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Masters of the 5-String Banjo

Excerpts from chapter on Earl Scruggs, by Pete Wernick

Earl Scruggs and importance of the melody:

Another important aspect of Earl’s style can be traced back to some advice his mother gave him as a youngster after hearing him working on some “boogie” licks: “Earl, if your going to play, play something that has a tune to it!”

Quoted many hears later, Earl said, “I figured that if she couldn’t figure out what I was playing, certainly somebody that didn’t hear me every day couldn’t tell what I was playing either. That’s when I became a firm believer that you should stick to the tune as much as possible.”

I don’t have what you call a special technique to emphasize the melody. I am just very aware of it. I think and feel the melody, and try my best to bring it through in my playing. The melody of most tunes moves around from one string to another, so different right hand fingers are need for emphasis at different times. You have to concentrate on the rhythm and feel the melody at the same time.

Tone

Many listeners have commented on Earl’s captivating banjo tone, and banjo makers have constantly searched for ways to design instruments that will duplicate the clear “popping” sound Earl became famous for. While there is sometimes reference to the “Scruggs tone” as though it is a single identifiable sound, close listening to his forty years of recordings reveals a great many different types of tone.

Some of this variety is undoubtedly due to changing recording technology, ranging from the use in the forties and early fifties of a single bass-heavy ribbon microphone for the entire band to the multi-track recording, heavy equalization, compression, and reverb-sweetening practices of today.

Scruggs’s recorded sound in the forties was an extremely staccato, dry tone, characteristic of a banjo with a relatively loose calfskin head, picked quite hard. With the switch from Mercury to Columbia Records in 1951 came higher fidelity recordings and a clearly audible increase in the treble of the banjo sound. Starting in the mid-fifties, reverb added an extra “ring” to the banjo, quite noticeable on tunes like “Foggy Mt. Special”, “Shuckin’ the Corn”, and most especially “Foggy Mt. Rock”. The Foggy Mt. Banjo album of the early sixties presented a particularly full, “present” banjo sound, perhaps created by the use of close miking and improved recording-studio reverb and compression combined with modified picking technique: a more delicate touch and a tendency to pick further from the bridge than usual. Also, Earl was by this time using a plastic head which allowed for a brighter sound.

Another change around 1960 was the decision by Flatt and Scruggs to lower their tuning to standard pitch. Up to this time the band had routinely tuned their instruments up tone half-step sharp to increase brightness, volume, and punch.

Other changes in Earl’s banjo tone in later years can be attributable to setup factors, such as use of somewhat heavier strings, lower action, and less head tension, and to the use of a lighter touch.

It should be noted that through his career, Earl has constantly called on various techniques that alter his tonal shading to fit the music he is playing. Practices such as picking at different distances from the bridge and sustaining or muting individual notes (as described in later sections of this chapter) contribute to the tonal variety of his playing and have helped make his music more interesting and expressive.

Throughout all of this tonal variety, the consistent qualities that make Scruggs’s tone the standard might be summarized as: fullness (a rich sound with ample bass, midrange, and treble) and clarity (the ability to sound notes individually, without distortion).

A great many factors might be cited as contributing to fullness, clarity, or any other word describing the Scruggs tone. As with any musician, what comes out is based on what sound Scruggs wants to make at the time. A multitude of subtle right-and left-hand movements all play a part in the creation of the desired sound. Some are practiced habits, and some are tailored at the moment. The artist’s sensibilities are what guides the process.

JD CROWE: I remember one time I asked Earl years ago, I said, “How do you go about coming with this right-hand technique sounding like your notes is a mile apart?” And he couldn’t explain it. He said, “Well....” – you know the way he talks – he just said, “I do what I feel.” He couldn’t explain it, but he told me, he said, “What I do is to make sure that whatever I do, that it stands out.”

The sections that follow – on Earl’s right-and left-hand technique, his instrument, and his banjo setup – each shed some light upon the components of the Scruggs tone.