Bluegrass vs Jazz Music

I was recently playing at a local bluegrass jam and someone wandered in that was a jazz player. They asked about the differences between learning bluegrass and jazz, so I thought this would make for a good article topic. There are some similarities between the two types of music, as well as some major differences.

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Jazz vs. Bluegrass

JazzBluegrass
Chordsii-V-I, Tritone Subs,I-IV-V, vi
RhythmAll subdivisions8th notes, quarter notes, triplets
Time SignaturesVarious (4/4, 3/4, 5/4, 7/8, odd meters)Predominantly 4/4 and 3/4
BackupMore space, Offbeats accented, SyncopationConstant Flow of rhythm, Mandolin on 2&4
BassWalking, Syncopated, Non-chord tones, Spacious at times on Ballads. More emphasis as a SOLO instrumentPredominantly on 1&3, Chord Tones/Arpeggios/Occasional b7, Walking sometimes.
InstrumentsPiano, Drums, Horns, Guitar, Vocalists, sometimes things like Xylophone, flute, etcBanjo, Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin, Vocalists, Upright Bass, sometimes Dobro.
SpeedDepends on the era. Bebop and hard-bop can be extremely fast like Bluegrass. Clifford Brown/Lee MorganOften very fast. Earl Scruggs & Tom Adams are two very fast banjoists.
VocalsNot only sing the melody but often scat-sing an improvisation based on scales/substitutions like an instrumentalistsMelody based but often bends notes (flatted blues notes), slides.

Some Notable Differences between Jazz and Bluegrass

As someone that has spent a lot of time playing both types of music, I’d say one big difference in is the focus on space.  Bluegrass is more of a fill-in-the-spaces kind of sound. It can be like a steamroller of sound with constant 8th notes depending on the speed of the song.   Of course, this isn’t the case on slower songs and ballads, but jazz generally has more space in the backup.  The piano or guitar takes short stabs at the rhythm in the background.  Often highly syncopated.  Or, the jazz accompanist offers an elaborate counterpoint.  This is something I had to learn how to do as a jazz guitarist that was more difficult at first-what they call jazz COMPING.  For a great example of this, I recommend “The Bridge” by Sonny Rollins & Jim Hall

 

Let’s look at a few more differences:

Improvisation approach

Bluegrass uses a few approaches-melody-based, variations on a theme, or a pentatonics approach primarily.  There is heavy emphasis on the b3, b5, and b7 (BLUES NOTES) with bluegrass soloing.  Tony Rice comes to mind. Bluegrass also uses arpeggios or chord tone based improvising depending on the player.  I think a lot of bluegrass guitar was influenced by someone like Django Reinhardt. His approach is more arpeggio based as opposed to scalar/linear.

On the other hand, on fiddle tunes, there is more of a variations on a theme approach to improvising.  This is kind of similar to a classical approach.  Give Mozart’s “Variations on a Theme from the Magic Flute” a listen :).  When I was a teenager,I was first exposed to this type of improvising via banjo & guitar contests.

Jazz uses a more theoretical approach.  You’ll find Bebop Scales, Chord-Tone soloing, Pentatonics (but on a different level), Triadic/Intervallic playing, and more.  Melodic Minor is a scale used often in jazz that you probably won’t hear in bluegrass music much at all.  Overall, the choices and approach are more exotic and deeper. 

The length of jazz solos tends to be longer.  Hence, why they need more tools in their toolbox.  They might take one solo with chord-tones, the next with the bebop scale, or one with it all mixed up.  Overall, I’d say the variations on a theme approach is less prevalent in jazz. 

Vocals

The topic and theme of bluegrass songs is much different than jazz.  They focus on songs about the old home, cabins, rural living, etc.  There are songs about mom & dad, trains, and gospel songs.  Of course, there are the usual songs about losing a woman, or fights between a woman and a man. 

With jazz, a lot of the songs are about city living.  A lot of jazz’s repertoire are Tin Pan Alley songs.  However, it too has songs about relationships, love, etc.  While there are certainly famous jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Mel Torme, I’d say that jazz is usually focused on instrumental music.  Whereas, with bluegrass, I think a greater percentage of the music is VOCAL based.

Musician Skills-Transposing

Jazz artists are commonly asked to play things in multiple keys.  It’s often necessary to be able to transpose a song into all 12 keys.  This isn’t a skill common among bluegrass musicians, especially the earlier ones.  In the old days of bluegrass, using a capo and playing out of 3-4 different shapes was the mode of transposing. They certainly had no need to play in Db.

However, with more bluegrass players studying jazz for improvisational approaches, the ability to transpose into more difficult keys is increasing among the younger bluegrass crowd. 

At the same time, even today, you won’t likely hear many bluegrass songs in the key of Eb. Yet, this is a common key for jazz horn players to play in.  Bluegrass music tends to be in the keys of G, C, D, A,B, and E.  Jazz tends to focus more on flat keys like Bb, Eb, Ab, F, and so forth.

Accompaniment

Jazz artists usually want the chords spelled out LESS.  For instance, if you’re playing a 7th chord, they may only play the 3rd and 7th, rather than 1-3-5-b7.  This is particularly the case when you get into more complex chords like a 7b9b13 or something.  These chords have six notes.  Most jazz pianists are not going to play all six notes.  By leaving some notes out, this allows the jazz soloist to be a bit more free with their improvising.  They then don’t have to adhere to an exact chord spelling with their improvisations.  In summary-rootless chord voicings are common.  Chords missing the 5th are common.

In bluegrass, they tend to spell out the entire triad or 7th chord, unless they can’t do so on their instrument (mandolin?).  You do have the occasional use of 6ths and 3rds in backup banjo accompaniment.  However, the overall sound in the context of a bluegrass ensemble is full triads.  Open chords on a guitar are more common in bluegrass than jazz, which predominantly uses closed position playing.  Fiddle players will do chunks, double stops, or long drones behind the band.  Banjo players often do rolling backup, filling in the space with drone-y sounds hovering around the central key or tone.

Harmony/Chords

Bluegrass Music consists predominantly of I, IV, and V chords. Other chords that get added include the vi minor (See Foggy Mountain breakdown or Blackberry Blossom). In addition, Bluegrass uses modes a lot. Mixolydian and Dorian are common. So, you’ll see chords like a b3 and a b7. In some ways, it shares some things in common with later rock music like the Eagles, Allman Brothers, and The Grateful Dead. There is a lot of rock music in modes.

Chords tend to be triads or 7th chords. You’ll sometimes get a 6 or 9 chord. Suspended chords show up as well.

Jazz is harmonically much more advanced. They often use six note chords; for example, a 7#9b13 chord. Tritone Substitutions are common in jazz; unless it’s Chris Thile, you probably won’t hear many tritones in bluegrass.

Jazz uses Major 7th chords all the time. Meanwhile, you will almost never run into that chord in your average bluegrass song. I’ve always wondered about that. It’s a common chord in most types of music; however, the major 7th didn’t make its way into Bluegrass.

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully, this survey of jazz vs. bluegrass helps you understand the different types of music more.  They both contain an improvisational element; however, their rhythm focus and theoretical side are much different.  Studying both types of music has helped me write songs, improvise, and think in a more creative manner.  I do think it takes more time to join in on a jazz jam.  The level of knowledge needed about scales, chords, and theory is simply higher.  At the same time, I’ve had friends that played jazz that were not at home in a bluegrass jam for quite some time.  Each type of music has its own peculiarities and stylistic nuances you must learn to do them right.  UNTIL NEXT TIME!

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Jody Written by:

Professional Musician of 27 years. I've performed on the stages of Carnegie Hall, The Grand Ole Opry, and The Ryman Auditorium. I've also played in 6 different countries. All things Banjo and Acoustic Guitar.