View Full Version : Keys to Bluegrass

Apr-20-2004, 1:06pm
Which keys are most common in bluegrass music? Fiddle tunes are usually D or A, many are in G. But what about traditional bluegrass like Monroe or Scruggs? Do a lot of bands use F, Bflat or B? I know part of it is the singer's range, also. I always had a hard time playing in those keys on the mando. I imagine a fiddler playing in F has a hard time too. What do you think?

Apr-20-2004, 2:06pm
The singer's range, where the song sounds best per the voice singing lead, is the main determining factor. Which means that a bluegrass song could be almost anywhere. Almost -- but there are some unwritten rules, like avoiding some extremely awkward keys. Keys often used are G, A, Bflat, B, C, D, E, and F. Often avoided keys are G#(Ab), C#(Db), and F#. Chick singers may stick you with Eb now and again. Male singers end up usually from G to B; Lester had a lower voice so he often ended up in the E, F and G. I've heard IIIrd Tyme Out start out in B and not get out of it for 5 or 6 songs. A lot of the high lonesome stuff is up there in Bb, B and C -- Bluegrass "high gear."

In a jam session, if somebody suggests doing a song in something like F#, they are likely to get socked, and told to choose F or G. Otherwise, it's singer's choice.

A decent fiddler will not have any trouble with F, and it's not that bad on mandolin once you get used to it. Now G#, that's no fun at all, but thankfully it's pretty rare. I can't figure out why guitar players don't use G# more often, as the "it's all G to me" mindset is pretty widespread among guitar and banjo pickers; maybe the mandolin players have veto power for G#.

Apr-20-2004, 5:59pm
Whenever the "cheater bar boys" start with that G# stuff I say ok, but no capo's. Bass players usually appreciate that tack too. That stops 'em in their tracks. I always was amazed by whoever was playing for Lynn Morris because she always plays in G#, F#,Eb etc. That's where Ted's closed positions really come in handy.

Apr-20-2004, 6:54pm
[QUOTE]Whenever the "cheater bar boys" start with that G# stuff I say ok, but no capo's.

I love that...I will definetly use that line http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

Apr-20-2004, 7:55pm
I always was amazed by whoever was playing for Lynn Morris because she always plays in G#, F#,Eb etc.
That's Lynn's husband, Marshall Wilborn, a great bass player.

I've always wanted to do an entire bluegrass set in Ab #http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/tounge.gif

Apr-21-2004, 1:02am
I was talking about the whole band. We opened for them one time and watched them warm up backstage and was amazed at the keys they played in. I don't think the mando player(before Jesse Brock) played an open string all nite.

Apr-21-2004, 3:19pm
That's wild, Tony. That's what I figured though, different keys for different situations. I can play guitar in a lot of different keys, especially with a capo. Mandolin is coming a little slower, but I'm working on it. The scale patterns on mando do make more sense than on a guitar, and they're a little easier to move up and down the fretboard.

Apr-21-2004, 8:49pm
I think for the most part if you know E, F, G, A, Bb, B, C and D your good to go. Lynn Morris is not your usual setup. She complained that her small range was the reason for the odd keys and I think she felt kinda apologetic about it. She is a world class banjo player and a good guitar player and used capo's so she understands what us un-cheater bar folks go through. There is a reason for the capo and even the best guitar players still use it and that's the sounding of the open strings as drones. I just hate personally being cut off from that part. Before I invoke flame by mando gods, I know it's good to be able to do that anyway and fiddlers do it all the time in closed positions, but look how short the neck is on a fiddle. I'm in no way saying fiddle is easy, they just don't have the stretch we mandoids have. Nor the string tension to deal with! For me, the best move was I quit playing guitar and only mando. I quit thinking like a guitar player(and translating from guitar-ish) and think now as a mandolinist. I'm not saying it's for everybody, just me. I agree, the mandolin is more logical and easier to get around on but I think I was really a mando player who started on guitar and then saw the light http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/tounge.gif

Apr-21-2004, 9:52pm
That's great stuff. I still like to play guitar, but find myself picking up the mando more and more also. But remember, doing both keeps the mind nimble. (and confused) But I guess that's the fun of it!

Apr-22-2004, 2:08pm
I see a lot of people here who play tons of different instruments and talk about how it keeps them "nimble". I sometimes wish I was one of them, but I'm not. My wife is a special ed. teacher and one thing I've learned from her is there are different ways people learn according to type. My "type" gets things messed up changing to things that don't work for me. Yes, it's good to try new things but I remember a thread where people were talking about finger probs and were trying to find ways to not use the finger to give it a rest. I said for me that would mess up my muscle memory and get me cross wired. I got fried for it. I believe in the Taoist idea of not letting problems confine you and work through it. With that I've gone through most of the mechanical problems described and worked through them. I think those problems happened to me because of changing over to mando and were my hands adapting. People trying to come up with universal "rules" about how to play and frying those who don't fit mystify me. All you have to do is look at the "pro's" and you'll see exceptions to all the rules. The "rules" to me are good suggestions to be incorporated if at all possible but if they don't work, don't let that confine you.. The singers I've worked with over the years have most dwelled in G and A. Most times if I want out of those keys I have to learn the song and do it myself ;) A good workout for me is the Bluegrass Album Band cd's. They change keys a lot and most times will do the song in the key most singers do them in. They don't always "burn" songs either.