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The Difference between Bluegrass, Old Time and Celtic bands.
September 10, 2013 7:09 PM   Subscribe


 
A Bluegrass or Celtic guitarist needs to know C#aug+7-4.

back to theory school for you
posted by pyramid termite at 7:22 PM on September 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


Old Time and Celtic bands have nonsense names like “Flogging Molly’

*Blinks.*

Guys, wait. He may not know what he's talking about, I'm not sure.

I'll have to ask the guy in the Dropkick Murphy's if he inherited or bought at a yardsale his fiddle.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:29 PM on September 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


Oh dear. I was really anticipating a lot by reading the title. This doesn't deliver, though. It's really a lot of inside/recycled jokes for musicians cobbled together (
half your time tuning, the other half playing out of tune"), kind of heh-heh but not terribly elucidating. The "industrial accident" line in the banjo section, for instance - cute, heh-heh, but that's it.

The title is a good idea for a good article. I hope someone writes it eventually.
posted by Miko at 7:30 PM on September 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm sorry my comment is so negative, but I have spent a lot of time trying to clear up this question for people - the old-time/bluegrass split, anyway - and so I had hoped for something serious.

Musicians don't mix up celtic with the other two styles. But civilians do. I developed this theory that whenever most Americans see a fiddle, that means "Irish" to them. This was based on the time I first started playing in old-time sessions in a bar, and when new people came in, at the first break, often shouted in our direction"WILD ROVER!"
posted by Miko at 7:37 PM on September 10, 2013


Spoiler: The difference is corn, rye, and barley; the main ingredients of what the band members call "whisk(e)y".
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:41 PM on September 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


Fiddle means Irish? I'm sure you're right about America generally, but as a Southerner, that seems like crazy talk. A fiddle just means music.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:44 PM on September 10, 2013 [9 favorites]


I've been in quite a few Bluegrass bands, and have participated in my fair share of both Bluegrass and Old Time festivals; and I'm strongly given to understand that if a tune has much in the way of chordal movement, it's considered to be Bluegrass (and puttin' on airs, no less). Each group tends to be cliquish and views the other with faint disdain as a rule, at least in public - though individuals can and do move between genres long as they don't make a fuss about it.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:46 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


In a Celtic band, it’s the musicians that are hammered.

Seems legit.
posted by feckless at 7:49 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


The big difference I've found between Celtic and Bluegrass (bluegrass banjoist speaking here) is that jams are way more fun in bluegrass circles. The times I've gone along to a celtic music session, it seems that unless you're a fiddler or you've memorized the exact melody to play, you don't quite fit in. There's nothing funner, in my mind, than going apeshit crazy on some improvisation during a bluegrass jam and I've just never found anything similar at celtic events.

YMMV, but MM never has.
posted by barnacles at 7:49 PM on September 10, 2013


Celtic bands play in bars
Old timey bands compete
and bluegrass bands play festivals and jam all night
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:52 PM on September 10, 2013


Fiddle means Irish? I'm sure you're right about America generally, but as a Southerner, that seems like crazy talk. A fiddle just means music

This might indeed be a Northeast thing.

I think both Celtic and bluegrass are very tightly structured traditions and can be pretty stiff to play in if you're used to old-time. Bluegrass, in fact, was born as an intentionally pretty commercial music and sessions tend to mimic professional performances, complete with stars, solos, and standard versions which the players try to replicate. I'm not sure exactly why Celtic sessions are so rigid in that way, but indeed they are. Celtic players tend to highly value tunefulness and have pretty delicate ears and tight tolerances for variation. Old-time has its own rubrics, but it's definitely more inclined to improvisation, unique renditions that might not be entirely replicable, and a group (as opposed to a soloist) mindset.

I would actually say that it's the old-timey folks that play all night, too. I've been to festivals where people play for 3 days straight, with few breaks for sleep or food. Bluegrass festivals tend to be more about the stage lineup, whereas an old-time festival has a contest or two on stage and dozens of mini-sessions concurrently happening across the campground.
posted by Miko at 8:07 PM on September 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh how I mourn for the word "among," which seems to be in a coma in American English usage.
posted by NedKoppel at 8:16 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


They ain't even old timey!
posted by jason_steakums at 8:18 PM on September 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


So where does newgrass fit in? Or is that somehow under "old timey"?
posted by notsnot at 8:25 PM on September 10, 2013


No, it's still under bluegrass.
posted by Miko at 8:28 PM on September 10, 2013


If everyone dies, it’s Celtic.

Also seems legit.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:34 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bluegrass is too damn fast!

Well, often, anyway. When they slow it down a bit, that's when I can get into it a little more.

Tell you what, I LOVES this Del McCoury tune.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:50 PM on September 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh how I mourn for the word "among," which seems to be in a coma in American English usage.

It's all in your head. "The difference among" has never been in widespread use among English speakers. (And if anything it's getting more common over time rather than less.)
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 8:55 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, huh. I'm an old time fiddler and I actually thought this was hilarious. In-groupy for sure, but there's not a ton of in-group humor out there for old time players so I appreciated it. Some of it is super on the nose i.e. the "old time players eat tofu and miso soup." That's actually making a pretty astute comment on what old time players are like vs. what they think they are like or how they would like to be perceived.

I would like to point out that if the ghost of your murdered pregnant secret girlfriend is whipping your ass and tearing your soul from your body by the third verse, what you've got there is an old time ballad.
posted by Polyhymnia at 9:10 PM on September 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


I found it rather amusing, although I'd agree that the Celtic musicians are more northeastern than the sort of pan-Celts we get down here in Texas.
posted by immlass at 9:22 PM on September 10, 2013


I don't see how people can stand playing bluegrass bass, unless they also sing. Do they even let the bass player play thirds? I'm sure it is harder to do than it sounds to the causal listener, though, especially at very fast tempos.
posted by thelonius at 9:26 PM on September 10, 2013


I was hoping for a more definitive education, too.
My church had a special service this week, billed as a "Bluegrass Mass." Now I love all kinds of fiddly, banjoey music, so I was excited. But when we got there it was a guitar, a cello and a trumpet. And then they played things like "every time I feel the spirit!" It was disapointing and confusing. I mean, what?
posted by Biblio at 9:27 PM on September 10, 2013


I mean, I don't mind playing BONK bonk Bonk all night, but I can't deal with just BONK Bonk
posted by thelonius at 9:32 PM on September 10, 2013


I mean, I don't mind playing BONK bonk Bonk all night, but I can't deal with just BONK Bonk
posted by thelonius


Ladies and gentlemen, Thelonius Bonk.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:43 PM on September 10, 2013 [22 favorites]


The Difference between Bluegrass, Old Time and Celtic bands.

byline: The National Folk Festival of Australia

The Difference between Bluegrass, Old Time, Celtic, and Australian folk music.

If it has the words "Convict" or "Botany Bay" in the title or lyrics, it's Aussie.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:53 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I laughed. Didn’t expect to, but did.
posted by bongo_x at 10:06 PM on September 10, 2013


Which one has the best whoopin'n'hollerin' is all I care about

Sometimes you just need a good whoop and/or holler
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:11 PM on September 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't see how people can stand playing bluegrass bass ... Do they even let the bass player play thirds?

Pretty much not, unless you're deft and subtle about it. I quit bluegrass bass when I decided I'd played enough root-5th half notes to last me a lifetime.

Q: How many bluegrass bassists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: I...V...I...V...

posted by Greg_Ace at 10:11 PM on September 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't see how people can stand playing bluegrass bass ... Do they even let the bass player play thirds?

Pretty much not, unless you're deft and subtle about it. I quit bluegrass bass when I decided I'd played enough root-5th half notes to last me a lifetime.


Really? I think I got me a new gig...
posted by bongo_x at 10:17 PM on September 10, 2013


Welcome to it. I went the other route, learned to improvise walking jazz bass lines, and lived happily ever after.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:29 PM on September 10, 2013


Also this is why I was in a jam band. Cuz then you get to play everything. It's the Universal Unitarianism of music.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:38 PM on September 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


The times I've gone along to a celtic music session, it seems that unless you're a fiddler or you've memorized the exact melody to play, you don't quite fit in.

I've stayed away from Celtic jams for precisely this reason. I love the music but I'm not familiar enough with the tunes they'll call out to join in. And Celtic folks know the history of every tune which just adds to the intimidation factor for newbies.
posted by tommasz at 5:03 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bluegrass is too damn fast!

Well, often, anyway. When they slow it down a bit, that's when I can get into it a little more.

Tell you what, I LOVES this Del McCoury tune.



That performance is from Floydfest, a yearly bluegrass/new grass/old time festival in Floyd County, southwest Virginia. If you're ever on this side of the world, you could do worse than attending. (Floyd County is also considered by many to be the home of the finest moonshine made, which can be a whole 'nother good reason...)

We also have the Galax Old Time Fiddlers' Convention, if your tastes run to a bit more of the slower stuff.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:10 AM on September 11, 2013


Just as long as Mumford & Sons isn't categorized as any of these, I'll be happy.
posted by wannabepre at 6:46 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's true that Irish music is all about the tunes. The word "jam" doesn't really apply. The magic of a Irish music session isn't the tunes themselves, though, it's how you string them together. Some tunes are traditionally matched (e.g. you always play "The Baker's Wife" into "Down the Well" or whatever), but player's make their own medleys all the time, often on the spot (one tune will end and someone will just start in with another, not sparing any silence). The whole point is to just keep a continuous flow of music, so people never stop dancing.

That's why it's so important to know so many tunes, each one is a single phrase in a continuous musical throughput that can go on for hours without ever really stopping. That's also why you need so many musicians, because when someone wants to get up and grab a pint or hit the head, there needs to be a few other musicians to keep up their part.

That's Irish music, anyway. I'm not really sure how it fits in with "Celtic" music, per se.

(my favorite thing about Irish music is that it's the only music I've ever heard that can legitimately be counted in "1", i.e. you can count the meter of Irish music as "one-one-one-one-...")
posted by grog at 7:47 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't see how people can stand playing bluegrass bass ... Do they even let the bass player play thirds?

I've played bass in a wide variety of groups: pretty much anything you could call jazz; classical; musical theater; steel drum; country; bluegrass; kids music; etc. The bass line in just about every style I've played is built around root fifth, often on beats one and three. I mean, even in the jazz world, older stuff like Dixieland or Parisian Swing and the various forms of Latin jazz (although the beats are different, because the bass is by and large imitating various bass drum {generic low pitched bass, not bass drum as a specific instrument}, are root and fifth based. Heck even a lot of what Ray Brown plays is just roots and fifths with chromatic approaches and chord substitutions. Discretion isn't just the better part of valor, it's the better part of bass playing.

There' a couple of very good reasons for this, but they basically all boil down to the idea that the lower the pitch of the instrument you're playing the easier it is to muddy up the sound. There's just so many more overtones, I'm pretty sure arranging 101 (both the jazz and the classical versions I took) covered the fact that you have to space the notes at larger intervals the lower you get to sound consonant. This is really easy to show on a piano, play a 3rd right somewhere around an octave above middle C, the do it somewhere around an octave an a half below middle C. That is right around where the range of a tenor instrument and range of a bass instrument overlap. That's why you don't hear as many thirds in traditional bass lines. As to the rhythmic simplicity, well the notes also ring longer the lower you go. One of the more revealing things I saw in college was when my bass professor played a three octave scale twice as a fairly fast run, the first time I had my eyes closed and the second time I watched his bow. If you had asked me after the first time I would have sworn that he was playing the same articulation the whole time, but watching his bow, he stopped the string noticeably shorter on the lower octave. Anyway, in a complicated, busy, and layered music like Bluegrass, it's especially important to stay out of the way, because there's just so much more to be off from (tonally and rhythmically).

The other factor is that playing a bass instrument is often more work, things have gotten easier with amplification, but a lot of these styles developed without the aid of amps and pickups for the bass. Heck Berlioz wrote that you should never give a bass player anything faster than 8th notes because they can't play them anyway. That's also why walking solos developed as a way to show off the bass player, it really is impressive, even if less virtuosic than what the other players are doing.

A bass player's role often isn't playing cool lines or licks (although I love that as much as anyone else), it's making repetitive and simple lines sound cool and making sure things really groove.
posted by Gygesringtone at 8:22 AM on September 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


One distinction made in this article is between "tune" and "song". And the distinction is obvious -- a song has a singer who is singing; a tune does not.

And, yet, even after years of listening to all three of the styles described here, until I started talking to Celtic musicians I'd never understood that there were two different words for those things -- I just referred to everything as a "song" and thought the word "tune" just meant the same thing but with the intention of sounding quaint.
posted by gurple at 9:30 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is no such thing as Celtic music. There is Irish music or Scottish music, but Celtic music is not a thing. There are "celtic" "punk" bands like Flogging Molly et al.

Irish and Scottish music is usually played publicly in sessions or at dances. The musicians or groups play sets of tunes (usually three tunes each played through three times). They are not jams. People are playing traditional music from a very broad repertoire but the only improvesation going on is with the ornamentation or the setting. There are melody instruments, accompaniment instruments and people who hang around with the musicians and play bodhran (zing!).

Bluegrass is a fairly recent development.

Here's what a session looks like. There is probably one in your town.
Just clearing some things up.

[Irish musicians and uilleann pipe player]
posted by misterpatrick at 9:46 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


The song/tune distinction isn't unique to these styles, it's pretty wide spread, although in more academic settings it's piece instead of tune.
posted by Gygesringtone at 9:57 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


As a mandolin player, I LOL'ed. Thanks for the funny post!
posted by Lynsey at 10:02 AM on September 11, 2013


Some folks are very high church about their music. Others are less so, especially if they're either American, particularly outside of the areas where Irish is Irish and everybody else is not and never the twain shall meet, and into fusion over authenticity or if they're actually from the old country, in which case they're often secure enough to go outside their national and regional forms. ("We larned this tune from the singin' o' Dolly Parton," which I have actually heard.)

My favorite bands tend to perform songs and tunes, including Irish, Scottish, Breton (an dros) and original compositions, and occasionally English folk tunes as well. The session I used to occasionally hit in Houston was also eclectic. I don't know a better term for this than "Celtic", and some of the bands use that descriptor, so I'm not inclined to drop it even though it's not technically accurate.
posted by immlass at 10:12 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


One big difference is alternate guitar tunings, very common in Celtic, not so much in bluegrass. I frankly prefer the chordal harmonies DADGAD lends itself to compared to standard EADGBE. On the other hand, DADGAD makes it very hard to change keys within one piece; multi-key flatpicking like Forked Deer (Tim Stafford and Jim Hurst) would be more or less impossible.
posted by jfuller at 10:54 AM on September 11, 2013


Gygesringtone: A bass player's role often isn't playing cool lines or licks (although I love that as much as anyone else), it's making repetitive and simple lines sound cool and making sure things really groove.

Indeed. There's a reason the bass is considered part of the rhythm section. Jaco Pastorius, for example, has been an influence for many or even most flashy modern bassists, but some of them forget that he never once stopped grooving.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:23 AM on September 11, 2013


It's true that Irish music is all about the tunes. The word "jam" doesn't really apply.

This is true for old-time as well, though. It's not a freewheeling jam - you're playing familiar tunes from a highly codified corpus in which there is very little room for original composition (unlike bluegrass which is pretty much all original, credited composition). The disctinction of playing tunes is not a distinction between old-time and celtic. Both kinds of sessions can feature sung lyrics as well as tunes, with variation. There are a lot of old-time tunes which might feature 25 rounds of the A and B parts, punctuated with only one sung or call-and-response verse, which doesn't make it not a tune.

There is no such thing as Celtic music. There is Irish music or Scottish music, but Celtic music is not a thing.

It is a thing; it's a category encompassing traditional music of the British Isles. In places where there is not a large enough population to get super specific about any one tradition, it gets lumped together. Also, there is, in fact, a Celtic guitar style )(as jfuller has noted), and it's known as such for good reason - because it's truly pan-Celtic-music, as the guitar was not a traditional instrument in any of those cultures. Even banjo only made an entree into Irish music in the 1850s or so; it was unknown there before that.

In conclusion, purism is always problematic.
posted by Miko at 12:26 PM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Jaco got his share of "Hey, that's really great. You and me should get a bass player" comments when he was coming up, I think. That's just too many notes for a lot of people's taste.... But yeah, it's locked in 100%, it grooves very very hard. And you can hear how badly it needs to be that way when you check out the typical Jaco clone bass player.
posted by thelonius at 12:28 PM on September 11, 2013


almost every time i go to guitar center and hear someone testing one of the basses it's someone trying to slap and pop - it's annoying as hell - only once have i ever heard anyone do it the way it's supposed to be done - with a solid, in the pocket groove

the rest of the time it's plinky plinky bump plinky bump bump bump plinky

just where do all this kids doing this come from? - any time i see a local band, the bass player is not playing like that - surely most bands aren't going to stand for it

and yet, i hear it all the time ...
posted by pyramid termite at 12:46 PM on September 11, 2013


I really need to work up that slap version of "Stairway To Heaven".....
posted by thelonius at 1:10 PM on September 11, 2013


surely most bands aren't going to stand for it

That's why they're consigned to showing off in guitar stores!
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:52 PM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


just where do all this kids doing this come from?

I woulda said Les Claypool, who certainly has a lot to answer for, but I'm not sure he's still to blame these days.
posted by hap_hazard at 3:47 PM on September 11, 2013


I'm sorry my comment is so negative, but I have spent a lot of time trying to clear up this question for people - the old-time/bluegrass split, anyway - and so I had hoped for something serious.
I was pleasantly surprised that banjo players weren't singled out for extra derision, but otherwise, yeah.

I've pretty much given up on trying to explain the old-time/bluegrass distinction. I started playing old-time banjo about 11 years ago, and 3 years ago I started playing the stroke style of the mid-19th century. When someone hears that I play banjo, the dialog pretty much always goes:
Them: I love banjo! Do you know how to play Dueling Banjos?

Me: No, I mostly play a very early style, from the 1800s.

Them: Oh! You mean like Bluegrass?

Me: No, Bluegrass didn't really emerge until the 1940s, but it evolved out of old-time music, which was an earlier style more like the music from the 'O! Brother, Where Art Thou?' soundtrack [blah blah blah]

By that point their eyes are glazed over and they're edging away, wondering what kind of a banjo player doesn't even know how to play Dueling Banjos.
posted by usonian at 6:39 PM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've pretty much given up on trying to explain the old-time/bluegrass distinction.

i always thought that part of it was 2 finger picking vs 3 finger picking
posted by pyramid termite at 7:35 PM on September 11, 2013


I feel like the Johnny Appleseed of bass derails, sorry...I hope the thread is old enough where it does not hurt too much......

The trend of awful slap and pop bass players is way older than Les Claypool. If nothing else, rock kids wanted to play like Flea, before Primus came to light nationally. Before that, people who weren't following black music usually learned about it by seeing The Brothers Johnson or Larry Graham on TV, in the 70's. and a lot of players got obsessed with doing it fast.
posted by thelonius at 7:38 PM on September 11, 2013


thelonius- good point, yeah, but those guys - Larry Graham at least- weren't f'in gratituitous about it, it was always in the service of the groove... and hey you're right about Flea, he's a funky muthafucka but not necessarily a good influence. If one was looking for a ground zero for problematic slap/pop stuff, he's a pretty good candidate I'd think.
posted by hap_hazard at 10:54 PM on September 11, 2013


I think all the players I mentioned are great! Except Claypool - his band sucks! It's people who were inspired by hearing them to devote their musical lives to double-thumbing renditions of "The Flight Of The Bumblebee" that I meant by awful slap players.
posted by thelonius at 4:55 AM on September 12, 2013


These days, Victor Wooten is probably the main man who would inspire a guitar center kid to the life of thumbsmanship, and I sure don't mean to slag on Victor. It's not his fault.
posted by thelonius at 4:59 AM on September 12, 2013


Pyramid Termite, that's not the distinction most folks would make. The general breakdown is clawhammer style (which is old time) versus three finger picking (which is bluegrass). There also exist various two finger old time picking styles (and others), but they're less common and sort of "specialized."
posted by Polyhymnia at 10:52 AM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


re: Bluegrass bass and thirds.

You know, after some consideration (and I have no idea why I was thinking about this today), it occurs to me that when I've been working in chord tones (and even non-chord tones) other than the root or fifth, I seem to be doing them as approaches to the next chord, especially if the mandolin player's doing something similar. I don't know if this is particular to the group I'm playing in or not, we're not super conservative, but we don't really go too far out either.
posted by Gygesringtone at 3:08 PM on September 26, 2013


Anything you learn about traditional banjo via Pete Seeger is wrong.
posted by Miko at 10:38 AM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


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