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Thoughts about Earl Scruggs's contributions to the banjo

Posted by corcoran on Wednesday, April 4, 2012

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The death of Earl Scruggs is a sad event indeed for 5-string banjo players.  Earl was one of the very greatest banjo pickers in our history, and along with Pete Seeger he undoubtedly influenced more banjo players than anybody else has.

What were Scruggs’s contributions?

Most obviously, he perfected a style of 3-finger picking that others in North Carolina, and probably many other places, had developed in a more rudimentary fashion before him.  There are reasons to think that classical banjo players in the 19th century employed 3-finger style, and incorporated elements of melodic and single-string into their playing for that matter.  As far as we know, however, in the 20th century the 3-finger style flourished particularly in North Carolina, and Earl Scruggs was the descendant of a number of 3-finger pickers (not all of whom were based in North Carolina) such as Rex Brooks, Smith Hammett, Snuffy Jenkins, Oliver Webb, Tell Reed, Hess Starr, Hubert Lowe, Clay Everheart, Junie Scruggs, Johnnie Whisnant, Mack Woolbright, and Shannon Grayson.  So claims by some writers of his obituary that Earl Scruggs “invented 3-finger picking” on the 5-string banjo are simply wrong.  Scruggs himself never claimed to have invented the North Carolina style and was always careful to credit his predecessors..

Let’s focus on Snuffy Jenkins, Scruggs’s most immediate musical ancestor: Although there are no recordings of some of Scruggs’s other predecessors, we have access to a number of recordings by Snuffy Jenkins.  Clearly he was playing in 3-finger style before Scruggs, and clearly his style, although rougher and less coherent, anticipated many aspects of Scuggs’s style.  Jenkins also is cited as the first person to play 3-finger style on the radio who used finger picks to sharpen his attack.  A similar 3-finger style that was less refined and coherent than Scruggs’s (or what Scruggs’s ultimately became) was played by the brilliant Don Reno, who was a contemporary and friend of Scruggs’s, and who also was influenced early on by Snuffy Jenkins.  

What Earl Scruggs did, and what makes him stand out from the other 3-finger pickers of his and preceding generations, was to polish and perfect 3-finger picking so that it incorporates the following attributes (which may be familiar to you if you have seen the Wikipedia article on Scruggs, to which I previously added these ideas):

*    unprecedented smoothness, syncopation, and uninterrupted flow.;

*    a large vocabulary of unique and characteristic cliches or licks;

*    blues and jazz phrases, particularly evident in backup and in solos such as “Foggy Mountain Special”;

*    an overall coherency and polish that other stylists lacked, and that readily inspired imitation by a whole new generation of banjo pickers

The latter point is particularly important: Scruggs’s style was more consistent and coherent, and hence more accessible, than the styles of Snuffy Jenkins, Johnnie Whisnant, or Don Reno (or at least Reno’s early style, as evidenced by the few radio recordings of Reno with Bill Monroe in 1948).  Thus potential pickers such as myself were able to learn the style from Scruggs’s recordings, to decipher his rolls and the location of on the fingerboard of the notes he was playing, in a way that could not have been as easily done from recordings of Jenkins and others.  And I have to tell you that when I first heard a recording of Earl Scruggs, in 1961, the effect on me was monumental, and my fate was sealed:  The sound was exactly what I had hoped to achieve when I fantasized about playing the banjo.  It was complex, punchy, commanding, scintillating, coruscating, and swell (!).  In a word, I loved it, and I spent the next several years hunched over a tape recorder slowing down and figuring out his breaks – as the Flint Hill Flash might put it, I became a scrugg for life.  My banjo universe had shifted permanently, and I began to characterize my life as occurring in two periods, Before Scruggs (BS) and After Scruggs (AS).  The same thing happened, incidentally, a few years later when I heard Bill Keith’s version of Salt Creek with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys: At that point my life banjoistic was permanently compartmentalized further into the periods Before Keith (BK) and After Keith (AK).

It is instructive to review the particular right-hand patterns of picking that Scruggs popularized, some of which he probably invented.  One prominent pattern is the "double thumb."  Although he made good use of the double thumb, it was not unique to his playing.  For example, Pete Seeger independently promoted the use of this pattern in his folk-oriented style, and you can hear it in early recordings of Don Reno.  Here’s what the double thumb looks like:
3 2 5 1
T I T M
What Scruggs apparently came up with brilliant creativity is his incorporation of the “backward roll” (in Bill Keith’s terminology), which, as far as I can tell, his predecessors did not employ.  Here is the pattern of the forward-backward roll:
3 2 1 5 1 2 3
T I M T M I T
To my hearing, Scruggs’s predecessors (Jenkins, Whisnant, Grayson) and even his contemporary Don Reno mostly employed forward rolls in their playing, thereby committing their thumb and other digits to a relatively inflexible style that does not readily accommodate complex melodies:
3 2 1 3 2 1 or   3 2 1 5 2 1
T I M T I M         T I M T I M
The freedom gained from not playing only forward rolls vastly increases the flexibility of the style and allows the player to follow melody lines more faithfully while incorporating arpeggiated notes to sustain the rhythm.  Whoever created it – and I am concluding it was Earl Scruggs until someone produces evidence to the contrary – made a major and indeed a revolutionary contribution to the 3-finger style of banjo playing;

In addition, simply put, Earl Scruggs pulled great tone from his banjo, in a way that inspired the rest of us to try to emulate him.  I recall, for example, that as a teenager I tried to position my right hand in just the way I had seen Scruggs position his right hand, both in concert and in the few photographs available to me (mostly found in Pete Seeger’s book How to Play the Five String Banjo).  By holding my right hand the same way I thought Scruggs held his, I hoped to capture his sound.  Hah, fat chance.

The other overwhelming aspect of Scruggs’s playing was, for me at least, his creative and idiosyncratic approach to backup.  His backup was clever, innovative, and unique for the time.  I did not hear any similar backup from Snuffy Jenkins, Johnnie Whisnant, or Don Reno, and nothing comparable was evident until Sonny Osborne’s mature recordings and J. D. Crowe’s inspired backup appeared on the scene.

So Earl Scruggs was the inspiration and role model for several generations of aspiring banjo players.  However, his playing was not perfect.  As I have discussed in another blog, his roll-based attack had trouble with slow songs, whereas such songs could be accommodated by the chordal-based approach developed by a number of other banjo players.  The names that come immediately to mind are Eddie Adcock, J. D. Crowe, Sonny Osborne, and Don Reno.  In addition to chordal-based triplets and strums, these players readily employed single-string runs and arpeggiated patterns in a way that Scruggs mostly did not.  Nonetheless, Scruggs’s playing was and remains the gold standard for bluegrass banjo.  If you have really mastered Earl Scruggs’s approach to banjo playing, you have a magnificent foundation that equips you to go beyond and incorporate other stylings in to your playing.  Or you can play just straight traditional Scruggs style, and people will still dig it.

Sadly, Scruggs’s playing deteriorated in his later years.  In the two concerts of his that I attended over the past 8 years, he was quite frail, he did not execute complete rolls and thus faked parts of his breaks with incomplete sequences, and his backup was virtually nonexistent.  Fortunately, however, we have a permanent record of Earl Scruggs’s genius, to be found in the audio recordings of Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys as well as in the DVDs of the Flatt and Scruggs tv shows, when Scruggs was in his prime.  There one can appreciate Earl’s wonderful tone, exceptionally clean picking, inventiveness, whimsical musical jokes, and seemingly effortless approach to a complex and demanding style of playing the banjo.  Although Earl Scruggs has died, his banjo playing will continue to excite and inspire banjo players for centuries to come.



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