The Earl Scruggs Gibson Banjo
by Doug Hutchens
This article originally appeared in the BITH newsletter.
The Gibson Earls Scruggs banjo model was initiated in 1984. If you go back to the advertisements of that time, 1984 were to be signed. And that's how many were signed as stock models. I know the person who purchased the banjos with serial numbers 1983 and 1984.
This banjo in the beginning was the developed through the efforts of Roger Siminoff collaborating with both Gibson and Earl. The tonering was a standard Stewart- MacDonald ring with a standard Stewart-MacDonald 3 ply rim. The flange was made from the same die from which all the flanges had been made since the late 20's. The peghead shape and color is an interesting story by itself.
Earl had let Jim Faulkner from Indianapolis put a new neck on his banjo. Jim was the creator of the Scruggs/Ruben capo and, according to Earl, he wanted to build a neck for Earl's banjo at the time. Earl really didn't want a new neck, but, since Jim was such a nice guy, he let him take the banjo home with him after playing Bean Blossom in 71 or 72. Earl said when Jim brought the banjo back to him in Madison, he opened the case and was not immediately fond of the new neck. Jim thought he would do Earl a favor and refinish the resonator to match the new neck (and possibly to put his own twist on banjo history). Earl again said that Jim was such a nice guy and he didn't say anything about it.
It is also important to remember that in the late 60s and early 70s, peghead and pearl cutting was not the art it was to come in the next several years. Gibson actually did a great job in recreating the copy neck that Jim Faulkner had made and the color was absolutely correct. The pearl in the first Gibson Earl Scruggs banjos was cut by pantograph. Gibson even used several petal and heart designs to attempt to make the neck look like the one made by Jim Faulkner.
I started work with Gibson as a consultant in October, 1986 and went full time in June, 1988. By that time we had Granadas in production. The RB-3 came next and then others of the original Gibson banjo line. Greg Rich did not want to do anything to the Scruggs model for the time being. Earl was reluctant to change the model since so much hype had been made about how it was a recreation of his banjo.
In the spring of 1989, we put together a prototype of what we wanted to present to Earl as the "new" Earls Scruggs model banjo. The prototype used a standard Granada neck and had a solid colored resonator with the same reddish brown color on the resonator side walls. We took it out to show to Earl and he played it for a while and said there is just something missing. I had a slightly different prototype model in my van, even more similar to the Granada, the only difference being in the resonator construction. He loved it. His words were "Boys, that's what I wanted when we started this whole thing". After talking with him at length that day, he suggested that we use an ebony fingerboard and put the inlay at the first fret to make it look "better than the Granada". Soon afterward, we refinished Earl's original resonator and put a new neck on his banjo. That's about the way it's been since.
The last of the first run of Scrugg's yellow banjos was serial number 1141. After that, all of the standard Scruggs models, except a few special production banjos, were finished exactly like the the Granada. For a while, the resonators were still made with complete maple side walls. The old resonators had a 3-ply sandwich consisting of a face maple veneer on the outside, and a ply of poplar running perpendicular to the back, then a third ply of maple on the inside. At Gibson's request, Stewart-MacDonald had been making resonator sides of 3-ply of maple. Since there was a good supply of those at the time, all of the remaining resonator sides from that supply were used on the RB-250 and Scruggs models until they were gone. Stewart-MacDonald had already gone to poplar in the center of the sandwich except for the ones they were making for Gibson. Once the supply of 3-ply maple resonator sides was exhausted, all resonators contained the maple- poplar-maple sandwich combination.
The small peghead was a product of the Faulkner neck. For those who don't know, Jim Faulkner also made some of the first copy Top Tension hoops in the late 60s and early 70s and a series of one of the most desirable tonerings that Gibson had during that period. Many of these tonerings ended up in the RB-800s and RB-500s. But Jim, like the rest of us who were attempting to build banjo necks back then, didn't have the greatest patterns from which to work. The peghead design was weak by today's standards. It was small and cryptic looking.
The tonering in the early Scruggs model banjos was indeed a Stewart-MacDonald ring. The problem with those banjos was with the setup! The Stewart-MacDonald tonering is an excellent ring, and I'd still rather have it than most on the market today. Some banjo "critics" didn't like the Stewart-MacDonald ring. I've found one thing in my 30 or so years in dealing with banjo parts and the players. Banjo players always want whatever they can't get. There is a mystique about trying to get something that others cannot attain. And when Stewart-MacDonald rings were readily available, many thought they can't be any good. Any one could order them. (A side bar to that. Does anyone know who made the tonering for Stewart-McDonald for several years? I'll leave that for speculation, but you'll be pleasantly surprised.) (Steve Ryan, also in Ohio as is Stewart-Macdonald. - ed.)
The problems with the originally produced "yellow" Scruggs banjos were not with respect to the tonering. The problems came from other places:
1. The ring and shell did not fit properly together. The tonerings varied in inside diameter (the way practically all good rings do) and the shells were cut with a slight taper so that the tonering would tighten as it slid down onto the shell. This caused a dampening effect, producing a tight fit once the ring was put on the shell, but leaving a small airspace where the skirt of the tonering was suppose to make contact with the outside of the shell.
2. The resonator 'was 'way too heavy. Gibson had ask Stewart-MacDonald to make sidewalls as I mentioned previously from 3-ply maple instead of 1/3 poplar. Anyone who has ever worked with wood knows the difference in the weight of poplar and maple. I found out about the poplar in the resonator from an old friend Harry Sparks, who helped me as much as anyone in getting my act together with banjos. Harry, once while living outside Frankfort, Kentucky tried an experiment with several original flat head banjos. In the late 60s and early 70s he had his hands on many of those. He said that they tried banjo after banjo exchanging resonators and each time it would change the sound; some drastically and some only slightly. The most dramatic sound change of all occurred when they put a top tension resonator on a non-top tension banjo. But, that's another story altogether.
3. The neck fit was not the best. They basically put the heel on the pot the way it came from the carving machine. Those of you who have had those banjo necks off the rim will notice that they did no final fitting of the neck and the shell. They just bolted them on and sent them out. I've seen just a little tinkering help those banjos considerably. Those types of details are, by the way, done at the factory before an instrument leaves Gibson today.
4. The ebony fingerboard has a different sound. Though Earl liked the ebony fingerboard because it made his banjo look different from the others, ebony does produce a distinct sound unlike that one gets from a rosewood fingerboard. Some will argue this, but I traveled the country for a few years and heard more than my share of banjos. Take it from me, there is a difference and if those of you who have an ebony board could hear their banjo with a good neck and a rosewood board, you'd agree. Sounds crazy, its only a little over 1/8 of an inch thick, but there is definitely a sound variation.
And one last note about Earl playing the "honey colored" banjo. This happened a couple of years after Flatt & Scruggs had broken up, during the Earl Scruggs Review days. If you're looking for Flatt & Scruggs photos exhibiting this banjo, you're not going to see it. Also, there were a few times I was able to get security clearance while the 'Review' was together to go back stage. Earl had another banjo set up with a pickup that he used part of the time.
Another side bar: the neck that Faulkner replaced was a neck made of mahogany. This neck had been on the banjo since the Beverly Hillbilly days. It was made by G.W. Gower. Many talk of the sweet sound of the Granada opposed to the more harsh and strong sound of the Scruggs. Try one of the Scruggs Deluxe, it is basically a Granada with an ebony board and an extra inlay or two. It has the same harshness of the Standard Scruggs.
I asked Doug for a bio to accompany this article. Here is his reply:
"I'm from Patrick County, VA in the foothills of the Blueridge Mountains. Having grown up in this area I was very interested in the banjo as we had a steady diet of Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and Don Reno & Red Smiley on TV in those days (early '60's).
"I was fortunate enough to get to meet and subsequently work with Bill Monroe in 1971 and was associated with him in one way or the other till his passing with such activities as getting the many former members of the band together for his birthday from '82 until '93.
"I also have filled in with the Whites, Don Reno & Bill Harrell, Larry Sparks, The Goins Brothers, and Kenny Baker and Josh Graves.
"In 1986 I began a syndicated radio program Bluegrass Today which lasted until 1998 and which featured interviews each week with various entertainers within our industry. It was also in '86 that I became a consultant to Gibson Guitars in Nashville. The new owners asked that I join the team of Greg Rich and Jim Triggs in getting the banjo line more in keeping with what they were in the 1920s and '30's. I worked as a consultant for a couple of years spending much of my time working on getting the inlay patterns and engraving patterns correct, then in June of '88 I began full time as Director of Artist Relations and Product Manager with Gibson where I stayed until 1990, opting to leave to spend more time in the mountains of Virginia but retaining the position of consultant until 1994.
"I consider myself as being one of the luckiest people in the world, having been able work with and to call many of the first generation of Bluegrass music my friends."
Email to Doug at .
Text ©2000 by Doug Hutchens
Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH
Edited 07 Apr 2007 by WF