It’s okay if you’re both nervous!

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How to practice when you don’t have time

Some weeks this is just how it is.

One of my teenage students walked in the door today, obviously frazzled. I asked how she was doing. “Tired!” she said, with uncharacteristic force.

“Are you tired from good things or bad things?” I asked.

“Good things. But they’re wearing me out.” She went onto explain: she’s just joined a gymnastics team. Their first meet is only a few days away. The team has only a few practices to learn a lot of moves and put together an entire routine. Most of them have never done gymnastics before, including her.

As we settled into the lesson, it became obvious that this situation had taken a toll on the amount of time she’d been able to spend practicing this week. That’s natural enough. It’s not that she’s losing interest in fiddle; she’s just engaged in an intensive project right now in another part of her life.

I see this all the time with my teenage students; they have so many opportunities available to them, so many adults in their lives encouraging them to express themselves creatively and athletically and to do it all right now. Hey, I’m one of them! We adults like to enable kids to overcommit themselves with fun stuff since we know they won’t have as much time to pursue these opportunities later. Of course, we need to be careful to avoid burnout, and we need to teach kids how to set boundaries that will support their emotional and physical health. But that’s a different article.

This busy-busy theme is obviously not limited to the teenagers I work with. My adult students are even more likely to come to their lessons buzzing with stress: “I’m sorry I’m late; my business meeting ran over time and then I hit all the red lights! They’re restructuring my department and now I’m doing the jobs of two people, for three-quarters of my old pay!” And then “I didn’t have time to practice,” often followed by “I’m sorry” or “I know I should be practicing” or some other self-deprecating comment.

Look. We are all going a mile a minute. Want to know a secret? There are weeks I don’t practice at all. And I’m a full-time musician! The important thing is to know what our priorities are, and to live according to them. Some weeks, music and the personal growth it facilitates are top priorities. Some weeks, they aren’t. And that is okay.

But we also know that we do need to practice regularly if we are to keep making progress. A day we don’t take a step forward is a day we take a step backward. What we need is a way to be kind to ourselves by continuing to press forward in our music projects at the same time that we allow ourselves the freedom to respond to the rest of life as it happens dynamically around and within us.

We need to practice efficiently.

We need to know what the bare minimum is that we have to do in order to keep moving forward, even in baby steps. Or at the very least, we need to know what we have to do to stop going backward–even if we’re just treading water.

So, okay: how to do that.


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How to practice (without freaking out or getting bored)


For many of us, but especially those of us who are adults, it is difficult to do things we don’t already know how to do.  Learning an instrument, especially if it is our first instrument, is humbling.  We may feel like small children, knowing what needs to happen but without the wiring in place to make our hands act in accordance with our intentions.


When we finally quiet our inner critic, our spouse or children or cats may wrinkle their noses at our best attempts.  We turn on the television and see reality shows where people sing their hearts out, then turn to face a panel of judges who are paid to be merciless in their criticism.


Even if your deepest musical wish is to be a professional, idolized by others, leave that wish outside the practice room. Practice time is for you, not for the imagined or real people you hope will give you better love if you master this instrument.*


*(Here’s a tip: it won’t make any difference.)



The plateau


Maybe you are on a plateau.  If you aren’t on a plateau right now, you will be someday.


When you are on a plateau, it feels like you’ve been stuck at exactly the same level for a long time.  You’ve been walking and walking and not getting anywhere.  You remember the climb up to where you are now, that exhausting but intoxicating feeling of progress, but it’s a distant memory now. Practicing doesn’t seem to make a difference and it’s increasingly difficult to remember why you ever thought this was fun or worthwhile.  


You may consider quitting your instrument.  A lot of people do at this point.


Allow me to suggest that everyone who has ever mastered an instrument (whatever that means, exactly) has crossed many, many of these plateaus.


Allow me to suggest further that you are actually getting somewhere, even if you feel like you’re walking in circles or backwards.


Entertain the possibility that an epiphany is around the corner.  It could take any of a variety of forms:  a sudden intuitive sense of something your brain hasn’t been able to understand rationally; an encounter with a genre of music you didn’t know existed and which ignites you completely; a new friend with whom you share an instant and inspiring musical rapport.


In the meantime you need motivation to keep practicing.  For that to happen, practicing has to feel a bit less like drudgery.



Kindness to yourself


    1. Stretch. Breathe.
      Bring your best self to your work.Take 2-3 minutes to make sure your muscles are loose and your mind is clear.

    3. First, play something you feel.Start with your favorite tune.If every tune feels wrong today, make up something that expresses how you’re feeling. 

    5. Decide what to work on today.
      You do not have to practice every tune or exercise assigned every time you play. Pick one or two things to focus on today.

    7. Get down to work.
      Spend as much time as you can (five minutes, or five hours) on your focus area(s).


      This is work, but it should be joyful work. If you get frustrated, take a step back. Stretch tense muscles. Break the hard thing up into smaller chunks, and focus on just one chunk for now.


      If you’re having trouble focusing, take another minute to stretch and breathe. Play a slooooooow scale. Stand in front of the mirror and play open strings, watching for straight bowing, or places you’re holding tension in your body, etc.

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