“I always felt like Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.” – Porter Wagoner
Rarely in our history has one artist single-handedly done as much to change the face of music as the legendary Earl Scruggs. A bluegrass pioneer, Scruggs’s innovative banjo style is credited with popularizing the instrument and shaping modern day country music.
Earl Scruggs began playing banjo at the age of four. By 11 he was performing on local radio shows and by 15 he was playing in bluegrass bands.
His career defining moment is considered by many to be a 1945 performance with Bill Monroe at The Grand Ole Opry. Until that point, audiences – though big into country music- hadn’t experienced banjo in the way Earl would go on to make it famous. The 21-year old Scruggs rolled out a three-finger style of playing that amazed audiences with its flexibility, speed, and power.
Scruggs continued to play with Monroe through the 40’s until breaking off in 1949 to start a (now influential) bluegrass group with Lester Flatts. They became famous for their song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”.
Before Earl Scruggs, the banjo was predominantly played using the more traditional “clawhammer” style. Rigid in its movements with less room for experimentation, the clawhammer style meant the banjo player’s role was restricted more to that of the rhythm section.
The three-finger, or “Scruggs” style allowed for greater emphasis on melody and accentuated rhythms. The versatility of the Scruggs approach launched the banjo into the forefront of the bluegrass and country music stage. The Scruggs style is by far the most popular today, and has helped the banjo work it’s way into almost every style of music. Popular artists like Bela Fleck (Jazz/Fusion), Sufjan Stevens (Indie-Pop), and Mumford and Sons (Folk/Rock) all have a sound that stems from the style and popularity that Scruggs brought to the banjo .
Lifetime of Achievement
Earl Scruggs would go on to an incredibly successful career. A four-time Grammy Award winner, he released over 22 albums, has been inducted into the Country Hall of Fame (1985), and received the National Medal of Art in 1992. Scruggs was the inaugural inductee into the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor (1991), and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 2008.
Yet as impressive as his accomplishments read, words pale against the measure of his music. Few have done as much to shape the influence of an instrument as much as Earl Scruggs did with the banjo.
A true legend.