It seems the American folk genre is pretty diverse, from Bob Dylan (and much earlier!) to more modern musicians like Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. Specifically, I want to know if there are certain stylistic traits (melodies, chord progressions, rhythm, techniques) that define the genre.

I'd like this question to be more about the theory and technique of folk music, rather than the instruments commonly used.

2 Answers 2


"All music is folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing a song."
-- Louis Armstrong

American folk music has the following characteristics:

  • Acoustic instruments
  • Simple chord progressions such as C-F-G or Am-G
  • Simple time signatures such as 3/4 or 4/4
  • "Sharp" or natural keys such as C, D, E, G or A
  • Simple scales such as pentatonic minor (blues), pentatonic major, major, melodic minor and mixolydian.
  • Simple melodies based on tropes from Irish, Scottish and English music of the 1600-1700s OR simple melodies based on African American music of the 1800s (or earlier).

There is an very wide range of folk music technique but for guitar this includes:

  • Fingerpicking, including the Rev. Gary Davis thumb and two fingers technique
  • Carter-style strumming with the thumb punching out the bass note runs while the fingers pluck chords
  • "Boom chuck" strumming with a pick.
  • Open chords played at the nut.

Folk Music in my opinion is a style based on lyrics too. It is communication to the listener that is straight forward on subject matter they can relate to specifically. A political position in a song to inform the listener and persuade them to agree with the writer is a type of folk song. A song that is handed down through generations describing life circumstances is another type. Usually the writer is writing to their type of people to help understand a situation they all share.

I would say a folk song is NOT a song where the writer/performer is looking to sale millions of records and become an overnight sensation. Usually the writer/performer seems to be more authentic in there actions and words. They have a quest to communicate and would like an action to take place from their perspective of the lyrics.

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