Country music, more than most styles of music, is about storytelling, and every great storyteller has a tool to help them tell their stories. Some country music instruments, like steel guitars, acoustic guitars, and more, even have their own history. Of course, this is mainly because of the talented country singers who performed them in our favorite popular music, but these instruments have acquired their own legends.
Of folk music to bluegrass music, here are 10 legendary country musical instruments that forever changed the genre of classical country music.
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10. DeFord Bailey Harmonica
DeFord Bailey has the honor of being the first male country artist featured on the legendary radio program, The Grand Olé Opry. He also became the first African American inductee. Bailey began playing popular harmonica tunes on the Opry almost since its inception. His virtuoso harmonica playing saw him be one of the star performers on the biggest tours of the day, including Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff. Grandson of slaves, Bailey overcame childhood illness (polio) and poverty to become the most influential harmonica player of the 20th century and one of the true inspirations of country music. Bailey attributed his passion to his parents, who gave him his legendary harmonica. “My parents didn’t give me a rattle,” he said noted. “They gave me a harp.
9. Hohner Corona II Accordion by Flaco Jiménez
At first glance, the accordion doesn’t seem to have a big place in country music. But Flaco Jiménez changed all that by bringing his world-class conjunt skills to the Texas Tornados. In many ways Jiménez has helped make country music an international affair with his accordion playing. The Tornados quickly rose to prominence in the early 1990s, winning a Grammy for their blend of traditional Mexican music Conjunto and Texas country. They have been a cultural revolution within the genre and have helped open it up to many new collaborations on the road. Four-time Grammy winner Jiménez has used his classic Hohner Corona II accordion on countless recordings. He also performed with many other legends, including Dwight Yoakam, Bob dylan, and the Rolling Stones.
8. Martin D-28 by Clarence White
This guitar is perhaps one of the most “legendary” instruments as many legends surround it. The pre-WWII Martin D-28 owned by Clarence White, which eventually made its way to Tony Rice, has a serious place in musical tradition. The whole story is actually quite amazing, as far as the instruments are concerned. But let’s put it this way: the modified Martin D-28 needed a lot of love before it became what is today called the “holy grail” of bluegrass instruments. By the time Tony Rice made it the masterpiece of bluegrass music it is today, almost every well-known luthier in America had worked on it. Keep in mind; it is a white guitar once leaned against a tree and shot with a pellet gun. Seriously, read the whole story.
7. Monte Mountjoy’s battery
If you think that today’s country music is controversial, take another look at 1944. Nowadays we wonder if squeaky pop production, loud guitars and drum tracks are music. country. At the time, they didn’t think regular drums represented country music. Not before Bob Wills drummer Monte Mountjoy took his drums on stage at the Grand Ole Opry at the last minute. The Opry had tons of rules, including no battery. The drums are not country, you see. Well, they sure were for Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Ignoring the “no battery” policy, Wills allowed Mountjoy to take out his battery at the last minute for what many claim was the very first use of the battery at the Opry. And there was no going back from there.
6. Pete Seeger’s banjo
Few musicians have popularized the banjo like Pete Seeger. At first a humble folk musician whose commercial success in the 1940s and 1950s propelled the banjo into the limelight, Seeger eventually became a social activist who used his banjo to the greater good. He played an important role in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and continued to use the banjo as a symbol of community and the fight against oppression. Undoubtedly appropriate, given that the original banjo was built by African-American slaves in the Caribbean in the 17th century. He inscribed the now famous saying on his banjo head: “This machine surrounds hatred and the force to surrender.”
5. Bill Monroe Lloyd Loar Gibson F-5 Mandolin from 1923
“The most famous mandolin ever played,” Bill Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin is valued at $ 1.125 million. This is because one of the most famous American musicians ever used it for decades; its scratched and ragged surface adds to the classic sound. The instrument endured a lot, including getting smashed with a poker and being reconstructed from over 500 fragments. Monroe also hollowed out the “Gibson” nameplate with a pocket knife after a particularly bad day. Surprisingly, the eventual owner of the instrument, Robert McLean, donated the million dollar instrument to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
4. Telecaster Pink Paisley Fender by James Burton
James Burton is perhaps the most influential electric guitar player in country music. Why is that? Because his classic use of the Fender Telecaster completely revolutionized the sound of country music and ushered in the electric age. Burton has performed with some of America’s great artists starting in the 1950s, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, The Everly Brothers, and more. His classic telecaster skills have inspired modern ax throwers like Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, not to mention anyone looking to spice up their guitar. It even has its own special model (the first) sold by Fender.
3. Johnny Gimble’s violin
If you don’t know Johnny Gimble’s name, you certainly know his classic violin strokes. The famous violinist toured as a Texas Playboy for a decade before later joining Willie Nelson. He has also performed and made classic licks for artists like Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, George Strait and many more. During this time he played on his original violin, which he bought in Germany during WWII. After accidentally backing the violin with his car (seriously), Gimble found a luthier who helped piece it together in 1970. Proud Texan, Gimble’s stringed instrument now resides at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.
2. Jimmie Rodgers 1927 Martin 00-18
Here’s what you need to know about Jimmie Rodgers’ 1927 Martin 00-18 guitar: The experienced guitarist used it for the Bristol sessions. For those who don’t know, the Bristol Sessions gave birth to Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, not to mention the first verifiable recordings of commercially successful country music. Quite simply, this guitar was the instrument used to give birth to commercial American country music as we know it.
1. Martin N-20 “Trigger” by Willie Nelson
Trigger is as much a part of Nelson’s career as his famous red braids or hit country songs. Officially a Martin N-20 nylon string guitar, Trigger appears wherever Nelson does. After a drunkard broke his guitar during a show in Helotes, Texas (at the Country Store in Floore), Nelson asked a luthier to move his old pickup to this new guitar in Nashville. The classic, unmistakable sound helped define Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Country brand. It was the only thing Nelson saved from his house fire in Tennessee. Trigger – named after Roy Rogers‘horse – also went into hiding for a while so the IRS couldn’t take him back when Nelson found himself in major tax trouble. Signed by dozens of musicians Nelson requested personally and featuring a missing classical piece; Trigger is as beloved a part of country-western music as Nelson himself.