What Instruments Were Used During Ragtime?

By Christopher Tebbutt
Ragtime music was defined by syncopated piano melodies over simple chord progressions.

Ragtime originated in African American culture and is a musical genre characterized by march and waltz musical influences alongside uptempo syncopated rhythms. Ragtime first became popular in dance halls in the 1890s, while revivals in the 1940s, 1950s and 1970s have ensured its place in history as a major musical movement. Ragtime had an impact in popular American culture, with the renowned composer Scott Joplin becoming a household name.

Piano

Piano, or honkey-tonk piano specifically, is the main instrument in ragtime music. Honkey-tonk playing would commonly change the speed and sharpness of the piece. By providing a large range of notes and an opportunity for the musician to play quickly with all ten fingers, the piano could achieve these changes better than other instruments. Ragtime piano was characterized by bass notes playing the odd or off beats, chords playing the even beats and a syncopated melody flowing across the whole time signature.

Drums

Due to ragtime's roots in African music, bongo drums were initially used to establish steady rhythms which the syncopated piano rhythms played against. However, as the musical genre developed, many ragtime bands began to use full drum kits. Because ragtime is considered a dance music, drum rhythms tended to be strong and simplistic. Drum beats usually included a straight four beats per bar, with a continuous repeating drum pattern lasting two beats (half a bar).

Guitar

Although the guitar isn't necessarily associated with classic ragtime, it certainly came to prominence throughout the genre's revival movements. Acoustic guitars are picked with fingers to replicate the piano's off-beat bass notes playing against syncopated melodies. Ragtime bands often incorporated two guitars, the second of which played the strict chord progressions.

About the Author

Christopher Tebbutt started writing professionally in 2004. He's had content published on both the "Guardian" and "TimeOut" magazine's websites, amongst others. He has written for internationally renowned brands such as Burberry, Boots and Party Gaming. He has also worked for journalists within the BBC, Reuters and BSkyB as a researcher. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in politics and history from Nottingham Trent University.