I’ve been listening to Paper Airplane* a lot lately. It’s the latest release from Alison Krauss and Union Station.

Man, it’s good. Go grab it if you haven’t yet.

I’m not a diehard bluegrass fan. I listen to it fairly regularly, but not all the time. But I highly recommend adding it to your regular listening rotation. There’s a lot to glean from bluegrass that you can apply to your own recordings, whether you’re working on an acoustic EP or a full-on heavy metal rock album.

So, what is it that bluegrass can teach you?

You may think I’m going to talk about mic placement and getting good sounds. Nope.

Maybe how it’s important to use really nice instruments in order to get nice recordings? Nope.

How simple song structures don’t have to be boring? Getting warmer.

What strikes me the most about Paper Airplane, or any good bluegrass album, is how interesting it is.

These songs aren’t complex. There aren’t tons of really fancy chord progressions or key changes. There aren’t dozens of different instruments. Heck, there’s not even a drum kit.

But somehow these songs capture my attention just as much as a highly-produced song containing 128 tracks of audio…if not more.

Why? Because there’s always something interesting to listen to.

Have you ever noticed that on most bluegrass recordings, very few instruments are actually chugging along playing chords? There’s usually one instrument playing the chords for the song, while the rest are playing little melodic lines.

On any given song on Paper Airplane, there could be 3 or 4 different instruments, each playing a different melodic line. Does it sound messy? Not at all.

The reason? No two instruments are vying for attention at the same time. Bluegrass is a very polite genre. While the vocalist is singing, the other instruments may hold out a note or play a chord, but they don’t play any sort of melodic line or riff.

Then, while the vocalists takes a 1-bar break between phrases, the dobro player might throw a pretty little melody in. Then it’s back to the vocals. Then there might be a little fiddle line, then more vocals.

You see what they’re doing? There’s never any “dead space.” There’s always something interesting to grasp your attention.

THAT’S what I love about bluegrass.

How to apply this to your recordings

When you’re working on a song, and you’re trying to make it sound more “full,” before simply adding more guitars, all playing the same four power chords, try instead adding some simple melodic parts. These can be guitars, keyboards, synths…it doesn’t really matter.

Listen for dead space in the song. Where might the listener get bored and change to the next song? Add something interesting there.

Of course, you have to be careful not to go overboard and add TOO much. And I’m not talking about huge solos all over the place, just subtle little melodic lines.

THIS is what makes me listen to Paper Airplane* all the way through almost every time I listen to it. It’s just downright interesting (and beautiful).

Comment Time!

Are you going to try this on a song you’re working on? How are you going to do it? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

*Amazon affiliate link

Photo Credit

  • Jim

    This is n excellent tip.

    to add a bit – as someone who plays bluegrass extensively, I can explain part of the traditional sound it has.

    In the early days it was recorded…or mic’d on stage…with only one or two mics for the whole band. so the musicians learned to “physically” mix the sound themselves, by (as Joe noted) politelyweaving their way between each other to get to the mic fo a solo or even a one-bar fill.

    nowadays there are plenty of mic on stage and in the studio, but bluegrass musicians still play politely; they “work the mic” changing distance and mic position themselves to keep the vocals or lead/fill instrument out front.

    And one lesson to be learned – the musicians know far more about their sound than the engineer, and when a bluegrass or similar acoustic group tells a live or studio engineer not to panic and frantically boost levels when musicians back off the mic, it’s because they know what they’re doing. set the levels, let ’em play and stay “hands off”. Any drastically bad level problems are unlikely, and editing/mixing will be much easier.

  • What a great observation. I have seen the polite nature of bluegrass on stage. Applying it to my music does seem very logical. Thanks!

    • Thanks Bob. If only we could take more cues from the Bluegrass folks. šŸ™‚

  • Ben Elder

    amen

  • Noticed that too, not especially on bluegrass, though. Simple stuff like three descending notes in a break can enhance the overall listening experience a lot. The moment I started songwriting again, I began subconsciously analysing the songs I like again, and stuff like this is something that pops into my mind quite often.

  • RyConnMD

    Great article! Bluegrass and Jazz are the evolved genres of music. I believe once you master listening to every other genre of music, you graduate to Jazz and Bluegrass for this reason. The fact that there is ALWAYS something going on in the mix. Good job on the article! I’ll pass it along to my friends.

  • Julian West

    +1000, great article man. I was just spinning “No Time” yesterday and I always love that bluegrass vibe on that subtle guitar run you do on the 1st chorus. Adds that flavor and I agree having little melodic lines here and there filling space and complimenting the harmonies/chords works in many genres.

  • Being a bluegrass guy myself, it’s good to hear this from you. I highly recommend anything recorded by Tony Rice, especially the 1977 Manzanita album (Rounder #0092).

  • Great article, Joe!! I agree 110% !!!!