What is the history of the mandolin in bluegrass music?

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Answered by: Sequoyah, An Expert in the Bluegrass Category
When talking about bluegrass and its roots it is impossible to ignore the mandolin. In fact, there is an argument to make that the mandolin is the instrument that created bluegrass! The father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, was a mandolin player, and it was through his distinctive style of playing that a lot of what we know as “Bluegrass” was created. His band, The Blue Grass Boys, is even where we get the name. Bluegrass and the mandolin are so entwined that it is nearly impossible to talk about one without talking about the other.



The history of the mandolin is long and storied, but the mandolin style--both playing and construction style-- associated with bluegrass was invented only around twenty years before the genre itself.. Early twentieth century America was full of mandolin players. A craze of mandolin orchestras had swept the nation, and this old Italian instrument had found a brand new continent to call home. Mandolin orchestras soon died out as a craze, but the mandolin itself was here to stay. In 1919 a mandolin maker named Lloyd Loar began working at Gibson Guitars. He would work there until 1924 and in that time he would completely revolutionize the mandolin.

Before Lloyd Loar, mandolins were a very different instrument than they are now. Loar looked at the construction of violins and applied the same techniques to the mandolin. Innovations such as a floating bridge, f-holes, and sound posts had never before been used before in the history of the mandolin. The new style of mandolin was brighter, louder, and had less resonance than the older bowl backed and A-style mandolins. This was a new American instrument and twenty years after its creation it would do great things for American music. Bluegrass was built on Gibson’s Lloyd Loar F5, the instrument of choice for Bill Monroe.



Bill Monroe formed Blue Grass Boys in 1938, it was not his first band but it was the one that would change American music forever. By this time a lot of different instruments from all over the world had made their way to the hills of Appalachia: the banjo from Africa, the mandolin and violin from Italy, the Guitar from Spain. It was the mandolinist Bill Monroe who took a unique fusion of these different instruments and gained national stardom. It wasn’t overnight, but by 1945 there was a whole new genre of music named after a single band of musicians.

From then on, the mandolin has been a staple of nearly every bluegrass band. The years that followed would see even more innovating mandolinists come along. Sam Bush pioneered the sub-genre of “newgrass” in the 1970s. He used bluegrass instrumentation to play music that was decidedly not bluegrass. David Grisman would bridge the gap between bluegrass and hippie culture, recording with greats like The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, The bluegrass guitar virtuoso Tony Rice, and the great jazz violinist Stefan Grappelli. In more modern times Chris Thile has fused classical music with bluegrass and rock and roll and even won the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius award” for his work with Cellist Yo-Yo Ma on their project “The Goat Rodeo Sessions.”

The story of the bluegrass mandolin is one of invention and exploration. It was there at the very beginning of the genre, and it was there every time the genre forked again. It’s construction was revolutionary, as was the way Bill Monroe played it. Although the Mandolin has existed for far longer than bluegrass, or even America itself, it has become an integral part of American music and that does not seem likely to change.

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