Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young: Classic Country Music Gear

Few styles evoke the wide open spaces and limitless possibilities of America like the many genres comprising what we now call country music. Ironically, the origins of country's traditional instruments and sonic template were brought over by early English, Irish, African and Eastern European immigrants in the 1800s.

The instruments we associate the most with country music: guitar, mandolin, banjo, violin; they all originate far outside the boundaries of America. Much of the early repertoire of early country also originated outside of America, with immigrants passing along and reinterpreting lyrics and melodies that sometimes were hundreds of years old. Yet, it would be the paradoxical combination of the expansion and isolation of early America that would push the style further along, with technology and culture shaping country music into a specific sound that would dominate the charts and airwaves then and up to this very day.

Early Days

The Carter Family

Country music’s origins can be traced back to the rural areas of early America, specifically Appalachia and the South. Simple in composition and arrangements, early country music performers like G.B. Grayson and Clarence Ashley accompanied their singing with their own playing or with another player on a guitar, banjo or fiddle.

Bands like the Carter Family expanded their arrangements to include one or two guitars, sometimes an autoharp, and three singers. Maybelle Carter, the Carter Family’s lead guitarist, developed an innovative fingerpicking style dubbed “The Carter Scratch,” which she played on a brand new Gibson L-5 archtop guitar, further shaping the genre’s sound and attitude.

Roy Acuff and The Crazy Tennesseans tightened up the sound with a full band and added the iconic twang of the metal slide played on a steel resonator guitar. This slide technique originated in Hawaii, and became very popular in the ‘20s and ‘30s, eventually becoming a staple sound in a country music ensemble.

Vintage Banjos
Vintage Violins
Vintage Gibson L-5 Archtops
Vintage Resonator Guitars

Speeding Along

Earl Scruggs

The popularity of performers like Roy Acuff and the Carter Family gave this sound, now being called “hillbilly,” some major legs, as their songs shot up the charts and made them national sensations. Their combination of secular and religious lyrics made them popular to many different crowds.

In the South, musicians like Bill Monroe took the picking style of Maybelle Carter and injected it with some speed, his new approach developing immensely when he fatefully met a young banjoist named Earl Scruggs. Scruggs’ unique, speedy fingerpicking style and Monroe’s mandolin playing combined to form the genesis for a new style of hillbilly music: bluegrass. Not long after, The Foggy Mountain Boys, Scruggs new group with guitarist Lester Flatt, a major proponent of the big sound created by the dreadnought acoustic guitar, would take the bluegrass style to virtuosic heights. This “high lonesome” sound would define the genre to this day.

Further South in Texas, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were experimenting with the lineup of a country music band by adding ultra-modern instrumentation like the pedal steel guitar and electric guitar. Picking up the beat, swinging it, and adding horn players to the mix, Wills created yet another style of country music called Western swing. Its name derived from the fact that this swinging, jazz and polka-influenced music became immensely popular in the West, with Wills and contemporaries like Spade Cooley appearing in several Hollywood films, and the band itself becoming famous nationwide for their interesting sound and forward-thinking song arrangements. Not to mention they adamantly rejected the “hillbilly” label, seeing themselves far removed from that movement.

Vintage Mandolins
Vintage Dreadnought Acoustics
Vintage Electric Guitars

Honky Tonkin’

Lefty Frizzell

While featuring elements of classic Appalachian and Western swing styles, honky tonk infused that blend with a steady backbeat from a full rhythm section and plaintive, honest vocals from a powerful lead singer who also played guitar, usually a jumbo-style acoustic.

Performers like Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and George Jones contributed emotional, poetic lyrics to this sound and sung each word like it was direct from their souls.

This style of delivery and wordplay would be hugely influential to country music. The arrangement of the band stuck to the traditional guitar, pedal steel, mandolin and occasional banjo in the lineup, but they played in a tighter rhythm with the addition of drums paired with stand-up bass, giving honkey tonk its distinctive rough-edge sound.

Gibson SJ-200 Guitars
Vintage Jumbo Acoustics
Vintage Pedal Steel Guitars
Upright Basses

Smoothing Things Over

Merle Travis

In the wake of rock ‘n’ roll’s popularity and honky tonk’s waning popularity, leading country superstar and guitar phenom Chet Atkins was tasked as a producer with helping the sound of country music, now largely happening out of Nashville, make its return to the charts. Atkins’ solution was simple: remove the fiddles and steel guitars, increase the orchestration and crooning. It also helped that Atkins super smooth picking and lead guitar style, highly influenced by master fingerpicker Merle Travis, had catapulted him to the top of the crop in Nashville.

Travis popularized smooth, yet incredibly virtuosic fingerpicking and singing, and played unique guitars like a Martin D-28 fitted with an electric guitar neck, and the huge hollowbody Gibson Super 400. Atkins eventually would develop and popularize several custom models he helped design for Gretsch, including the Chet Atkins solidbody, Country Gentleman and Tennessean. People listened and Nashville was once again sending tracks to the top of the charts. Crooners like Marty Robbins, Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline enjoyed considerable success and influenced country music further.

Vintage Martin D-28 Acoustics
Gibson Super 400 Guitars

The Bakersfield Sound

Buck Owens

While Nashville continued to refine the sound of country with choirs of backup singers and lush orchestration, out west in Bakersfield, California the first generation of “Okies” and other Southerners who migrated west during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl would continue to champion the rougher sound of honky tonk and rebel against the slick, money-driven sounds coming out of Nashville in the 1950s.

Without a doubt, Buck Owens, Don Rich, and their group the Buckaroos were the leaders of this movement. Bringing electric guitars to the forefront, especially Telecasters, having acoustic guitars play leads, keeping an insistent backbeat, and the return of violins and pedal steel guitars were the hallmarks of the Bakersfield sound. Its rougher edge would bring life back to country music, influencing the next generation of players greatly. Steel players like Speedy West and electric guitar player Jimmy Bryant would infuse Jazz-influenced playing a’ la Django Reinhardt to country music’s already expansive repertoire of sounds. Merle Haggard, a major proponent of the Bakersfield sound, would be especially influential in Bakersfield’s later days, eventually bridging the gap from the Bakersfield Sound to what would soon be called country rock and outlaw country.

But that’s another story for another time.

Vintage Fender Telecasters
Buck Owen's Signature "American Flag" Guitar
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