“The cello can do anything.” That’s a statement I embrace, and certainly think it’s more true than not. But when you are choosing a style to play in, I think you should pick your battles. Some styles are more conducive to the cello than others.
Bluegrass is a well-known, popular, beloved musical style. It has a sizable, devoted following. Lots of talented musicians play bluegrass, which you probably know was more or less invented by the mandolin player and band leader Bill Monroe. Bluegrass generally uses simple chord progressions and generates excitement through lightning fast tempos with melody and solos most taken by banjo, mandolin, fiddle, or guitar.
The overall sound of bluegrass is sometimes called high lonesome. And a great sound it is. My buddy Chuck, who plays in a bluegrass style band, was telling me the other day that according to the Gospel of Bill Monroe a bluegrass band has 5 members: mandolin, guitar, double bass, banjo, fiddle; there’s one mic in the middle of the semicircle of musicians, and when it’s your turn to solo you step up to the mic and hit it. During the solo, the other members hold down the rhythm which usually includes a strong backbeat. Bluegrass mandolin players and fiddlers especially spend a lot of time holding down a scratchy chop kind of attack. You don’t let the notes ring; you do a palm mute or other technique to keep the attack short and sharp.
Here’s a great example, from 1965:
This performance is timed at something like 155 beats per minute, and they’re playing 16th notes. Go ahead and try it. In this clip the banjo kicks it off with the fiddler chopping on the back beat, in fine bluegrass fashion. The fiddle player starts his break with some double stops using intervals of 4ths and 3rds, often sliding up or down. This kind of double-stop phrasing should be in the repertoire of the non-classical cellist.)
There are bluegrass cellists out there, and power to them. And bluegrass is a major genre that has existed for something like 60 or 70 years at least. It has changed and morphed over the years and doesn’t always comport to the template laid down by Bill Monroe. The Punch Brothers, for example, are unbelievably talented and entertaining, playing a kind of “new grass”. I would applaud any cellist who can play a lightning quick break right after a 5 string banjo has sailed through a solo, and still hold their own. I’m just saying it’s not a battle I would choose or that I would advise a cellist to take on. The cello bow and strings are too big and too long to get the same kind of fast, sharp articulation that comes (fairly) easily to the mandolin. Probably, if you’re playing bluegrass cello, and I’d expect this to be in a band – solo bluegrass isn’t really a thing – and that the tempo is more relaxed than the speed demon tempos set by Bill Monroe and his acolytes. It sure looks like fun, and I do love soloing, but as I say above, bluegrass isn’t really my thing.
The cello has other unique strengths that don’t live in the realm of overcompensation.