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Understanding Scruggs-Style Is Easy

Posted by Rich Weill on Wednesday, October 6, 2010

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I'm not saying that playing the banjo is easy. There is a lot to learn and, more importantly, a lot of good habits to ingrain: hand position and tone, rhythm and timing, finger patterns, chord formations, left-hand techniques, etc. But the basic concepts behind playing the banjo Scruggs-style are relatively straightforward:

Music is made up of rhythm, harmony, and melody. Not all instruments play all three. Some instruments are single-note instruments and thus cannot play both melody and harmony. All instruments play rhythm; some instruments play only rhythm.

Backup banjo plays rhythm and harmony. Lead banjo plays rhythm, harmony and melody.

Rhythm on the banjo is produced by right-hand patterns: rolls, vamps, pinches -- played with proper timing.

When those right-hand patterns are played over a chord progression, you have both rhythm and harmony -- all you need to play backup.

When you choose right-hand roll patterns that allow you to pick a sufficient number of melody notes (which generally are found either in or near the chord) close to where they fall in the tune, you have rhythm, harmony, and melody.

All the rest is style. Some people use a wide variety of right-hand patterns. Others use very few. Some people play with bounce. Others space their notes evenly. Some people use a lot of left-hand techniques to embellish the melody and give it flavor. Others prefer a leaner, cleaner sound. Some people use the entire neck, jumping from octave to octave. Others stay in the first five frets. Some people go for all sorts of hot licks. Others choose to play things more simply.

But the basics are just rhythm, harmony, and melody.  Let's not make it more complicated than it really is.

8 comments on “Understanding Scruggs-Style Is Easy”

garman Says:
Thursday, October 7, 2010 @5:49:09 AM

Thanks for the insight. Im sure more of the seasoned players would say its not that simple but as a fairly new player your post is very insightful for me, keep the post coming.

Banjophobic Says:
Tuesday, November 9, 2010 @9:53:18 AM

Well, this applies to music in general and playing music on any instrument,i.e. melody,harmony and note patterns. But if you choose to play "Scruggs style' the way most folks do, that involves learning his vocabulary of licks and phrases and his adaptations of melody. The real complex part of learning someones 'style' inst in the basic musical concepts, because they are universal. The task is learning the physical aspects of the 'style' itself. So becoming a proficient Scruggs player can be much more complex, if you try and acquire his level of technique and body of work.

Rich Weill Says:
Tuesday, November 9, 2010 @12:22:05 PM

This raises an interesting definitional issue. I don't regard the phrase "Scruggs-style" to refer necessarily to Earl Scruggs' own personal style of playing the banjo. I regard the term to describe one of the three broad categories of three-finger bluegrass banjo styles: Scruggs-style, Keith-style (or melodic), and Reno-style (or single string). Thus, in my view, you can be playing "Scruggs-style" by using rolls over chords with melody notes interspersed, regardless of whether you use Earl's own "vocabulary of licks and phrases" and "adaptations of melody." In other words, you can be playing J.D. Crowe style -- but you're still playing "Scruggs-style."

Banjophobic Says:
Tuesday, November 9, 2010 @7:48:55 PM

Sure Rich, I agree with that premise up to a point. But theres a line that exists for calling something authentic "Scruggs style'. In other words, just playing a forward roll over chord changes by itself doesnt constitute 'Scruggs style'. Many players used forward rolls over chords before Earl, so that isnt the definition of the style, if you see what im saying. Scruggs true stylistic elements is how he constructed phrases with rolls, that became a 'vocabulary'. He also developed a set of partial chord ideas and arpeggiated phrases that are essential to the style. If you listen to JD Crowe, Sonny Osborne, Bill Emerson, Kenny Ingram,Bela Fleck, Tony Triscka; anyone who is a true 'Scruggs style' artist, you will hear that they have learned that vocabulary and then added their own ideas to it. If any one of them just rolled over chords, they couldnt really call themselves a 'scruggs style' player. This gets to the heart of really devoting oneself to learning what really makes Scruggs style a 'style' and not removing the heart of it .Watering it down to appear that its really 'easy' is nice to give folks a good starting point and Im all for that. Ive been playing 36 years and I can tell anyone whos truly wanting to grasp Scruggs in its entirety, that its a building process that takes many years to get authentic and true. Yes, learn simple things like rolls over chords, but dont sell the style short and dilute it so that you miss what its really about. Being able to read a few items off the Mexican restaurant menu is a long way from claims "I speak Spanish..its not that hard",haha. Im not coming down on you or anything so dont take it the wrong way. But with all the Earl bashing going on these days, I have to speak out on some things related to him, like this. I appreciate your viewpoint and respect it.

Banjophobic Says:
Tuesday, November 9, 2010 @7:52:47 PM

Umm, you should rething your definitions of "Melodic" and single string" as being "scruggs style". This also diminished the accomplishments of Bobby Thompson, Bill Keith, Don Reno,Eddie Adcock and and other pioneers. Scruggs style isnt a mish-mash of all three. Using all three is the player making a decision to combine styles and nothing more. Its like having a handfull of red fruits and eating all of them at your leasure, but proclaiming them to be all the 'same' since they are all 'fruit'. You might like them all, but they arent all the same.

Rich Weill Says:
Wednesday, November 10, 2010 @7:17:11 AM

I thought I was clear above that melodic and single-string are alternatives to Scruggs-style, not part of Scruggs-style. As I said, there are three broad categories of three-finger bluegrass picking. Scruggs-style is one of the three. About the rest, again, I think it all comes down to definitions. IMHO, what distinguishes Scruggs-style from melodic and single-string is not the use of licks and phrases that Earl Scruggs created. Rather, it is the concept that harmonized melodies could be expressed on the banjo by playing arpeggiated chords (rolls) designed to grab the key melody notes in about their proper places, and accentuated the most important of these melody notes with accents, pauses, and left-hand techniques.

Banjophobic Says:
Wednesday, November 10, 2010 @10:05:38 AM

You've got a new blog now, so what you said before is gone. In your last blog entry you lumped melodic and single string, and mentions Bill and Don as all being 'forms' of scruggs style. They are not. Your definition omits all of scruggs phrases and licks, which is what makes his style a 'style'. Punctuating melody is the goal of any style, but its the phrasings used to fill spaces and state it, that makes the style what it is. Sorry, but I think you have a fundamental misconception happening, about 'style'.Earls style is how he constructed musical phrases (licks), to state melody and then rolling patterns that he syncopated to flow in and around melody. Earl wasnt the first to use rolls..rolls are generally arpeggiated anyway. Please dont dumb down Earls 'style' by removing the very things that make it what it is! If you remove his phrases and just play generic rolls, you've missed what makes him distinctive. Learning those phrases correctly, how to use them to state melody, backup, etc, takes time and isnt easy at all. This in important to know.. We need to be honest about what it really takes to be a good 'Scruggs ' player.

Banjophobic Says:
Monday, November 15, 2010 @7:29:31 PM

Seems we are on different lines of thought. Thanks for the discourse thought-I appreciate it.

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