Instruments in a Cajun Music Band

Band Performing
Cajun Music Band. Owaki/Kulla / Getty Images

Cajun Music, that punchy, dancer-friendly genre from South Louisiana (which is not the same as zydeco, though the two are related), has a pretty well-established instrumental lineup, though there are certainly plenty of bands who vary this structure slightly. Here are the key components to a Cajun band, plus a few optional elements:

Fiddle - Though lots of people associate Cajun music with the accordion, the truth is that the fiddle is probably more emblematic of the genre -- that is to say, it's possible to play traditional Cajun music without an accordion in the band, but it's not really possible without a fiddle.

The fiddle has been a part of Cajun music for hundreds of years, and Canadian Acadian music before that, and French country folk music before that (not to mention an important element of Irish and English music, both of which influenced Cajun music to some degree). The fiddler in a Cajun band provides melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Accordion - While the fiddle may be the historical leader of the Cajun band, the accordion has been king for at least one hundred years. Brought to South Louisiana by German merchants in the late 1800s, the diatonic ten-button accordion changed the style of the music, with accordion-friendly two-steps and waltzes coming to dominate the older fiddle-led reels and gigues. Nowadays, it's rare to find a Cajun band that isn't led by an accordion player, and it therefore has largely become synonymous with contemporary Cajun music. The accordion plays both melody and rhythm (using the chordal notes that are played with the left hand), though because the right-hand keys offer a limited set of notes, it will sometimes play a simplified melody that the fiddle will fill out.​

- The "tee-fer" (from "petit fer," meaning "little piece of iron") is known in English as the Cajun triangle. Made from the iron tines of a retired hayrake, this hefty cousin to the lighter-weight version you'd see in a concert band is the traditional percussion instrument used in Cajun music. Though it's not necessarily always part of a modern Cajun band, you can rest assured that any Cajun drummer worth their salt can play it well, and most other musicians can, too.

In fact, it's commonplace for special guests to sit in on triangle, as there's always one floating around somewhere and everyone knows how to play it (some better than others, of course).

Guitar - Both acoustic and electric guitars are found in contemporary Cajun music, typically providing rhythm and occasionally playing some sort of melodic break. The guitar entered the genre in a limited fashion around the turn of the 20th century but became a standard fixture in Cajun bands by the 1930s (approximately the same timeline that would've occurred in old-time country music).

Bass - The majority of today's Cajun bands feature an electric bass player, though there are a few who stick with the traditional upright bass. Bass came in with the advent of the Cajun Swing era of the late 1930s, though would certainly not have been present in every band until the 1960s or so (and particularly would have been left off of early recordings, as upright bass was hard to record until more advanced technology became available). There are very few bands today who perform without a bass, and it's a fixture at jam sessions as well.

Drums - Drums and bass largely entered Cajun music around the same time, first making appearances in the late 1930s and becoming standard-issue by the 1960s, when the influences of rock-and-roll and country music brought modern elements into the genre.

Some acoustic or mostly-acoustic Cajun bands perform with a drumset that is much more limited than those you'd see in a standard rock band (for example, a bass drum, a snare, and a hi-hat), but many use full sets as well. A Cajun drummer will often also keep a tee-fer in with his or her gear, ready to pull it out to accompany an acoustic breakdown or to offer to the aforementioned special guests.

Steel Guitar - Though pedal steel and lap steel are not standard instruments in a Cajun band, they certainly were during what's known as the "dancehall era" of Cajun music, from the 1940s to the 1960s (as well as the "Cajun swing" era that preceded it, to a lesser extent), and it's still a fixture in bands who play in the dancehall style (you'll find these bands, unsurprisingly, at dancehalls on Friday and Saturday nights throughout South Louisiana, and less commonly on tour).

Taking their cue from country music, they provide both rhythm and swooping, twangy melody lines.