A trip to North Carolina to study bluegrass yielded this lesson: Earl Scruggs was the greatest there ever was
I spent a couple of months last year studying bluegrass in North Carolina, and I learned that there are is one tune you never ask a banjo player to play for you. Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Earl Scruggs’s most famous instrumental, is a tune so familiar, so oft-played, that even suggesting it at a jam will mark you out as an idiot know-nothing newcomer. It’s the equivalent of self-identifying as a Trekkie, when the correct term is Trekker.
If you know one banjo tune – well, if you only know one – it’s probably Duelling Banjos, and you probably heard it in the film Deliverance, or in one of the endless pastiches you can now watch on YouTube (my favourite is this one from Father Ted). But if you know two, then the other one, I will bet you now, was written by Earl Scruggs. Scruggs was the most influential banjo player there has ever been: he was banjo’s Bach, Beethoven and Bob Dylan all rolled into one. He pioneered the three-finger style of picking responsible for the sound you hear whenever you think of the instrument’s fleet-fingered, jangling sound. Until then, banjo players was played in the traditional “clawhammer” style – Scruggs’s use of the third finger allowed him to play the driving arpeggios that we associate with banjo music today.