Paul Hawthorne's Web Site
Banjo Psych 108

banjo head, banjo psych logoHow to Prepare Yourself For Learning to Play
5-String Banjo, Scruggs Style

What follows may seem extreme. It is not. I'm just telling what is real. Follow the strategy, get the result.

To play banjo in Scruggs style, you have to know what it really sounds like BEFORE you play it, just as if you were listening to it out in the real world on some kind of playback device. This is learned by listening to the best recorded examples of Earl Scruggs' playing. Makes sense, yes?

It will not be learned in a few hearings. Only about 5-10 percent or less of what is actually played and heard is presented in tablature in a book like Earl's own. The rest is filled in based on you prior knowledge of what the style sounds like. Having a quality MIDI playback of tabs (like TablEdit) is better than nothing, but there is still only 20-30% of all the stuff on the live recordings. It becomes much more useful after you can imagine the missing parts. If you think you are just going to follow the directions in a book or video and make the physical movements indicated (specifically, like playing from tab) without an internal audio model, you are also doomed to fail. What has worked for decades is for you the learner to build a quality audio and kinesthetic feedback system within yourself.

Here is the long proven strategy to know that you know Earl's style. I suggest it at the beginning of any study of the banjo. If you have been studying for years and something is missing, now may be the time to do this.

Purchase (not copy or borrow, get some hip pocket interest involved)  the Flatt and Scruggs LP/tape/CD Foggy Mountain Banjo, which has been in print since 1960. One source is at Elderly Instruments, or you can find or order it elsewhere. This was recorded at the band's peak, and has flawless timing, tone and taste. Most of the songs in it are in the Scruggs book too.

Listen to it, actively and just as background music at least 100 times, 200 is more real. Keep track on paper of the number of times heard, don't hedge on this. After a little while (10-15 times) you may not want to listen or keep track any more, maybe you are bored with it. Keep at it, and the fine details will start to steep in and become part of you. This is not about being entertained, or amused, or coddled to. This is to get past that need, and into absorbing the subtle details that we can all hear the effect of easily. It is unlikely to be an easy task, and the results will justify the effort.

If you do this, you will find yourself listening to you own playing with an educated ear, and whether you are learning Scruggs own arrangements or not, and it will change your playing. That's the goal, because learning always involves change.

AND: Passion is essential. If you won't/can't/don't want to listen to Earl Scruggs this much, just how much do you really desire to make Scruggs style banjo playing a part of you?

When Paul started talking to me about listening, he gave me what he called his "essential listening" list. Here it is.

  • Foggy Mountain Banjo, Flatt & Scruggs, as suggested above.
  • Back Porch Bluegrass, The Dillards
  • !!!!LIVE!!!!, The Dillards
  • Wanted, Reno & Smiley
  • Banjo Special, Reno & Smiley
  • World's Best Five String Banjo, Reno & Smiley
  • Fastest Five Strings Alive, Reno & Smiley

It's a great listening list, but I noticed something right away. Paul has a fair amount about Earl Scruggs on this site. Paul acknowledges that he is, in his words, a "Dillard Disciple." He mentions Don Reno but mostly in passing. Yet here, in his "essential" list, the dominant player is Reno.

Paul wrote this to me in late 2003:

"Study Reno, and you learn about music, breaking the genre's rules... Study Earl, learn about timing, tone, taste... [Bill] Keith, inventiveness, complexity, sophistication... [Doug] Dillard,  joy... R[alph]. Stanley with Carter [Stanley]: raw emotion... Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, youthful exuberance and drive to succeed..."



Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH

Edited 03 Apr 2007 by WF