by Lyle Lofgren, December 6, 2007
(Originally posted on USENET group rec.music.country.old-time,
in response to a query about the differences between Old-Time and Bluegrass)


BANJO: An OT banjo is open-backed, with a towel stuffed in the back to dampen sound. A BG banjo has a resonator to make it louder. An OT banjo weighs 5 pounds, towel included. A BG banjo weighs 40 pounds. A BG banjo player has had spinal fusion surgery on all vertebrae, and therefore stands very straight. Some OT banjo players slouch. An OT banjo player can lose 3 right-hand fingers and 2 left-hand fingers in an industrial accident without affecting performance. A BG banjo needs 24 frets. An OT banjo needs no more than 5, and some don't need any.

FIDDLE: A BG fiddle is tuned GDAE. An OT fiddle can be in a hundred different tunings. An OT fiddler should try to use at least two fingers of his left hand, if possible, and use a tuning that maximizes the number of open strings played. A BG fiddler studied 7th position fingering patterns with Isaac Stern, and takes pride in never playing an open string.

GUITAR: An OT guitarist needs to know the major chords in G and C, and own a capo for A and D. A BG guitarist has to be able to play in E-flat without a capo. The fanciest chord an OT guitarist needs is an A to insert between the G and the D7 chord. A BG guitarist needs to know C#aug+7-4.

MANDOLIN: It's possible to have an OT band without a mandolin.

BASS: A BG band always has a bass. An old OT band doesn't have a bass, but a new OT band seems to need one, for reasons that are unclear. A BG bass starts playing with the band on the first note. An OT bass, if present, starts after the rest of the band has run through the tune once.

VOICE: A BG band has between 1 and 3 singers who are singing about an octave above their natural vocal range. Some OT bands have no singers at all. A BG band has a vocal orchestrator who arranges duet, trio and quartet harmonies. In an OT band, anyone who feels like it can sing or make comments during the performance.

MODES: The commonest OT modes are Major, Dorian and Mixolydian, while BG use Major and Minor.

INSTRUMENTATION: OT bands try to have all instruments playing together. BG bands intentionally feature solos on each instrument. BG bands have carefully mapped-out choreography, due to the need to provide solo breaks. If OT band members move around, they tend to run into each other. Because of this problem, some OT bands sit down when performing, while a BG band always stands up. Because they're sitting, some OT bands have the stamina to play for a square dance; no BG band can do that. The audience claps after each BG solo break. If anyone claps for an OT band, even after the tune is over, it confuses them.

SUBJECT MATTER: OT songs are about whiskey and food. BG songs are about God and mother. (This is an approximate quote from, perhaps, one of the Red Clay Ramblers? My memory is a thing of the past.)

ON STAGE: BG band members wear uniforms, such as blue polyester suits and gray Stetson hats. OT bands wear mufti, with the exception that caps from a major seed-corn company are mandatory. Both the Stetsons and the seedcaps cover bald spots. A BG band tells terrible jokes while tuning. An OT band tells terrible jokes without bothering to tune. BG band members never smile. OT band members will smile if you give them a drink. You can get fired from a BG band for being obviously drunk on stage.
PS: Liz looked at what I wrote and said that the uniforms I described implied an all-male band. Mea Culpa! So to correct that: Women in both BG and OT bands tend to have a lot of hair on their heads, so if a woman in a BG band is wearing a gray Stetson, or if a woman in an OT band is wearing a seedcap, it's to cover a bald spot, for sure.

TRANSPORTATION: A BG band travels in a converted Greyhound bus that runs continually with the air conditioning running wide open. The band's name and Mission Statement are painted on both the side and front of the bus in script lettering. An OT band travels in a rusted-out 1965 VW microbus that blows an engine in North Nowhere, Nebraska. It has a bumper sticker that makes no sense.