The Human Voice in Bluegrass

It goes without saying that bluegrass is a vocal music.  Singing is such a huge part of our music and many of our bluegrass heroes have shaped a style of singing over the years that we all have come to enjoy.  In this chapter, we will examine some of the aspects of singing in the bluegrass setting. 

The Voice as a Musical Instrument

Most musical instruments, including the human voice, can be better understood by separating them into three basic elements – an energy source, a sound producer and a resonator.  For example, in any of our bluegrass stringed instruments (such as a guitar):

  • The energy source is a moving pick, striking the string.
  • The sound producer is the vibrating string.
  • The resonator is the sound box, providing amplification and tone coloration.

A human voice has the same three basic components:

  • The energy source is the diaphragm and several pairs of associated muscles, which, working together with the lungs, provides a moving stream of air.  Effective use of the diaphragm (and lateral oblique muscles) is especially important in singing.
  • Sound production (or phonation) comes from the vocal folds that are within the voice box (or larynx).  The shape and size of these folds are very unique for an individual and can sustain several different modes of vibration.  For example, a modal (normal) voice vibrates the entire fold whereas a “falsetto” will vibrate the edges of each fold.
  • The resonator is a set of seven chambers[1] in the body providing amplification and tone coloration.  The shape and size of these chambers are also unique to an individual and, along with the vocal folds, give each person her own characteristic voice sound.  Primary resonance modes taking place in the head and/or chest lead to the eponymous head and chest “voices”.  Another set of these chambers (e.g. aspects of your mouth) is capable of taking the sounds and forming them into consonants and vowels.

Classical voice pedagogy teaches us that humans are capable of producing several voice stages, or passaggi, that have dramatically different timbres.  The aforementioned chest voice and head voice are two examples of passaggi.  Most voice professionals describe more than just these two stages, and, for example, according to the acclaimed vocal teacher Richard Miller, a trained male tenor voice is capable of seven passaggi.  Each of these passaggi invokes different vibratory modes of the vocal folds and resonances in different parts of the body.

The Bluegrass Lead Voice

There are a wide variety of lead vocal styles in bluegrass music that range from full deep voices to high squeaky ones – and everything in between.   However, there is one unique vocal sound that is strongly associated with traditional bluegrass – that being the high lonesome sound that Bill Monroe pioneered.  To me, it sounds like this distinctive vocal register comes from forcing a chest voice into a range normally associated with a head voice without fully switching into a falsetto, giving that high, closed sound.  A word of caution for those who might want to try this at home: Tony Rice famously lost his once fantastic voice (as have others) – apparently from improper vocal technique.  I’d urge anyone attempting to recreate the Monroe-esque (or any other) vocal sound to consult with a vocal professional to make sure no damage is being done.

Bluegrass lead singing, like in other genres, is highly individualistic and each vocalist has his or her own approach to the lead.  Great singers, of course all can convey the magic of a good story line and invoke emotion in the listener.  The late James King was one of the best and was known to break down crying on stage while performing an especially sad song.  I’ve seen audience members weeping uncontrollably along with James during one of his concerts.  And if you don’t get chill bumps listening to Larry Sparks, you should have your autonomic nervous system checked out.

Harmony Vocals

Harmony singing is an essential part of bluegrass music – it has been used to augment choruses all the way back to the proto-country music times early in the 1900s and before.   Bluegrass harmonies rely on singing a line typically above and sometimes below the melody line in such a fashion as to usually make a chord.

The earliest pre-bluegrass harmonies that I am aware of occurred back in the string band era of the 1920s – if you listen to some of the recordings of (say) Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers or similar string bands, you can hear folks in the band joining in on choruses and sometimes these folks will manage to deviate from the melody in such a way as to hit a harmony note or two.  This style of loose but very energetic harmony singing continues in old time bands of the present day.  And it sounds great.

The “brother” duos of the 1930s feature very tight two-part harmony where one brother sings lead and the other brother would sing a harmony line that consists of notes above the lead that seem to blend well with the lead part.  These recordings from the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore brothers, the Stanley brothers, the Monroe brothers and others, show wonderfully tight and beautiful harmonies. Some of these two-part harmony lines have entered the bluegrass lexicon unaltered and become sacred as iconic tenor harmony parts.

After Mr. Monroe formed the Original Bluegrass Band back in late 1945, sophisticated three- and four-part harmonies became a key part of this new music.  Much of the harmony that our bluegrass father incorporated came from southern gospel music.  As early as 1801, parishioners throughout the American south were using techniques such as shape note singing <link> to assist in finding the proper harmony parts in spiritual songs.  Many of the sidemen recruited by Bill Monroe and other major bluegrass acts came from a southern gospel background and were thusly well equipped to sing the necessary harmony parts.

Stacking Bluegrass Harmonies

Bluegrass music frequently uses three-part harmony, with each part more or less corresponding to the notes of a chord.  Bluegrass people have developed an odd nomenclature for discussing these harmony parts.   In a conventional bluegrass harmony stack-up, the part directly above the lead is referred to as the tenor harmony and the part directly below is called the baritone harmony.  It doesn’t matter if the vocalist is using a tenor or a baritone singer’s range of notes.  In bluegrass, the labels “tenor” and “baritone” refer to the harmony line not how high or low in pitch the singing is.

There are two other ways of stacking the harmony parts besides the ‘conventional’ way that was described above.  The first is to take the baritone part (conventionally below the melody) and move it one octave higher so it is above the tenor part in pitch, and this part becomes the high-baritone part.  The resulting harmony line is almost certainly not in the ‘classically defined’ baritone singer’s range – in fact it might even be in the tenor or the counter-tenor range.  But the bluegrass naming convention is to continue to refer this as a ‘baritone’ part, albeit a high one.  As mentioned above, it is the harmony line, not the range that determines baritone or tenor.  The resulting stack-up is melody (lowest in pitch), then tenor, and then high baritone (on top).

The second possible rearrangement is to take the tenor part (which is above the melody in a conventional arrangement) and move it one octave below, so it is below the baritone, it becomes (wait for it…) the low tenor part.  If you are an Osborne brother, you are very familiar with this stacking because Bobby sings lead in the stratosphere and even young children and small yappy dogs are unable to get to pitches higher than his voice.  The logical solution:  low tenor.  In this stack-up, the lead line remains on top, the tenor harmony line moves to the bottom becoming the low tenor, and the conventional (low) baritone is sandwiched in between. 

Many bluegrass songs and gospel songs in particular have a bass line in addition to the other three harmony parts.  Singing bass sounds really cool and it is easy to do – even for young children with high modal voices.  Firstly, you need a microphone[2].  You need intimate contact, and I mean really intimate contact with the mic.  Sanitize it with some rubbing alcohol first if you need to but you need to literally kiss the mic.   Most (cardioid) mics have something called a “proximity effect” which takes the bass part of the sound spectrum and amplifies it tremendously when the sound source is very close.  Everybody can sound like Herman Munster by swallowing the mic.  Once positioned thusly, just sing the root note of every chord (with a few exceptions) and you will have a great bass harmony line!

If you would like to learn more about how to sing basic bluegrass harmony, we will cover it later in the book, in section III.

Getting the Blend:  Vowels and Diphthongs

Doyle Lawson once said that a getting a good vocal blend is “all about the vowels.” Indeed, good harmony singers do pay close attention to the vowels… if they are not sung in the same way, the harmonies will sound flat and possible band drama will ensue. 

Diphthongs are especially important and tricky to get right.  What is a diphthong, you might ask – the word means “two sounds” and it refers to two adjacent vowel sounds in the same syllable.  Diphthongs are everywhere and they change depending on the version of American English you happen to be speaking. From my Northerner’s perspective, our Southern counterparts often create diphthongs out of plain vowels (and vice versa).  As an example, my name in the north is pronounced “Jeff” – a short “e,” no diphthong.  When I was living in South Carolina, I became known as “Jeeeoooff”.  This southern version of my name has this beautiful diphthong inserted in the middle and is drawn out like a lazy meandering river on a sunny afternoon (boy is that a horrible metaphor).  Now just imagine if someone wrote a song about me and we had people from both New York City and South Carolina singing harmony.  When they came to the word “Jeff,” the vocalists would be essentially singing two different words and the harmony would sound horrible.

The important aspect of singing diphthongs is for all singers to not only pronounce the word the same way but to also transition thru the diphthong at the same rate.  To illustrate, let’s take the word “girl,” which is a commonplace word in bluegrass songs, and, as we will see, is fraught with potential problems.  Note that “girl” may not be a true diphthong, but since the “r” makes the vowel sound change as you are singing thru the word, it behaves exactly like one.  First of all, everybody pronounces “r” differently – if you have both New Yorkers and South Carolinian singers in the band you should just avoid songs with the letter “r” and change the word from “girl” to “gal.”   But if you want to keep the original word “girl” because it rhymes with “oil” (yup, I’m from NYC), the dreaded diphthong must be addressed.  If the lead singer transitions quickly thru the vowel and lingers on the “rrrr” – for example he pronounces it “girrrrrrrrrrl” and one of the other harmony singers lingers on the first part of the vowel e.g. “giiiiiiiiiiiiirl,” the harmony blend will totally disappear during that word.  It might sound flat even if all three singers are perfectly on pitch.   Since it is often the case that one or more of the singers in a bluegrass band is sensitive, a battle will ensue with each side accusing the other of being off pitch (when in fact they are all singing in tune).

When everything is clicking and all the harmonies are blending, there is nothing better than singing bluegrass music.  Especially if you get the diphthongs right.






[1] More precisely there are seven chambers responsible for the resonance of the human voice.  They are the chest, the tracheal tree, the larynx, the pharynx, the oral cavity, the nasal cavity, and the sinuses.

[2] The mic pickup pattern must be cardioid or figure 8 for this to work.  More detail is provided in the section on Sound Reinforcement.