Instruments in Country Music

The instruments used to create country music are as varied as the voices that continue to move the genre forward. But certain tools have become synonymous with the country sound—and, in different mixes and with varied prominence—tend to appear on many of the best-known country music recordings.

Here, explore a few of the instruments that have become key to country music's evolving but roots-rooted sound.

accordion instrument


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.

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auto harp instrument


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.

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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 open-back folk or old-time types using gut or steel strings and also in resonator-backed variations, almost always steel-strung. 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 twentieth-century 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.

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The bass is 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.

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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.

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drum set


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 & 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.

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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 generations.

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 WilliamsRoy AcuffHank SnowRay PriceBuck OwensPorter WagonerMerle HaggardEmmylou 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 commercially 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 mid- to 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 African-American 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.

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acoustic guitar

Acoustic Guitar

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 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.

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electric guitar

Electric Guitar

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.

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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.

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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 Brothers.

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 others.
- Dick Spottswood

- Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.

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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.

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steel guitar instrument

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 pattern-maker 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.

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washboard instrument


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.

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Zither instrument


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.

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The Encyclopedia of Country Music

Immediately upon publication, the Encyclopedia of Country Music became a much-loved reference source, prized for the wealth of information it contained on that most American of musical genres.

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