Paul Hawthorne's Web Site
Banjo Psych 106

banjo head, banjo psych logoPlaying like Earl

Lots of players have a goal of 'playing like Earl.' It is certainly attainable. Often, this means that they can play all or most of Earl's tunes like the record/CD to a high degree of replication. While this is on the way, it is not really 'playing like Earl.'

So how can this be?

Earl Scruggs is a master improvising musician, and does/did not play it the same way every time. This is the real Scruggs thing. While this idea is often talked about, very few players actually DO this. They strive for perfection to duplicate how, in Earl's own words, "it happened to come out that day." There is a large set of tape recordings of the Martha White 5:45 AM radio shows in the underground (I don't have them, don't write me) where it becomes clear that Earl does it differently at different cuts at it. This is improv music, not scored. I am sure he did a lot of analysis and woodshedding, and then when it came time to play, he let it happen.

There is another big hidden block for most of the later generations of players. Somewhere in the past I recall reading the revelation that Earl had never heard of banjo rolls until someone showed them to him. While rolls and learning tunes by rote are usually on the way, you have to transcend rolls per se to play like Earl because Earl does not think in rolls.

You need a right hand fluid enough in Earl think that you don't think  while still retaining a very solid internal sense of big time (the beat) and little time (the swing).

This is why to study the tunes, rather than exact replication. What makes up Earl's style is the smooth driving flow and a set of musical bits (like the 3-2 pulloff on the third string) that he has internalized. As near as I can learn from a lot of sources, Earl plays the words, and keeps the flow going. His style is to play the melody or an outline of it, and splatter a chordal background around it with sparkling musical motifs like the pulloff just mentioned thrown in where they work. The solos are not preplanned in detail, but rather in outline form. For the the way Earl thought about it c. 1965, see, the sixth paragraph from the bottom.

John Hartford has written that Earl has a Pete Fountain record that he liked to play for John, where you can practically hear the words through the clarinet. It works for me, I sing the words in my head as I play them through the banjo. If I get asked to kickoff a tune I don't know, ask the singer to sing it to me one time. Then I can kick it off, back it up, etc.

To be able to do this I had to give up the *need* to play good, to play just like the record. For instance, if I had never heard a particular recording, how could I possibly be expected to duplicate it? While I know quite a bit of Earl think (as well as Dillard and Reno think), I am not him, and don't pretend to be. I am me. This allows the release of tension from the fear of not measuring up. They are going to get what they get; I've done my Scruggsy woodshedding, my obsessive listening to recordings, and it will work.

If you get to see a video clip of the Foggy Mt. Boys from the 50's/ early 60's, especially on the Martha White TV shows, Earl is soooooo fluid, in his overall body motion as well as his playing. (There is a 2 minute *.avi file of the WSM TV morning show somewhere on the net, I would appreciate being told of the URL). This ease and fluidity is what to emulate. It is the Scruggs step beyond learning tunes by rote.

Then you are closer to playing like Earl, and playing like yourself as well.


Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH

Edited 01 Apr 2007 by WF