10 Common and Fun Bluegrass and Folk Music Instruments

Instruments commonly used in folk, bluegrass, jug band, and old time music

Folk music instruments run the gamut from found objects to instruments that have been developed by highly skilled craftspeople. If you're looking to start a folk music band and don't know what instruments to include, here's a quick and easy guide.

01
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Accordion
Accordion. photo: Getty Images

The accordion may be most associated with polka music, but it's a versatile instrument. You will find accordions used in all kinds of music, including Vaudevillian-style old timey folk music, klezmer, and Cajun music. 

Though the basic style is the same for all accordions, the instrument can vary. There are diatonic accordions, chromatic accordions, and the well-known piano accordions. Each features keys that are tuned to specific chords and a bellows that forces air through small reeds.

One thing is for sure, accordions are as fun to play as they are to listen to. More »

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Banjo
Banjo. photo: Getty Images

What we call a banjo probably evolved from an instrument brought to America by African slaves, called banzas, banjars, or banias. Since the slaves weren't permitted to play drums, they started making banzas. 

Originally, these were made from a dried gourd. They'd cut the top off the gourd and cover the hole with pig, goat or cat skin. Then, they'd attach a neck made from wood, and usually three or four strings.

Modern banjos are either 5-string or tenor (4-string often used in jazz). They're played in different styles, including Scruggs-style or clawhammer and their distinct twangy sound is very common in folk music. More »

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Dobro (a.k.a. Resonator Guitar)
Dobro (a.k.a. Resonator Guitar). Wechter Scheerhorn Model 6530-F

A dobro is an acoustic guitar with a metal resonator built into its body. This resonator serves as an amplifier and you might also hear this referred to as a resonator guitar.

In contrast to acoustic guitars, the placement of the resonator takes place of the sound hole. Therefore, the shape of the guitar doesn't tend to have an affect on how the dobro's sound is amplified.

You will find square-neck and round-neck dobros. The instrument was also made popular in bluegrass, with Josh Graves of Flatt & Scruggs leading the way. More »

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Fiddle
Fiddle. photo: Getty Images

The fiddle is a mainstay in all styles of traditional and rural music, from classic-style country to bluegrass, folk, and roots rock. Though it is technically the same instrument as a classical violin, the technique used to play it turns a 'violin' into a 'fiddle.'

Fiddles are very portable instruments and fiddlers can change the set-up of the instrument to fit their style of playing. No matter the style of music, the fiddler can easily become the showpiece in a band and their solos the talk of any performance. More »

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Harmonica

Hohner harmonica
Hohner harmonica. courtesy Pricegrabber

The harmonica (or mouth harp) is, aside from the human voice and your own two hands, the most portable instrument used in traditional American folk music. Most harmonicas are small enough that they fit perfectly in any pocket.

Harmonica bodies are typically constructed of wood or plastic and a metal cover plate. The harmonica operates by a set of reeds that vibrate when you blow or suck air through any of the 10 holes.

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Jew's Harp

Jew's harp
Jew's harp. photo: Getty Images

Despite the Jew's harp's name, there's no apparent historical connection with Judaism. Many older cultures fashioned it out of bamboo, while metal bow-shaped versions came from throughout Europe and Asia. It's one of the oldest known instruments, and is traditional to cultures around the world.

The Jew's harp has a distinct twang and it is often used to lay down the rhythm of a song. It's relatively easy to play and the pocket-sized instrument can vary in size and shape, each creating a different base chord. A talented player can pull a variety of sounds out of a single harp.

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The Jug

Justin Robinson of Carolina Chocolate Drops plays the musical jug
Justin Robinson of Carolina Chocolate Drops plays the musical jug. photo: Karl Walter/Getty Images

The musical jug is exactly what it says it is. They are typically a stoneware jug (although glass and ceramic jugs are also played) into which the player blows with their mouth.

The musical jug is played in a manner similar to playing brass instruments or didjeridoos. It often lays down the bass in a tune and the player can change pitch by changing their embouchure shape or tightness of their lips.

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The Spoons

Musical spoons
Musical spoons. courtesy Pricegrabber

The history of musical spoons goes back as far as the history of the spoon.

Cultures from Russia to Ireland to Native American cultures have a history of playing the spoons or spoon-shaped bones. Some people think the playing of the bones was part of a spiritual tradition connected to the spirit of animals.

Spoons are very fun to play. A pair of wooden or metal spoons are place back-to-back and hit between the player's hand and (often) their leg. You can use ordinary kitchen spoons or buy actual musical spoons.

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Washboard

Washboard players from Portland's Sasparilla and Conjugal Visitors play at Pickathon Roots Music Fes
Washboard players from Portland's Sasparilla and Conjugal Visitors play at Pickathon Roots Music Festival. photo: Kim Ruehl/About.com

The musical washboard is a percussion instrument played by scratching or tapping the metal washing surface up and down in rhythm. Players often guard their fingers with thimbles or metal guitar finger-picks.

The washboard is a popular percussion instrument in all kinds of folk musics from around the world. It is most often seen in America in the context of jug bands, old time music, and zydeco.

Washboard players will often attach accouterments to the wood of the instrument. Things like tin cans, cymbals, cowbells, wood blocks, and other found objects give the player a great variety of percussive sounds to play with.

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Washtub Bass

Washtub bass player
Washtub bass player. photo: Kim Ruehl/About.com

Washtub bass is a musical instrument that traditionally has one string which is plucked and uses a metal washtub as a resonator.

The string is tied at one end to the washtub and, at the other end, to a stick or staff (often made of wood). The player will moved one hand up and down the staff, "fretting" the string, while plucking it with the other hand in rhythm. It's rather similar to how one would play a bass guitar.

The washtub is a perfect example of using what you have to make music. It's a folk music staple and stems from ingenuity of country jug bands. If you want to get a bit more folky, call it a gutbucket or laundrophone.