10 Common Bluegrass and Folk Instruments

They range from craft instruments to found objects

Bluegrass Musicians Rehearsing

 

Owen Franken / Getty Images

Folk music instruments run the gamut from random found objects to instruments developed by highly skilled craftspeople. If you want to start a folk music band but don't know what instruments to include, here are 10 common instruments used in folk, bluegrass, jug band, and old time music.

Accordion

The accordion might be most associated with polka music, but it's a versatile instrument. You'll 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 tuned to specific chords and a bellows that forces air through small reeds.

One thing is certain: Accordions are as fun to play as they are to listen to.

Banjo

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

Originally, they 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 five-string or four-string (called a tenor and often used in jazz). They're played in different ways, including Scruggs style and clawhammer, which has a downward picking motion, and their distinct twangy sound is common in folk music.

Dobro

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

The resonator takes the place of the sound hole In acoustic guitars; the shape of the guitar doesn't usually affect how the sound is amplified. You'll find square-neck and round-neck dobros.

The instrument is famous in bluegrass, with Josh Graves of Flatt & Scruggs leading the way.

Fiddle

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

Fiddles are very portable, and fiddlers can change the setup of the instrument to fit their style of play. No matter the style of music, fiddlers can easily become the showpiece in a band and their solos the talk of any performance.

Harmonica

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

Harmonica bodies are typically constructed of wood or plastic with 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.

Jew's Harp

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 instruments and is traditional to cultures around the world.

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

Jug

The musical jug is exactly that: typically a stoneware jug, although glass and ceramic jugs are also played. The player blows into the jug with their mouth.

The jug is played in a manner similar to playing brass instruments or didjeridoos. It's often used to lay down the bass line, and players can change pitch by changing their embouchure shape or tightness of their lips.

Spoons

The history of musical spoons goes back as far as the history of the spoon. Cultures from Russian to Irish to Native American have histories of playing the spoons or spoon-shaped bones. Some people think playing bones was part of a spiritual tradition connected to the spirit of animals.

To play spoons, place a pair of wooden or metal spoons back to back and hit them between your hand and your leg. You can use ordinary kitchen spoons or musical spoons.

Washboard

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 popular in all kinds of folk music from around the world. It's most often seen in America in jug bands, old-time music, and zydeco.

Washboard players often attach accouterments to the wood of the instrument. Found objects such as tin cans, cymbals, cowbells, and wood blocks give players a variety of percussive sounds to work with.

Washtub Bass

The washtub bass is a musical instrument that traditionally has one string that 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 moves one hand up and down the staff, "fretting" the string while plucking it with the other hand in rhythm. It's somewhat similar to how one would play the 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 the ingenuity of country jug bands. If you want to get a bit folksier, call it a gutbucket or laundrophone.