Best of Both Worlds: Bluegrass and Metal

We’re complex individuals, aren’t we? Nobody likes just a single type of music, but as engineers and producers we’re subjected to strange mismatched sounds all the time.

Regardless of your opinions of either genre – sometimes you’ve gotta mix bluegrass with metal.

Of course, this comes with plenty of challenges, not the least of which is finding a way to make the instrumentation work.

Tools of the Trade

Bluegrass and metal share a few mutual instruments. While the first usually leans more toward an acoustic approach, they’ve both got percussion, bass & guitar most of the time. But boy does the bluegrass audience love stringed instruments…

Dobros, mandolins, fiddles, banjos – there’s a massive list of acoustic instrumentation that you’re unlikely to find in metal music. Characteristically, these same instruments are what provide the overall bluegrass sound to most bluegrass songs.

So if you’re trying to work out a metal arrangement on bluegrass instruments, what do you do?

Play to Their Strengths

If you know that a certain type of instrument has the tonal qualities you’re looking for, that’s probably going to be a great starting point when planning out your arrangement.

This doesn’t just apply to these two genres – the same approach has been taken for years when artists from other cultures and genres cover songs. Think of every song you’ve heard in movies where you knew it wasn’t the original artist performing it. Arrangements are changed all of the time, but they’re still recognizable by the notes being played and the instruments they’re being played on.

RELATED: What Kind of Music Do Robots Like?

Once you’ve got the arrangement – practice and record.

Mixing Bluegrass Instruments 

Unless your entire arrangement is going to be bluegrass instrumentation, you’ve got some heavy lifting to do on the mixing side for everything to sound right.

Because of their natural acoustic qualities, things like banjos and mandolins are difficult to get a good sound of when recording. Like orchestral instruments, they shine their brightest when the environment around them adds to their sound.

On the other hand, instruments like washboards aren’t really instruments at all. You’ll be hard pressed to find a detailed guide on the intricacies of recording Motorhead or Slayer on a washboard (although this is a blog about combining bluegrass with metal, so I guess anything is possible).

If you’re going to have any more aggressive instruments like live drums, electric guitars, or even metal vocals, you’ve got some work to do to combine the two genres. The acoustic qualities of an instrument like a banjo require some serious leveling and compression to provide a consistent sound.

Using Gain Reduction, we’re able to even out a banjo performance into something more usable. Instead of harsh frequency spikes caused by resonant frequencies, we end on with a slightly more aggressive tone with an even volume and performance.

Check out Fluff’s banjo mixing guide here:

Am I Serious?

As serious as you want to take this. The cover Fluff is working on in that video is currently sitting at 6.7 million views on YouTube (just over 2 months after it was posted).

Is the concept ridiculous? You bet. But in today’s entertainment industry, these guys have pulled off more impressions than most bands will ever see on a single video.

The best part is how catchy they’ve made it. They strategically chose to feature the banjo while keeping full drums and aggressive vocals.

What are You Doing to Stand Out?

You should constantly be looking for ways to make the music you’re working on stand out from the crowd. As a musician, this means working on something new and interesting. For a producer, it might mean trying out new instrumentation and arrangements. And as engineers it means finding new tools that inspire creativity.

If you’re looking for more inspiration, come join the conversation with thousands of other engineers and producers in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook!