Contrary to what you may have seen in the film Deliverance, bluegrass music is more than a bunch of good ol' boys picking banjos and clogging on the porch. It’s a style that boasts some of the most impressive instrumental musicians and guitarists of any genre. Here’s a list of five songs to introduce you to the world of bluegrass shred. Tony Rice, "Freeborn Man," Guitar Any list of bluegrass guitar songs must begin with a selection by Tony Rice, the godfather of modern flatpicking. Rice has not only been an inspiration for virtually every bluegrass guitar player over the past three decades, but also one of the first to bring outside musical influences into the bluegrass world. On his interpretation of Jimmy Martin’s “Freeborn Man,” Tony lays down his signature quicksilver G runs as well as some bluesy gutbucket bends. In this video, Tony performs with an all-star band, including fiddle player Mark O’Conner, mandolinist Sam Bush, dobro player Jerry Douglas and banjo player Bela Fleck. Be sure to check out Sam Bush’s reaction to Tony’s nasty diminished lick at 4:10, and then Tony’s smug “Yeah, I just played that” grin as he cues the next soloist.
Josh Williams, "Cherokee Shuffle," Down Home
On this old-time fiddle tune, guitarist Josh Williams (pictured above) shows why he’s truly a “picker’s picker.” His flawless technique, pure acoustic tone and perfect melodic sensibility are all on display, examples of why he has been honored as Guitar Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Association from 2008 to 2010. An impressive multi-instrumentalist, he currently tours with his own group, The Josh Williams Band, and also is the mandolin player for The Tony Rice Unit. Check out this video of Williams performing the tune at the Station Inn in Nashville with Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge and The Infamous String Dusters’ Andy Falco.
Bryan Sutton, "Decision At Glady Fork," Ready To Go
Bryan Sutton’s "Decision At Glady Fork” highlights some of the fastest picking from one of bluegrass’ speediest and most fluent guitar players. On this original track, from his excellent guitar album
Ready To Go,
Sutton mixes fiery G runs along with cascading single-note lines into a serious display of virtuosity. In addition to being a renowned Nashville session ace, Sutton has performed with bluegrass icon Ricky Skaggs and currently tours with Tim O’Brien’s popular bluegrass act, Hot Rize. Check out Sutton performing the song as a duo with Chris Thile of Punch Brothers:
Chris Thile, "Song For A Young Queen," Not All Who Wander Are Lost
Though not necessarily a guitar song, the instrumental “Song For A Young Queen” by former Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile is definitely worth checking out. The floating baroque-esque melodies and contrapuntal harmony of the piece underscore Thile’s compositional prowess, as well as his stunning improvisational and technical abilities. Originally recorded with an all-star bluegrass lineup, Thile now performs the song with his band Punch Brothers, which includes stellar guitarist Chris Eldridge (See the Josh Williams video). Here’s Thile performing the piece with Punch Brothers:
David Grier, "Wheeling," Wheeling
David Grier is a master of the perfectly stated bluegrass melody. Think of him as the Jeff Beck of flat-picking. Grier’s original composition “Wheeling” exemplifies his ability to improvise seemingly endless variations on a melodic theme, as well as his advanced crosspicking technique, a flatpicking style that imitates a banjo roll. Grier tours as a solo act as well as with his group Psychograss. Here’s Grier performing Wheeling with fellow guitarist Wyatt Rice:
Ethan Varian is a freelance writer and guitarist based in San Francisco. He has performed with a number of rock, blues, jazz and bluegrass groups in the Bay Area and in Colorado.Photo: Mike Morbeck, from joshwilliamsmusic.com