Earl Scruggs Dazzled Audiences With Playing Style

Melissa Block remembers bluegrass banjo player Earl Scruggs, who died Wednesday at the age of 88. The North Carolina native popularized the three-finger playing style, and dazzled audiences with a rolling cascade of notes. He may be best known for the tune "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and the theme to the 1960's TV show The Beverly Hillbillies, recorded with his long-time guitarist partner, Lester Flatt.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Maybe you know Earl Scruggs and his lightning-fast banjo from the theme song to "The Beverly Hillbillies," "The Ballad of Jed Clampett."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF JED CLAMPETT")

BLOCK: Or you'll know Flatt and Scruggs' "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" from the movie "Bonnie and Clyde."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "FOGGY MOUNTAIN BREAKDOWN")

BLOCK: Well, my memory of Earl Scruggs, who died yesterday at age 88, is linked to a fine day in 2003 when he and his banjo came by our studios.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BLOCK: Earl Scruggs, tell us about your banjo.

EARL SCRUGGS: Well, it's originally a Granada Gibson. I've been playing it since back in the '40s, I guess. It's just an old hand-me-down. I say hand-me-down. It was an old banjo when I got it, and I still use it today.

BLOCK: But that's just got to feel like an old friend every time you pick it up?

SCRUGGS: Oh, yeah. Well, the thing about playing the same instrument when you think about the case, it's going to feel - I think it's the feel a lot - as much as the sound that you get out of the instrument. So it feels the same way, so I'm comfortable when I take this banjo out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: And what he could do on that banjo was revolutionary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BELA FLECK: Earl Scruggs is the reason I play banjo.

BLOCK: It was enough to knock the socks off a young kid named Bela Fleck.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FLECK: I said wow. The impact it had on me was like little hammers hitting at each note, hitting neuron - pleasure centers of my brain or something. It's kind of a shock. It just sucked me in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: As Bela Fleck told me years ago, Earl Scruggs' genius came not just from his virtuoso technique but also his deep country roots in North Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FLECK: It's like a high-level computer almost, except it's coming from the mountains. That's what makes it profound, not just some guy playing real fast and precise. There's something behind it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Earl Scruggs started playing banjo when he was 4, coming up with his own banjo licks by the time he was 10. And even though someone once calculated that Scruggs could play 11 notes per second, he would say he didn't think of his banjo playing as fast. What was important was good, clean timing. The story goes that his children, Earl and his siblings would start playing a tune, then walk around the house in opposite directions and see if they were still playing in time when they met up again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Earl Scruggs' rolling, syncopated three-finger picking style was his signature - Scruggs style, it came to be called - intricate with tremendous drive. And as banjo player Tony Trischka once showed me, that expanded the rhythmic possibilities of the instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TONY TRISCHKA: Because you're dealing with a three-finger roll - from index to middle - and trying to put that against a four-note sequence, say, if you have - one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. And if you do certain things, he was able to just accent certain beats you wouldn't expect to be accented. And you get sounds like...

BLOCK: Earl Scruggs once said he couldn't really describe his own playing. He said it would be kind of like trying to explain the way I breathe. Tony Trischka put it this way.

TRISCHKA: To me, he's the greatest five-string banjo player who ever lived and ever will, you know, just...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRISCHKA: That's it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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