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Old Time Vs Bluegrass: What’s The Difference?

Written by on June 12, 2024

The United States has a rich history of traditional music, originating from the colonists who settled in the Appalachian mountains and mixed their musical traditions from their home countries.  The two most popular styles of traditional music in the US include Old Time and Bluegrass.  In fact, many people group the two styles together for their historical connection and similarity in instrumentation and sound.  Although there are many similarities between the genres, there are also several distinctions, which is what we will be diving into today.

  • The Structure

Although the structure of the repertoire itself is similar, the structure of how it’s played in a group setting is wildly different.  For example, in a bluegrass band or jam session, everyone takes turns playing solos on songs or tunes.  However, in old time circles, the fiddle player(s) tend to hold down the melody with the occasional mandolin or banjo playing melody too.  All the other instruments generally play the rhythm part for the entire song.

  • The Groove

This one is a little harder to articulate, but the more you listen, the more obvious it becomes.  It could have to do with where the musicians place the beat, or maybe it’s the instruments in the ensemble, but there is something very distinct about the groove of an old time band versus a bluegrass band.

  • The Banjo

It’s expected to find a banjo in almost every traditional bluegrass or old time band, but the different styles of the banjo have a big effect on the music overall.  In a bluegrass band, you will find the banjo players play three finger style banjo, while in old time bands they use clawhammer style.  I’m not a good enough banjo player to explain all the differences in depth, but I know enough to know that each style has a completely different sound which fits perfectly with it’s respective music style, and differentiates itself nicely from other types of traditional music.

  • The Ensemble

Lastly, I wanted to distinguish the different ensembles found in the two types of music.  In Old Time music, the standard ensemble has a guitar, a fiddle, a clawhammer banjo, and an upright bass.  You may also find other instruments every once in a while, the next most common being mandolin.  A standard bluegrass band has a guitar, a fiddle, a bluegrass banjo, a mandolin, and an upright bass.  You can also sometimes find dobro players in bluegrass bands.


About Alani Sugar

Alani Sugar is a young fiddle and mandolin player from Maryland.  She has been involved in the region’s music scene since she was 15 years old, and has the attention of musicians and music lovers alike in the area.  She currently works as a professional musician and teaches fiddle and mandolin lessons.

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