Banjo players mourn passing of innovative instrumentalist
Earl Scruggs died Wednesday of natural causes in Nashville, his son told CNN
He developed the three-finger style that made the banjo a "front" instrument
Scruggs and Lester Flatt were part of the musical team that made modern bluegrass
The banjo, for years in the background, stepped out of the shadows in the steady hands of Earl Scruggs.
Beyond his many recordings and appearances, the bluegrass music legend, who died Wednesday at 88, left an instructional book considered a must-read for novice banjo players.
“Earl Scruggs and the Five-String Banjo,” first published in 1968, still lays the foundation for beginners, said Eric Schlange, founder of the website Banjo Hangout.
By Thursday afternoon, hundreds of the site’s 67,000 registered users had left tributes, listed Scruggs songs they played since learning he died and exchanged messages on his groundbreaking technique.
The site attracts both grizzled veterans and beginners.
“A lot of those guys played (his) records, slowing down the records so they figured out the notes Earl was playing,” said Schlange, 32, of Lakeport, California.
Playing the banjo well takes dedication.
“It’s a very physical instrument. When you are talking about bluegrass style, you have to dial in your technique precisely and practice real consistently,” said Schlange, a web developer who calls running Banjo Hangout a part-time hobby.
For many of a certain age, Scruggs’ banjo was part of the soundtrack of an era on “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” – the theme song from the CBS sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies,” which aired on CBS from 1962 to 1971 and for decades afterward in syndication. He played with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, and later with Lester Flatt with the Foggy Mountain Boys. The 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” featured their 1949 instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
But much more than that, Scruggs popularized a three-finger picking style that brought the banjo to the fore in a supercharged genre.
The late John Hartford, a noted banjo musician in his own right, was quoted in Barry R. Willis’ “America’s Music: Bluegrass,” as summing it up this way: “Everybody’s all worried about who invented the style and it’s obvious that three-finger banjo pickers have been around a long time – maybe since 1840. But my feeling about it is that if it wasn’t for Earl Scruggs, you wouldn’t be worried about who invented it.”
In an article on the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s website, bluegrass historian Neil V. Rosenberg described Scruggs’ style as “a ‘roll’ executed with the thumb and two fingers of his right hand” that essentially made the banjo “a lead instrument like a fiddle or a guitar, particularly on faster pieces and instrumentals. This novel sound attracted considerable attention to their Grand Ole Opry performances, road shows, and Columbia recordings.”
Traditional bluegrass is “rapid fire, pretty loud, (with) explosive notes,” Schlange told CNN.
But there is also a quieter side to the banjo. Innovative musician Bela Fleck is known for his jazz style and sparing play.
Banjo Hangout’s main draw is its many forums on the art of music and banjo-making. Noted players Pete Wernick and Ron Block, who performs with Alison Krauss, are among those who post.
“They (members) all want to be able to play the style of music they are looking for,” said Schlange. “Some want to play Earl Scruggs-style bluegrass music. Some want to play old-timey, open-back banjo.”
Schlange, who considers himself “an aspiring banjo player,” lists Mumford & Sons, Steve Martin, Noam Pikelny and Kristin Scott Benson as influential banjo players on today’s scene.
Martin, in a January article in The New Yorker, wrote of Scruggs: “Before him, no one had ever played the banjo like he did. After him, everyone played the banjo like he did, or at least tried.”
Scruggs’ funeral is set for 2 p.m. Sunday at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium.
Traffic on Banjo Hangout increased about 50% in the hours after Scruggs’ death was announced. “I was away from the site for five hours and had not heard the news. When I got back there were five topics on the front page about his passing away,” Schlange said.
Typical of forum postings was one by “rdblansett.”
“As always, whenever Earl stepped up to the mic to do his thing, I marveled at the sheer effortless style of his playing. Just as with any virtuoso of this or any era, he was married to his instrument and no one made it sing as well as he did. It is because of Earl that I picked up the banjo for the first time a couple of months ago, and even though I will never get to meet him, I hope he hears the wail from down here.”
CNN’s Cameron Tankersley, Denise Quan and Andy Rose contributed to this report.