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Thread: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

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    Facing the Storm Duane Graves's Avatar
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    Default Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    What is so special about Earl Scruggs 3-finger banjo style if, as history seems to indicate, the 3-finger style has been around since at least 1840. Along comes Earl and it is suddenly a fresh new banjo style. Was it his personality or just his speed or perhaps it has something to do with his thumb playing the melody while his two fingers played rythem of the tune? Just what was it anyway? I ask this humbly out of my own ignorance and curiosity rather than sarcastically--dgg
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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    It was largely because he got a job with Bill Monroe and played on the Grand Old Oprey, but it was more than that.
    I grew up seeing and hearing Flatt and Scruggs on TV on Saturday nights (I think it was), then grew to be a rock and roll musician and didn't come back to Bluegrass until the early days of the Seldom Scene in the '70s. I Started learning to play banjo after I got out of college, and began to listen to various banjo players to learn what I could from what I heard. Then, I got a job at a banjo shop, building banjos, and heard many great players who were occasionally in and out of the shop, met people like Tony Trischka, Alan Munde and Bill Emerson and even jammed with some of them. I only mention all that for context, so that you can see that I've heard many great banjo players up close and personal, but I've had experiences where the radio has been on and suddenly a banjo break will stop me in my tracks to turn and look at the radio, and of coarse it turns out to be Earl. When all the old recordings with Flatt and Scruggs with Bill Monroe and the early Flatt and Scruggs Mercury recordings started being released on CD, people started hearing Earl again and realizing there's something to his playing.
    As many times as I've had to play Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and as tired as I am of that tune, when I hear the version that they used in the Bonny and Clyde movie, it can make the hair stand up on the back of my neck! The tempo, the tone, the timing the drive... Earl just nailed it all and there's an energy to his playing that just stands out.
    So anyway, what's so special about Earl? I don't really know, but I sure hear it!

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    Scruggs style had its antecedents, but it really wasn't as popular now, where its the predominant style we hear. When one thinks of the banjo now, its that style, whereas before Scruggs there was frailing, and clawhammer, and plectrum, and whatever, including some styles that, to our ears, are more obvious antecedents to Scruggs.

    I am not the expert for sure, but talking with a banjo friend of mine, who says that he believes Scruggs did come up with something new, but all the pieces were there in the wind. And of course, with Bill Monroe, the style became what it is today, the way, in most peoples minds, that the banjo is played.
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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    There was a tradition of finger-picked banjo playing, as opposed to "frailing" or clawhammer, in the Carolinas. Charlie Poole played 5-string in an arpeggiated, "rolling" style, when he recorded in the 1920's with the North Carolina Ramblers. Snuffy Jenkins played finger-style, with more drive, in his group the Hired Hands. Many times this style involved only the thumb and index finger -- "two-finger" picking -- but its relationship to the Scruggs style can be heard; here's Jenkins in 1990, with Pappy Sherrill and Greasy Medlin, playing Long Journey Home; he was 81 when this was recorded in 1990:



    Earl Scruggs' brother Junie, and Smith Hammett, another local banjo player, are supposed to have gotten Earl interested in playing the banjo. Junie's somewhat crude three-finger style was recorded by Mike Seeger on his influential early Folkways LP, American Banjo Scruggs Style; this is often considered the "first bluegrass LP ever released," since it preceded Monroe's Decca LP's. You can listen to a bit of Junie Scruggs here.

    What Earl Scruggs did that was different and "special" was to bring the banjo out front as a primary "lead" instrument, by playing fast with a series of well-thought-out finger-picking patterns or "rolls," and even more, by writing instrumentals that showcased his style. Rather than merely serve as support for the fiddle -- the primary melody instrument in old-time music -- or for Monroe's mandolin, Scruggs brought a repertoire of speedy, driving tunes that were built around the banjo "rolls" he had developed. His style was immediately copied by other banjoists, and his high profile as a member of a Grand Ole Opry band made his distinctive sound the new standard for banjo players. Before Scruggs, the Blue Grass Boys usually had a banjo player, but the banjo never stepped out front as it did when he joined the band.

    Listen to recordings of Monroe's band before and after Scruggs joined, and you'll hear a complete change in how Monroe as band-leader viewed and used the banjo. And after Scruggs left, Monroe's banjo players always played in the same finger-picked style, though Monroe supposedly tried to keep them from playing Earl's tunes note-for-note like Earl.
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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    Nice clip, Allen. Thanks for posting that. I don't think I saw them at the particular show in the YouTube video but did see them once right along in that time frame (among other occasions, earlier). You can certain hear how one might think of Snuffy's style as intermediate in a sense between Old Time frailing and the full-blown Scruggs-style rolls.

    Pappy Sherrill was a lovely man and a fine fiddle player. I always enjoyed hearing him play, although he is not featured in this particular clip.

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    I have been listening to a lot of Charlie Poole recently, and have heard that "arpegiated roll" you refer to. It reminds me very much of Earl's playing.
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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    Nice description, Allen.

    Joel Sweeney is often credited as being an early adopter of the 5th-string (the "American" banjo). Sweeney was part of the minstrel tradition in the 1830s and 40s. In his book, Tom Hanaway states that, "It was through the minstrel show, the fiddle, and the banjo (not the piano) that cakewalks and rags entered the Appalachian tradition...the chord arpeggios commonly used by Scruggs as back-up rolls sound very much like piano ragtime music..."

    Banjo and fiddle play an integral role in the development of our music. It's fun to listen for the roots of Scruggs-style in early banjo playing, as well as the rural expressions of urbane music such as ragtime. When I was a kid, I was smitten with the hard-driving Scruggs approach. These days, I'm more apt to play this style with bare fingers on nylon strings--throwing some classic "Scruggs" licks into Jopiln and Morton rags--the way it was done 150 years ago.

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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    The thing about Earl is that he was just the right person in the right place at the right time. He was accomplished when he stepped out on the stage with Bill the first time. He was the compete banjo player. He was and is SO good at every facet of Bluegrass banjo. I'd listen to Earl all day just playing backup! He had it all down, intros, solos, backkup and instrumentals. Don Reno not withstanding Bill just couldn't have been any better at the time than Earl. To this day there is no banjo player I'd rather listen to than Earl.

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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    My great uncle, Charlie Poole, only had what can be defined as a forward roll and Earl came up with forward, backward, and cross rolls and I believe that is what made him stand out, that plus about the greatest timeing any banjo player ever had....From things I have read and heard Reno was supposed to have been Monroes banjo player but he was drafted into the service and Earl stepped in....Reno claimes to have had the style before Earl but I`ll take Scruggs any day over Reno....I also like J.D. Crow and Bill Emerson and a lesser know banjo player named Chris Warner...all of whom played with Jimmy Martin at one time or another, some two times or another....Just today I heard Scruggs playing "Dear Old Dixie" and it made me sit up and take notice, just like John said....

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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    And please dont forget Earls 3 fingered guitar playing on all those Gospel songs...Now I just opened another can of worms. As far as I know he was the pioneer in this sound as well. Ah..Pick it Earl.

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    Registered User Charley wild's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    Timing...yes Willie, how could I have failed to mention that? It's like Josh Graves. Nobody will ever have Bluegrass timing like Josh! To see and hear them together was absolutely great! That whole band could get you moving! I even got to see Lester smile a couple times.

    Good catch Scotti, I love to hear him play guitar!

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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    Quote Originally Posted by Charley wild View Post
    It's like Josh Graves. Nobody will ever have Bluegrass timing like Josh!
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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    Allen - that was excellent!

    Trying to compare Earl to anyother banjo player of his time is almost useless. Many were great - such as Don Reno - but their styles distinctly different. Don did a lot of single string work, played up and down the neck with ease (as did Earl), but you can not mistake one for the other. As a credit to both of them, I don't think either tried to copy the other. It is refreshing to hear both styles. How much Snuffy and influenced either or both of them is unknown, but surely there must have been some there. The one thing that is hard to beat Earl on is just his "taste" - knowing when to come in, when to play certain patterns, pulling tone from the banjo (not volume - but tone), etc. When you put the package together it's all "there"! There is also a simplicity to it that is hard to explain, because it doesn't sound simple at all. His songs are not hard to play - but difficult to play them and sound like Earl.
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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    Earl Scruggs, as has been mentioned above, really presented an updated style, which had a lot of energy. Frailing is a lovely style, but doesn't have the drive of Scruggs (as often known) style.
    Interestingly, others were really good during that time, but maybe not as famous. Eg. Don Reno who was a master in 3 finger picking.
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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    Earl never had to endure someone telling him that 'Earl didn't play it that way'.
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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    Glad to learn all this. I had thought it was because a lot of banjo pickers back then worked in sawmills and had lost a finger or two. Learning to play this way made them (and it) popular.






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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    Earl Scruggs is still touring- I just saw an ad for an upcoming show this spring at the Paramount in Charlottesville, Virginia. I'm going to have to take my mother to that one.

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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    I think Allen Hopkins explains it quite well.

    I also read it explained something like this:

    From a rhythmic perspective, guitar and mandolin are the "boom" and "chuck" respectively of the rhythm, while a banjo roll is constantly shifting the emphasized notes, because it is based on a three note pattern.

    123412341234 Guitar and Bass
    123412341234 Mandolin
    123412341234 Banjo

    Thus, the three-finger rolls add a "percolating" or "cascading" feeling to bluegrass, augmenting its drive.

    Earl was a great all around musician. It wasn't just that he played 3-finger banjo, but that he did it with incredible touch, timing, tone and taste. His non-rolling rhythm playing was also very inventive.
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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    J.D. Crowe took Earl's fully developed style and forged the blue standard; two great musicians and stylistic geniuses.
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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    The 3-finger style playing of the Banjo is a very old style indeed.I began playing Banjo back in '63 & took lessons on 'Classic' banjo for around 4 months until my teacher sadly passed away. Some of the 'classic' stuff calls for great mauual dexterity in order to play it. Marches,Waltzes, Foxtrots,all based on the musical preferences of the day.
    Snuffy Jenkins is credited with having formed the 'basis' of the Banjo style that Earl Scruggs developed further & perfected. I think that what knocked folk sideways with Earl's playing,was the way that he could play a seamless flow of notes,which formed both the melody of the tune / song & the accompaniment as well. Also, the speed with which he could play was something that nobody else had done. The 2 things together were simply a sensation & it's then,that with Earl playing with Bill Monroe's Boys,we get the first 'true' Bluegrass sound that became so famous.
    It's not untrue to say that it was the sound of Earl's banjo playing that made Bill Monroe's band sound so distinctive & why it became so popular. So popular in fact, that other bands 'copied' the sound & stylistics,& the Bluegrass boom was in full swing.
    Of all the Banjo players since Earl Scruggs arrived on the scene,none (IMHO) can hold a candle to the 'main man'. His banjo playing on some of the famous Flatt & Scruggs tunes,will never be bettered. Listen to his solos on "Why Don't You Tell Me So" & "I'll Never Shed Another Tear",simple,tasteful & totally unbeatable. I don't mean to imply that Earl Scruggs is the 'be all & end all' in Banjo playing,i have many great players whom i admire,but Earls originallity in his early playing makes him stand out amongst all the others.A great,great musician,
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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    Very well said Ivan

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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    I think Jon Z hit the nail on the head. Earl's three finger style gave bluegrass a "percolating" rhythm that, in my estimation, gave it a distinctive sound. I've often thought about that, but never put it into a word. And, I agree that we've all heard FMB many times...it's a cliche like Orange Bloosom Special on the fiddle, but when I hear Earl play it, it certainly stirs something inside.

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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    Like I have been saying for a long time, keeping it simple is the key, Earl didn`t play any "chromatic" licks did he? IMO playing bluegrass and keeping it simple and in time is what it`s all about...After all, mountain people were about as simple and easy going as anyone can be, and I don`t mean simple in a stupid way, I mean they believed in doing things in an easy and sensible way, nothing too fancy...Earl had all of those things in his music.....Willie
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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    On the other hand, some of Earl's "simple" sounding licks are so difficult to play, and get that sound(!), that they remain the standards by which a banjo player is judged.
    When I was learning banjo I could sit with the stereo and learn Bella Fleck tunes, Alan Munde tunes, complicated stuff, and then develop respectable versions of those tunes, but there are Earl Scruggs licks that he casually tossed into his music that I still can't play...

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    Default Re: Why was Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger banjo so special?

    Yes, he definitely makes what he does "sound" easy.
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