Earl Scruggs: One Epic Video Sums Up His Innovative Style and Influence
There’s an amazing video on Youtube, uploaded nearly ten years ago now. It has 6.5 million views and more than 2,400 comments, most of them expressing appreciation. It also has more than 27,000 likes to its 858 dislikes. Despite being a recording from 1971, the sound is wonderfully clear and the picture quality decent.
It’s only four minutes, but this rendition of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Earl Scruggs and a comically long line of younger banjoists who take turns soloing, sums up exactly why Scruggs was such an influence on American music.
The song, written in 1949 by Scruggs, is introduced by its creator, garnering applause and a few squeals from the crowd gathered to hear him and that never-ending line of banjoists at the Camp Springs Bluegrass Festival in North Carolina. The song had experienced a popular resurgence after being included in the 1967 Oscar-winner Bonnie and Clyde.
Scruggs was honored by the search giant Google on Friday, January 11, 2019, with one of its Google Doodles — an animation of his three-finger picking style that became known as “Scruggs Style” — on the anniversary of the opening of the Earl Scruggs Center, a museum about bluegrass and the South that opened in 2014 in his home state of North Carolina.
In 1968, a few years before that uplifting performance thankfully posted to YouTube, Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo was published, a book that popularized and taught the three-finger picking method for playing the banjo, written by Scruggs. It sold more than a million copies after being published, and it’s likely that a few people who were lined up behind Scruggs in ‘71 owned a worn copy.
“Guys like this; this is what keeps me going,” Scruggs told the audience. He was 47 then but still appears youthful — though not as youthful as the banjoists standing behind him. (He died in 2012 at the age of 88.) “You people who keep appreciating music, and I just don’t know what to say, except I’m picking with some guys that play a tremendous amount of banjo. Don’t underestimate anybody up here; man, they’re great.
“Let’s pick a tune and get out of this,” he says before starting in on the rollicking song.
Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo has chapters on picking, basic rhythm, working with one’s thumb, sliding, hammering-on, and more. In it, Scruggs comments, “I once heard someone say, ‘some boys never outgrow their toys.’ I suppose that statement holds true for me to a certain extent. I still play with a few things that were of interest to me as a child, and they are all related to the five-string banjo — namely tuning pegs, fifth-string hooks, and capos.”
Scruggs Style is used with picks on the thumb, index, and middle finger. The ring and pinky fingers are used to brace the hand on the top of the instrument. Before the Scruggs Style of finger-picking, the instrument was played sometimes without picks or with two fingers (thumb and first or middle finger). Scruggs Style has come to define bluegrass music, and the book responsible for its continued growth.
Here’s Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs — Flatt was a longterm partner of Scruggs before they went their separate ways in 1969 — performing “Pearl Pearl Pearl.”
“He kind of likes to show off anyway, pickin’ the hot stuff,” Flatt later said of Scruggs.