Earl Scruggs: How He Invented "Scruggs Style" and How It Became the Norm
His own “Scruggs style” utilizes picks on the thumb, middle, and index fingers, allowing for quick plucking. This is in contrast to other fingerpicking styles like minstrel, a pick-less style of picking that involves down-troking with the back of the nail and plucking with the thumb.
“I remember when I first got a set of picks,” Scruggs told Tony Trischka in 2006. “I thought, boy, those things are so slick, I’ll never be able to play a string with it. It would slide off. But you know how kids are: They’ll stay with it for hours. I finally got to where I could play with them. And I bent them up a bit, and I still bend them quite a bit now.”
Scruggs made his first earnings as a musician at age 6 and by age 10 — in 1934 — he had already begun plucking in his three-finger style.
Scruggs started playing from an early age and eventually grew to fame as a 21-year-old member of Bill Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boy, in the 1940s. By 1946, Scruggs had pioneered the “Scruggs style” of plucking the banjo with three fingers, ultimately defining the unique sound for bluegrass as a genre distinct from broader country music.
With three fingers, each with a pick, Scruggs was able to develop a vocabulary of “licks,” or short musical phrases, that could be repeated and accentuated with other embellishment of the hand.
"It was like having a dream and waking up, you was actually playing the tune."
“I was picking the banjo, and I was playing a tune that I still play today called “Reuben,” Scruggs told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in 2003 of the first time he developed his signature style. “And when I realized what I was doing, I was playing the way that I play now. It was like having a dream and waking up, you was actually playing the tune. So that was the mode I was in and what I was doing when I learned exactly what I’m doing today.”
After leaving the Blue Grass Boy with Lester Flatt in 1946, Scruggs formed a new group, Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Both achieved legendary status with hits like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which later found saw mainstream appeal in the film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and much later on The Office (featured above) when Andrew Bernard plays the song on his banjo.
By the ‘60s, Flatt and Scraggs brought bluegrass into the mainstream with “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” a song used as the theme for sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies and hit number one on Billboard’s top 100. With Flatt, Scraggs recorded more than 50 albums and 75 singles, winning four Grammy awards along the way and leaving an indelible mark on the world of music that won’t soon be forgotten.
Here’s another delightful video of Andrew Bernard playing the banjo in Scruggs style.