Essential Bluegrass Pickers

A look at some of the most groundbreaking bluegrass instrumentalists

The establishment of bluegrass music as its own genre is credited to Bill Monroe – a man with such a virtuosity on the mandolin as wasn't really seen at that point in country music. This set a fairly high bar for what kind of picking would come to bluegrass as it evolved. Since then, the music we commonly consider "bluegrass" has grown, evolved, and stretched in all kinds of new directions.

From the path-forgers in the craft to the younger folks who are taking bluegrass music in new and interesting directions these days, here's a look at some of the style's essential pickers. If you grab albums by any of these folks, you will get a broad view of the styles and energies encompassed by bluegrass music, from its inception to now, and where it might be headed tomorrow.

Lester Flatt

Bluegrass Guitarist Lester Flatt

One of the original Blue Grass Boys, Lester Flatt went on to make his biggest marks in his collaborations with banjo innovator Earl Scruggs (see below). Flatt & Scrugss was one of the most successful and most revered groups in traditional bluegrass, and Flatt's incredible command of the guitar fretboard has made him undeniably one of the most influential bluegrass guitar pickers ever.

Earl Scruggs
Earl Scruggs. promo photo

Another Blue Grass Boy original, Earl Scruggs left the group in 1948 and later joined back up with Lester Flatt to form the Foggy Mountain Boys. Scruggs is credited with developing the popular Scruggs' Style of three-finger banjo picking which, along with clawhammer, so dominates the bluegrass landscape to this day. He passed away in early 2012 but his approach to the banjo will continue to influence pickers for generations to come. More »

Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe
Bill Monroe. promo photo
Bill Monroe's fierce mandolin picking may not be what made him the most famous, but it sure was sweet. His ferocity on the instrument transcended anything previously heard in the country and Americana communities, and set a sharp precedent for mandolin players in bluegrass bands ever since. Besides, bluegrass isn't known as "Bill Monroe's music" for nothing.
Jerry Douglas
Jerry Douglas. promo photo

When it comes to the resonator guitar - also known as the Dobro - there is no finer practitioner of the instrument in contemporary bluegrass music than Jerry Douglas. Douglas has been honored by the Americana Music Association for Lifetime Achievemnet, for the style and fire he's brought to the Dobro in his career. Through his work with Alison Krauss & Union Station, Jerry Douglas has delivered the dobro ever further into modern roots and bluegrass music. More »

Chris Pandolfi

Chris Pandolfi
Chris Pandolfi. courtesy Bluegrass Today

Chris Pandolfi was the first ever banjo principal at the Berklee College of Music (that great institution from which so many modern musical envelope pushers have emerged). Since graduating from there, though, he has gone on to make incredible strides as a member of the Infamous Stringdusters - one of the finest groups in progressive bluegrass music. Along with Stringdusters guitarist Andy Falco (another picker worth watching), he's developed a group called the Founding Fathers, to marry bluegrass and traditional musical interests with electronics and other disparate elements.

Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz
Sarah Jarosz. © Dylan Langille - ontheDL Photography
As the newer class of bluegrass pickers goes, there are few who can outpick Sarah Jarosz on the mandolin. Sure, she's been taking her music in a more expansive, boundary-shaking direction over the course of her last couple of albums, but Jarosz's spirit and roots still lie deeply within the heart of bluegrass music. For folks who are interested in the ever-evolving realm of newgrass and progressive bluegrass music, Jarosz is one to watch from the next generation.