What instruments were used during ragtime?

Written by christopher tebbutt
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What instruments were used during ragtime?
Ragtime music was defined by syncopated piano melodies over simple chord progressions. (monochrome piano image by Paul Moore from Fotolia.com)

Ragtime originated in African American culture and is a musical genre characterised 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.

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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 characterised by bass notes playing the odd or off beats, chords playing the even beats and a syncopated melody flowing across the whole time signature.


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).


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 offbeat bass notes playing against syncopated melodies. Ragtime bands often incorporated two guitars, the second of which played the strict chord progressions.

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