How to Play Bluegrass Guitar

By Warren Yates 

To view previous lessons Click Here

Learn to play a musical instrument bluegrass style. 

Country Music Style

Plans only

Build your own "Yates Style" Washtub Bass.  This design has a fingerboard so that it can be fretted.  Bend a little and fret a little, but enjoy a lot.  You can now get that upright bass sound and it won't break your budget.  


This article is for the musician that already knows the very basic of chord arrangements.   If you are two or three days into it, then this is for you.     

But I can't read music!   I can't either.  I have never seen a bluegrass band on stage reading music.  Play what you hear and what your idea of what it should be.  That's what makes it fun.        

Click here to print off a picture of a guitar neck to make notes on.  You will probably use this as a tool forever.     

If you are looking to learn "Bluegrass Guitar" then here's the place to get started.  This doesn't mean that once that you have read this article you will be able to play anything that you want, but it does mean that you will start to understand the fundamentals of playing.  No two musicians play exactly alike but they can sound very similar.  You and I might not hear the difference, but experienced musicians can.  As long as you are close, then there is a good chance that others will not hear a difference either.  The main thing with playing music is that you enjoy it,  if you're happy then it is good.          Bluegrass guitar    

A word about Bluegrass music!   Bluegrass can be as simple or as complex as you make it.  It can be a lot of fun for friends getting together just playing basic chords or a five piece band of jamming talent.  Bluegrass is a type of music that has basically no electric instruments or drums.  Occasionally you might see a bass guitar or  washtub bass. PA systems are used to reach more people; however, the best sound is without.  Bluegrass is a type of music that is centered around country and back woods life, fresh air, old times, hard times and the simple life that we all wish we could live assuming that we could live without the modern conveniences.  It is an escape for the mind as well as an exciting rush; it is also much safer that jumping out of an airplane.  The instruments are acoustic and people seem to make better singers if they have a severe nasal problem.  On the Andy Griffith Show, the Darlins played Bluegrass and were the image of typical poverty stricken, backwoods bluegrass pickers.  For a musician it is hard to imagine the Darlins as poverty stricken with instruments costing thousands of dollars.  It's kind of like doctors and lawyers pretending to be rough, tough Harley riders for the weekend.  It's just fun.  When the music is right, your hair will stand up and chill bumps will form all over your body.   Bluegrass music excites the listener by emphasizing notes and just plain good picking.   If you are already a bluegrass fan, then you know how great it is.   It is a lifestyle in itself.  It's fun!                                            Bluegrass guitar

Tune with me!


Can I teach you to play just in this article?  I can give you the tools and basic understanding to play, but you will have to teach yourself.  Remember, you are not in this to be discovered next week.  It is supposed to be fun and if you do break to show business, then that is extra.  If it's your life dream, I hope I was able to inspire you.  I wish you the best.

Bluegrass rhythm  Playing the rhythm you will need to play the bass notes like a bass guitar while holding your chord.  Then in between each bass note you will want to put in one strum.  It will be pick, strum, pick, strum and every other pick, let it be the other string.  Now do this in "G", "C" and "D" and flow them together in a circle.  Listen to this example where I show the pick strum method and the jazzed up version and a set of lead runs.    Click here!   Now lets jazz it up a bit.  Playing pick, strum, pick, strum is plain and it was the way that I did it for years but there is a way to put some more life into it.  I later learned that using hammer-ons and pull-offs would give me a better flow of notes when I could not pick them as fast as I needed to.  A hammer-on is when you pick a string and while it is sounding, fret the string so that you have made two different notes with only one pick.  A pull off is the opposite.  Pick a string and as you pull your fretted finger off, make it sound.  Again, one pick for two notes.  Now when you go from one cord to the next you will want to find bass notes that will walk from one chord to the next.  Now find ways to hammer-on where you can while walking to the next chord.  It is everything short of picking out the song.  Just put in what you can without picking out the song until your turn.  Then try to put some good stuff in it.  Use your imagination and see what you can do that sounds like Bluegrass.  If you get one good note out of it, remember it, and add one more good one to it.  Here is an example of bluegrass rhythm jazzed up some.  As you can see, the picks are more important than the strums.              Bluegrass guitar

Picking from both directions.   It is hard to pick in the downward direction on every note that you pick.  You would never get fast or smooth.  If you pick down on a string then you are in the position to pick up on the next note so do it that way.  Picking up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down on every string you hit is what you will be doing and it will be so natural that you will not have to think about how to do it.  It will just happen.  

Now for picking the fire out of it!  I remember when I was a little boy listening to my dad play the banjo.  He played the same songs the same way everyday, day after day after day.  This was when Roy Clark was hot and I wanted my dad to play like that.  So I said to him, "Why don't you just take off playing like they do on TV?  After all Roy Clark made it look easy!  The truth is that you don't just start stabbing at the strings and beautiful sounds start coming out.  There are patterns to everything that you hear.  All you have to do is learn a pattern (run) and put it into every song where it fits.   Then learn another short run that fits somewhere else and maybe they will "hook" together.  What you will find out is that with every song being different the runs fall together and sound completely different.  If a run finishes before the next chord is ready, then back up and add more until it fits.  Listen to how I put the runs together.   Lets try it again, beginning slowly.  Now let's play some of it faster and add some more.  It's in "G". 

 Now listen to the main bass run that makes Bluegrass what it is in combination with the finishing rhythm licks. If you will notice the finishing lick, the "G" sounds a little different.  I fret the second string on the third fret as well as the "G" chord.  This makes a good Bluegrass sounds in certain areas.  


This can be one of the most used runs on the bluegrass guitar.  This run was originated form the Tony Rice style.  

Listen to the example. 

Tip! Pull off of 1 on to 2. 

Slide from 5 to 6.  

Pause on 14 and let it pass briefly.  Then catch it up to end on the finishing note.

View my favorite Bluegrass picture!

Notice the light spot on "G".  You will want to add that into the chord only where you need it.  You will hear it.  
This bluegrass run just might be the most used run ever played.  It is used in the song "Uncle Pen" just after the words, "you could hear it talk, you could hear it sing."  In other songs, it might not be as powerful but if you will listen, it is there.  First of all, this example is in the "G" position.  I am referring to the position because if a capo is used, the fingers are in the same position though the sound is different.  Using the up and down picking technique, follow the diagram to the right.  One thing that you can not see in the picture is the hammer-ons and pull offs.  A "hammer on" is a place where you don't pick the string but instead, fret it fast enough to make a sound.  This is done to make the sound of 3 and 4 which are not picked.  A "pull off" is when you have a string fretted and you let your finger slip off of the string causing it to sound with out picking the note.  This is done on 6 making the sound of 7.  In my example, I will show you a hammer on and then a pull off.  Then I will play the section all together.  The Tony Rice style sometimes will not use the 1 but hesitate after the 2.   Click Here to hear it! 

This doesn't sound much like the radio to me.    No, and it won't for a while either, but until your brain can tell your fingers what to do and your fingers can tell your brain what they did, then you need to practice to build your  coordination skills.  You are not just playing and instrument, you are learning to play your body.                             Bluegrass guitar

Capo    A capo is a device used to clamp onto the strings to shorten the neck.  It mounts behind the fret and holds the stings down in a straight line.  What this does is changes the key being played in while you are using the same chord positions.  Example: If you place the capo on the second fret and play in "G" you are really playing in "A".  Third fret "B flat", forth fret "B", fifth fret "C" and so on.  However bluegrass is usually played between "G" and "C" so you really only have to learn to play in "G".  I told you it was easy!  If you don't have a capo use a short pencil and hold it down with a rubber band.  Now for the fifth string.  The same capo does not work here.  For this one you will have to install a fifth string capo.  There are two different kinds.  One mounts onto the side with two screws and uses a slide.  The other are little hooks that are nailed into the fingerboard that the string clips under.  Then the string is tuned up a note if needed.

Picks Picks in Bluegrass are thick and stiff.  They do not flex much and many times are made of tortoise shells.  As for me, I don't know where to get  tortoise shell so picks made of cow hooves work best for me.  They make good plastic picks, but that is just not the backwoods way of doing it.  Like I said, it is a lifestyle in it's self.  Many musicians have rattle snake rattlers inside of their instruments for the sound.  I have them in mine and I thing it is really just the in thing.  I can't tell anything different except that I feel better about it.                                                                                         

Tablature is a form of sheet music that can be read without knowing how to read music.  It simply shows the string and fret with the order played.  The internet is full of it.

I just don't have it in me.  Give it ten or forty years, you might be surprised.  Think about this, you know more now than you did before you started reading this article.  Just learn some tomorrow and you will be there faster than you think.              Bluegrass guitar

 Warren Yates                                  

How to play "One More Day" on the guitar (Country)

How to play "Man of Constant Sorrow" on the guitar,

from the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou".

Computer Software

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 Click Here and learn more. 

 (c) Copyright 2007