Musical Instruments In Country Music...

Hammered Dulcimer

There are many theories as to the history of the dulcimer. Some of them are contradictory, some are complete conjecture, and some are well-documented. The most confusing aspect of the hammered dulcimer is its namesake, the Appalachian, or mountain, dulcimer. The shared name seems to point to a shared heritage at some time. Actually, the mountain dulcimer is not a true dulcimer at all according to the definition of the word, which is: a member of the zither family that is played with hammers. 

European and Eastern variants of the dulcimer are in evidence throughout recorded history, although the actual folk instrument that is most common today probably came to these shores intact from Britain in Colonial times. 

The actual specifics of this emigration are obscured by the fact that,at that time, the instrument was not truly in widespread use but rather surviving in isolated pockets. There is still quite a vital playing tradition in certain parts of Wales and Northumbria. Interest in the hammered dulcimer continued in the United States, as evidenced by       contemporary advertisements in the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward       catalogues, and by the publication of self-tutors and method books throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. In fact, the instrument enjoyed a small burst of widespread acclaim due to its being a favorite of Henry Ford, and its inclusion in "Henry Ford's Old Fashioned Dance Orchestra". In the Old World, the dulcimer experienced a strange       revival in the year 1697 when a fellow by the name of Pantaleon Hebestreit invented an improved version of the Medevial instrument and called it the  pantaleon. It reportedly had 186 strings and was in evidence as late as 1767 when performances were given in England by George Noel on an instrument having 276 strings. The decline of the instrument in  "serious" music is evident in the fact that by the end of the eighteenth century, the term "pantaleon" had come to mean "a piano with down-striking action".

The hammered dulcimer has experienced an impressive"re-awakening" in the past decade, in part due to the influence of Sam Rizzeta, a West Virginia dulcimer maker and player. Sam is a local favorite, often seen on the traditional music tour. In addition to the       increasing number of hammered dulcimer players, more and more music is being "arranged" for the dulcimer. One group, the "Classical Hammered Dulcimer Society", is working hard to transport classical works to the hammered dulcimer world. 

Even the Folger Consort, a group of early music performers at the Folger Library in Washington DC, have used the hammered dulcimer in its arrangements. Workshops for all levels of hammered dulcimer players have become "standing room only". The appeal of this instrument is its flexibility and ease of play. Unlike the violin or the piano, the       hammered dulcimer does not take years of practice to acquire good playing skills. 

Many of the best players do not read music; rather they learn all the "tunes" by ear. Music is passed from one musician to another in this fashion. Another local player, John McCutcheon, almost always tells the story of how he learned a particular tune before he performs it. In doing this, a rich cultural history is being preserved.


For decades, drums were considered too uptown by many in country music.        Ironically, many of those who held the line admired the late Jimmie Rodgers, who'd used a drummer on his 1929 recordings of "Desert Blues" and "Any Old Time." In Texas, Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies used a drummer on specific dance jobs, and in 1935, Bob Wills hired Smokey Dacus as drummer for his Texas Playboys. Wills played to vast dance crowds, and needed Dacus, who occasionally used a brush on one of his drum cases to push the beat. In later years, Wills used other drummers with strong        Dixieland roots, including Gene Tomlons and Monte Mountjoy, who worked with him in the 1940's; talents in later editions of Playboys including Johnny Cuvilello and his own younger brother, Billy Jack Wills. Adolph Hofner's San Antonians also used a drummer by the 1940's. West coast bands such as Spade Cooley's routinely used drummers on all engagements, many of them ex-big band drummers like Muddy Berry.

At the Grand Ole Opry, drums were expressly forbidden, though Bob Wills defied the ban when he performed there on December 30, 1944, with Monte Mountjoy playing his entire drumset onstage. Pee Wee King's band used a drummer, "Sticks" McDonald, but not on the Opry stage. Likewise, Paul Howard's Arkansas Cotton Pickers, another Western swing act on the Opry, briefly employed Joe Morello, later known for his work with Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck. One of the first country drummers in Nashville was Farris Coursey, who played in Owen Bradley's dance band. Still, most Nashville and Southeastern artists avoided drums (though Hank Williams briefly used a drummer in Alabama before he became a star). Coursey, who slapped his thighs on Red Foley's        1950 hit recording of "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy," was used on some sessions, though in other cases, muted rhythm guitar was used to provide percussion. Carl Smith's 1954 hiring of Nashville big band drummer, Buddy Harman, caused further controversy at the Opry. Opry managers still refused to allow a drum set on stage, but        eventually relented to the point of allowing Harman to play a snare drum, with brushes, behind a curtain-only to have new Opry boss Dee Kilpatrick briefly ban them again. After rock 'n' roll hit, more performers added drums to their bands and their records. Buddy        Harman helped Ray Price develop his famous "shuffle" beat.

Drums have been routinely used in country music ever since, except in traditional bluegrass. The Osborne Brothers, however, used Buddy Harman on records beginning in 1958.

Several country drummers used the instrument to break into the business before becoming stars, including Roger Miller, who drummed with Faron  Young, and Jack Greene, who worked with Ernest Tubb.

Even Roy Acuff used a snare drum with brushes on the Opry after the drum was allowed to be seen. In 1973, when the Opry moved to Opryland, full drum sets were permitted on the stage at last. 

Now today many people can turn to there entertainment centers for flat screen TVs to watch the country music awards in which many acts incoporate drums. 


One of the most demanding instruments to master, the fiddle predates the banjo and guitar in country music.  The first major country artists to record, Eck Robertson and Fiddlin' John Carson, were essentially solo fiddlers.   

Most American fiddle styles derive from British, Irish and Scottish traditions.  As the country expanded westward, musicians within isolated cultures developed their  own approaches to the standard fiddlers' repertoire.  The most distinct geographical changes are reflected in bowing techniques, amount of ornamentation and rhythmic  approach.  A Texan might approach a tune with a long, bow strokes and considerable embellishment, while a Georgian might play the same tune with a short, rhythmic  strokes and minimal adornment.   

The rise of radio and records brought outside influences that affected, if not entirely replaced, regional fiddle styles.  During the 1930's, talented young country  fiddlers freely took ideas from popular violinists like Fritz Kreisler, Dave Rubinoff and Joe Venuti.  The hybridization of styles were  inevitable; bluegrass  fiddling owes as much to French swing violinist Stephane Grappelli as it does to Tex Atchison, Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, Curley Fox, Howdy Forrester and other  influential pre-World War II fiddlers.   

Two of the most popular bandleaders of the late 1930's and early 40's were  fiddlers: Roy Acuff in the Southeast and Bob Wills in the Southwest.  Both Acuff and Wills  usually gave solo space to more accomplished fiddlers in their bands.  Most Western swing fiddlers were influenced by Wills and Cliff Bruner, but their swinging  improvisations came from jazz fiddlers like Joe Venuti, Stephane Grappelli and Stuff Smith.  The instrument was frequently heard in the honky tonk country sounds  that emerged after 1945; fiddlers Tommy Jackson and Dale Potter became important Nashville session men.  Since 1957 the fiddle has moved in and out of fashion in  mainstream country music, although it remains a key instrument in  bluegrass and old-time music.  In the early 80's its popularity was bolstered by the New  Traditionalist movement and new interest in Western swing.   

Today, the predominant American fiddling styles and their most well-known practitioners are: Texas (Johnny Gimble, Dale Potter, Byron Berline); bluegrass (Chubby  Wise, Kenny Baker, Benny Martin); Cajun (Doug Kershaw, Michael Doucet), and old time (Ramona Jones, John Hartford, Mike Seeger).  Lines between styles cannot always  be neatly drawn.  Sometimes the fiddle can portray peaceful sounds which can  lull people into a almost meditation state or  it can be loud bringing people to their feet to dance. Berline introduced Texas fiddling to bluegrass when he joined Bill Monroe in 1967.  Versatile modern fiddlers like Vassar Clements, Sam Bush and  Alison Krauss draw inspiration from bluegrass, Texas styles, blues, jazz and rock music. 


Eager to produce a louder acoustic Hawaiian guitar for vaudeville performers, the California-based Dopyera Brothers developed the dobro in the late 20s. The instrument is basically a six-string wooden guitar with a circular, multi-component metal sound chamber. The metal sound chamber consists of a coverplating, resonator cone, spider bridge, a pair of sound hole covers that resemble tungsten rings with a metal mesh and tailpiece. The bridge sits directly on the sound chamber; a screw permits manual adjustment of the tone and volume. Most models have square necks and raised nuts and are designed to be played with a steel bar; others are fretted and sport conventional necks, standard nuts, and fretted fingerboards. Some specially made dobros feature fretted five-string banjo, eight-string mandolin, or 12-string guitar necks. 

The first major country singer to adopt the dobro was Cliff Carlisle, but its sound is   most associated with two members of Roy Acuff Smokey Mountain Boys: Clell "Cousin Jody" Sumner and Beecher "Brother Oswald" Kirby.  Other important early players were Jenks "Tex" Carman, Ray "Duck" Adkins, George "Speedy" Krise, and Harold "Shot" Jackson.

The musician who fully unleashed the dobro's potential was Burkett "Buck" Graves, who was also known as " Uncle Josh." While working with Wilma Lee and Stony   Cooper in the early '50s, Graves developed a driving three-finger roll  similar to what Earl Scruggs used on the banjo.  He introduced the instrument to    bluegrass in 1955 when he joined Flatt and Scruggs Foggy Mountain Boys.  Later in the decade Robert "Tut" Taylor used a flat pick to create a different bluegrass dobro technique.

Two important dobro stylists emerged in late '60s and early '70s: Mike Auldridge and Jerry Douglas.  Auldridge, a member of Emerson and Waldron's New Shades of   Grass and later The Seldom Scene, developed a subtle, understated technique that differed from Graves' aggressive, blues-tinged approach.  Auldridge's two solo   Takoma albums, from 1972 in 1974, are classics.  Ohio native Jerry Douglas expanded upon many of Auldridge's ideas in the early '70s.  After serving   apprenticeships with The Country Gentlemen and Boone Creek in the '70s, Douglas moved to Nashville and became a successful session musician.


The acoustic guitar arrived in America with early European settlers, and gradually European guitar makers like Christian Freidrich Martin emigrated to America and began building the stringed instruments. Guitars were difficult to mass-produce, however, until the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800's. The appearance of the louder steel string guitars improved things somewhat, though the technology of brass and tungsten        coating strings was still some way off; but fiddle, mandolin and banjo remained dominant among white stringbands. Black southern musicians were quicker to adopt the guitar, and it became an integral part of rural black music. White musicians noticed this and began using guitars, which started showing up more often in white stringbands by the early 1900's. Grand Ole Opry musician Sam McGee, for example learned muck about guitar picking from black railroad workers who played during their lunch breaks near his Tennessee home. As cheaply produced guitars appeared in mail order catalogs, and more high quality guitars come on the market, they gained greater favor.

As the guitar became popular in stringbands, a number of guitarists began creating their own innovative styles, such as Roy Harvey, who worked with Charley Pride, and Riley Puckett, who worked with Gid Tanner. Each created rhythmic bass runs that enhanced their bands' sounds and formed the basis for the later guitar styles of bluegrass. Jimmie Rodgers also helped sell many guitars in the late 1920's and early 1930's by his use of        the instrument. He appears to have been the first country singer to have a guitar model named for him, when Weymann created their "Jimmie Rodgers Special" model        in 1930. In 1932 WLS National Barn Dance singer, Arkie the Arkansas Woodchopper, had Martin guitars build him one of their large D-2 "dreadnought" guitars with a herringbone wood trim. It became the classic Martin D-28. In 1933 his fellow Barn Dance star, Gene Autry, had Martin build him a elaborate pearl inlaid version of "Arkie's" guitar that became the D-45. Sears Roebuck began marketing its inexpensive "Gene Autry"        guitars in the 1930's, and these were the first guitars many young future guitar stars owned. Other musicians, including Ray Whitley, preferred Gibson acoustics (the company build their classic J-200 jumbo acoustic for Whitley in 1937).

The electric guitar had been around in varying forms since the late 1920's and Grand Ole Opry group The Vagabonds had even experimented with some sort of amplification early on. But the first real amplified guitars were steel guitars. In 1936, Gibson introduced their ES-150 electric guitars. Most southeastern country musicians rejected them, but the Western swing bands of the Southwest were quick to adopt them, most        notably the Light Crust Doughboys' Muryel "Zeke" Campbell and Eldon Shamblin.

After complaints that Ernest Tubb's early acoustic Decca recordings were inaudible, Tubb had guitarist "Smitty" Smith use an electrified guitar on his 1941 "Walking The Floor Over You." It established Tubb's style and helped end the Opry's ban on electric guitars when Tubb came to the show. Still, few country singers used electrics, one exception being Floyd Tillman.

The first true guitar stylists were a varied lot. Maybelle Carter's famous "drop thumb" guitar style, epitomized by her solo work on "Wildwood Flower," inspired generations of country pickers. Karl Farr's acoustic guitar work with The Sons of the Pioneers combined country with a bit of jazz. California guitarist Porky Freeman had a huge regional hit with his amplified version of "Boogie Woogie on the Strings" in 1943. After the war, Zeb Turner used a similar style on his "Zeb's Mountain Boogie."

The syncopated Western Kentucky thumb and index finger picking style pioneered by Kennedy Jones, featuring a thumb pick, formed the basis for the picking of Ike Everly and Mose Rager, who taught the style to Merle Travis. Travis' playing over WLW in the late 30's and early 40's inspired young Chester Atkins to develop his own version of the style. Jazz guitarists like Belgian Django Reinhardt and black electric guitarist        Charlie Christian also influenced country guitar players. Harold Bradley and Billy Byrd were both Christian disciples, as were Bob Wills/Spade Cooley guitarist Jimmy Wyble and pioneer Nashville studio musicians, Hank Garland and Grady Martin. Nashville guitarists, a group that included Ray Edenton and later Reggie Young, could usually play in any style  required.

Though Rickenbacker had introduced a solid body model in the 1930's, it never caught on. In 1950 Leo Fender introduced the Fender broadcaster (changed to Telecaster), the first successful solid body guitar, and its success largely come from country pickers. Other gifted soloists also appeared, including Jimmy Bryant, who played dazzlingly fast country jazz and whose playing was much in demand in L.A. recording studios in the        50's, and Joe Maphis, a pioneer in flatpicking fiddle tunes on guitar, who played the first doubleneck "Mosrite" brand electric guitar made by Semie  Moseley. Gretsch's Chet Atkins line and Gibson's Byrdland, designed by Billy Byrd and Hank Garland, also caught on.

But acoustic stylists hadn't stagnated during this period. Lester Flatt, building on the styles of earlier players like Roy Harvey, created a punchy guitar style combining chords and bass runs that he used with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys and then with his partner, Earl Scruggs. Other fine bluegrass guitarists included The Stanley Brothers' George        Shuffler, who "crosspicked" his instrument like a mandolin, as did guitarist Bill Napier. Blind guitarist Doc Watson also picked up the idea of finger picking fiddle tunes as Joe Maphis had. Hank Snow, who often soloed on his records, showed the influence of Karl Farr. Like Snow,  singer Billy Grammer was another superb guitar soloist.

In the 60's, the Fender Telecaster stylings of country-rockabilly guitarist James Burton, singer Buck Owens (who played guitar on many  Capitol rock and country released), Owens' lead guitarist don rich and Merle Haggard's guitarist Roy Nichols all had considerable impact, as did  the nylon string playing of Jerry Reed, who expanded the Travis-Atkins style to use all the fingers of the right hand. Owens, Reed, Roy Clark and        Glen Campbell were among the best known singers of the 60's who were also        formidable guitarists. In the 70's, telecasters symbolized the Outlaw movement through Waylon Jennings' prominent use of the instrument. British Telecaster ace Albert Lee's work with Emmylou Harris' Hot Band had considerable influence in the late 70's, as did that of his fellow Brit Ray Flacke. In the 80's the Telecaster stylings of Dwight Yoakam guitarist Pete Anderson, Jerry Donohue and Desert Rose Band guitarist John Jorgenson        proved the instrument as durable as ever.

In acoustic music, Willie Nelson's gut-string guitar work, influenced equally by Django Reinhardt and Grady Martin, became a trademark of his stage and recorded performances. In bluegrass, Eddie Adcock's playing revealed the influence of Jimmy Bryant and other electric players. Tony Rice, a veteran bluegrasser, epitomized a more complex style combining jazz influences, as did Merle Haggard's young electric guitarist Clint Strong. In the 1990's, though, the technology has changed, no country guitar style, acoustic or electric, is truly out of date, and new ideas continue to flow.


Today, digital pianos and electronic keyboards have become an integral part of        country recordings, some well-played, others used to excess.  From the beginning of country music, pianos have been a integral part of its sound. When available, pianos would play with rural stringbands performing for dances. Its percussive rhythms made the dance beat more definable. One early country piano recording was done in 1927, when Virginia's Shelor Family String Band was recorded by Ralph Peer at the legendary Bristol Sessions (which also saw the first records by Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest        Stonemena and The Carter Family). However, many early country performers        thought little of using the piano. Charlie Poole was once ejected from a recording session when he wanted to use one; 

  his New York producers felt it wasn't country- sounding. But this was not the case with early Opry star Sam McGee, who learned some of his instrumentals from a player piano roll. Pianist LIllian Armstrong even backed Jimmie Rodgers on the session where her husband, Louis, played trumpet.        

When a young Bob Wills was playing fiddle for dances in Texas, pianos were a common part of the accompaniment. After Milton Brown left the Light Crust Doughboys to form his Musical Brownies in 1932, he hired a jazz pianist named Fred "Papa" Calhoun, the first pianist in Western swing. When Bob Wills started the Playboys in 1933, he went through several pianists before he found Al Stricklin. The Western swing scene in Texas        spawned other pianists, including Moon Mullican, who worked with Cliff Bruner, and the crazed, stomping, pot-smoking singer-pianist John, "Smokey" Wood, who worked with The Modern Mountaineers and his own band, Smokey Wood and His Wood Chips. On the West Coast in the 1940s, pianist were a common part of most groups. The talented Vic Davis, blind pianist Jimmy Pruett and Billy Liebert worked with various country and Western swing acts.

During World War II, the influence of black boogie-woogie piano became substantial on country acts. Moon Mullican signed with King Records in 1946, and became the first singer-pianist to become a major star, with hit recordings like "New Pretty Blonde (Jole Blon)" and in the early 50s, "Cherokee Boogie." In Nashville, Owen Bradley did extensive piano work on country records, as he did with his Nashville-based dance band. Bradley        sometimes played behind Ernest Tubb, who referred to him as "Half Moon" Bradley (because he only played halfway like Moon Mullican). Fred Rose played piano on some Hank Williams sessions (he can be heard briefly at the end of Hank's 1952 "Half as Much"). Del Wood's 1951 hit, "Down  Yonder," made her a part of the Opry until her death in 1989. In California, San Diego pianist Merrill Moore did an excellent series of        country boogie recordings for Capitol, while Roy Hall did likewise from  the late forties on. Hall and Mullican were both influential on Jerry Lee Lewis' style, which was based so indelibly on his piano-pounding. (Though bluegrass king Bill Monroe didn't use a piano on the road, for a time he had Sally Ann Forrester playing accordion with The Blue Grass Boys during World War II.) 

Floyd Cramer, who began as a pianist on the Louisville Hayride and later became a Nashville studio musician (his spooky piano licks on Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" remain classic today) began making successful instrumental recordings in 1958 with "Flip, Flop and Bop." In 1959 Chet Atkins played him a demo of a song titled "Please Help        Me, I'm Falling." The next day, Atkins planned to have Hank Locklin record it. Chet liked songwriter Don Robertson's style on the song's demo, using chromatic grace notes to recreate the changing pitches of a pedal steel, so he told Cramer to learn what later became known as the "slipnote" style for the Locklin session. Cramer's piano figures became a integral part of the song and led to his own composition in that same slipnote style: "Last Date." Cramer, and later blind pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins, became the        top keyboard players in the Nashville studios. Jerry Lee Lewis, of course, had a profound influence with his over-the-top piano playing; though when he became a successful country singer in the late 60s, he showed restraint, taste and grace when playing on his ballads. Charlie Rich's piano work, understated on his big hits of the 1970s, always reflected the influence of jazz. Even a hardcore traditionalist like Roy Acuff routinely        featured the piano in The Smokey Mountain Boys, with Jimmie Riddle doing the honors. Jim Reeves would cancel a show if his pianist, Dean Manuel, wasn't provided a decent instrument. Other singers, like Ronnie Milsap, Mickey Gilley, Becky Hobbs and Gary Stewart all use piano as their primary instruments.

The Steel Guitar

THE STEEL GUITAR was invented in Hawaii in the late 1800's. By the end of WWI it had worked its way into country music and though it appears in other settings, these are the two types of music where it is most often heard. Steel guitars are a small family of instruments closely related to the six string Spanish guitar. They may look quite similar (though not necessarily), but the playing technique is different in two important ways: steel is played with a steel bar held in the left hand, and the string height is such that instead of pushing a string down with the left hand to fret or shorten it at a particular fret, the string is barred or touched with the steel to raise its pitch. To make this easier, the original steel guitar was held in the player's lap, and the electric ones are often referred to as a 'lap steel'. Most steel players use a plastic thumb pick and three metal finger picks on the right hand although some use two or four; many Hawaiian players use a thumb pick with bare fingers and a few steelers (mostly converted guitar players) use a flat pick. 

While the very first acoustic steel guitars had bodies much like the Spanish guitar, a special off-shoot of acoustic guitar, the resonator guitar first appeared in the 20's and is still popular today. Resonator guitars were primarily made by two companies: National and Dobro. Just to confuse matters more, Dobro makes instruments with both a 'Hawaiian' neck and a 'Rhythm' neck, although the term Dobro usually refers to an instrument meant to be played with a bar, and 'rhythm' neck refers to a Dobro with a fingerboard fretted like a standard guitar. 

Like the Spanish guitar, the steel guitar can be electrified. With the introduction of amplification in the 30's, the steel guitar (like the Spanish guitar) gained pickups and became the electric steel guitar. Since an acoustic body was no longer necessary and actually caused feedback problems, the steel guitar quickly acquired a solid body and became the first true lap steel. 

There is no one standard tuning for the steel guitar and the solid body electric steel allowed for instruments to be made with two, three and even four necks, each tuned differently. Multiple necks made holding the instrument on the lap almost impossible, and legs were added, making the first 'console' instruments, although a few single neck consoles were already being played by 'steelers' who preferred to stand. At the same time, the steel picked up two more strings (there were a few seven string steels) and by the end of WWII the double neck eight string console was fairly standard, although even today there are still many players who prefer a single neck six or eight, especially in Hawaiian and Western Swing music. 

In the early 50's several players began experimenting with adding pedals which raised the pitch of a string, and in 1953, Bud Isaacs was the first player to use a pedal steel guitar on a hit recording: "Slowly" by Webb Pierce. The sound quickly caught on and many steel players converted to playing the 'pedal sound' For over a decade almost every steeler had his own tunings, but in 1964 Buddy Emmons started to use a steel guitar with two ten string necks, one tuned to 'chromatic E9' (the 'Nashville' neck) and the other to an extended C6 (the 'jazz' neck). This quickly became the standard and is probably the most popular setup today. As the technology improved, knee levers (functioning like pedals) were added along with the capability of double raising and lowering a string (having two different pitch changes on the same string on different pedals). In the late 70's Maurice Anderson started using a single 12 string neck with a 'universal' tuning which produced many if not all the sounds available on the double neck 10 string. Although there are a few exceptions, most of today's pedal steel pros use some variation of the E9-C6 double 10 or a Universal 12 or 14 string. The standard beginner's pedal steel is a single ten tuned to E9, with three pedals and one or two knee levers.