Banjo Newsletter

October 2006: The Earl Scruggs Book
By Murphy Henry

"I am the way, the truth, and the light. No one cometh to the banjo except by me."

Okay, perhaps that's a wee bit over the top. And I'm sure Earl Scruggs is way too modest to even think anything like that. But deep deep down in my dark old soul I believe it. Me and the Flint Hill Flash. Everywhere I go, I preach the gospel of Earl. Down South it's "like Earl done it." Up North it's "like Earl did it." But it all amounts to the same thing. Start with Earl. Learn the basics the way Earl played them. Those are the tools you need to get you started. You do not have to reinvent banjo playing. Earl has already paved the way. His rolls are a lamp unto our feet, a light unto our path. Why are all these Biblical quotations popping into my mind today? It's not even Sunday. Perhaps it's because I consider Earl's repertoire the Bible of bluegrass banjo.

My Earl Scruggs Book (Correct title: Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo), which I've had for over 30 years, rarely makes it off the shelf anymore. For this special column, however, I thought a revisitation was in order. Mine is a paperback copy whose front is tattered and torn. All you can see of the great man's name are the letters "RL" and "SC." Long ago the cover pulled away from the spine and was taped back together. Only one piece of that tape is still intact and that's all that's holding the cover on.

Inside, the pages are all marked up starting with page 7 where I underlined Nat Winston's declaration, "It's a rare woman who has known this instrument understandingly enough to become a virtuoso." Did that statement fuel my determination to become that "rare woman"? Probably. That I haven't forgotten it lo these many years speaks volumes. Thank goodness other "rare women"--Roni Stoneman, Sally Wingate, Lynn Morris, Alison Brown, Kristin Scott Benson, Cia Cherryholmes, Robin Roller, Ramona Church, Casey Henry, Janet Beasley, Pam Gadd, Gina Britt, Julie Elkins, Donnica Christiansen, and numerous others--have joined the ranks of the rare men who have become virtuosos on this most noble, and loudest, of instruments.

My next notation is on page 17 where I bracketed this tidbit from Earl: "I occasionally run the tips of my fingers through my hair to get a sample of hair tonic, then run them across the fingerboard, producing a smoother action." I'm surprised I didn't run right out and buy a tube of Brylcreem.

On page 30, another hint from Earl is underlined: "I personally prefer to pick the melody notes as much as possible with my thumb." Ah! That's where I got it!

Page 43, Chapter 9, How To Read Tablature, third sentence: "Without being able to read music (other than understanding timing) you can easily learn to play…" I heavily underlined what I've put in bold here, and in the margin I wrote "THE KEY!" Although I can read music (after a fashion, and not enough to hurt my playing, as the saying goes) I never was good at reading timing. That's why hearing the song is essential for me. In my next life, I'll come back as a note reader and see if it hurts my playing!

On page 57 I put a check mark next to the backward roll exercise (1, 2, 5, 1, 2, 5, 1, 2, 5, etc). Apparently I didn't find that too hard. However, the book's suggestion "Now try the complete song of Home Sweet Home" was an utter failure. I wasn't able to learn this tune-which I found really hard-until after I started slowing down records. (See below.) Earl had heard Home Sweet Home on the banjo, in the key of C, since he was a boy so naturally it came easy to him. Of course being a musical genius didn't hurt!

Then on page 61 I underlined the following: "This is a very important 'lick' and must become so familiar to you that you can do it without thinking about it." Then I circled the whole lick. Although I didn't know it at the time this "very important lick" was the "tag lick." And I now tell my students the same thing. Only, Earl said it first!

And on page 113, I see the two small red arrows I drew which point to the note in Hot Corn, Cold Corn where Earl uses his right-hand index finger to pick the fourth string (second fret) following a fifth string note. A very unusual move for Earl, although Ralph does it all the time. I loved little details like that. Lived for them.

Buddy Blackmon, a banjo player whom I had met at the University of Georgia, showed me a few things when I was first starting out. He suggested that I circle all the eighth notes in the tabs so I would know which ones should be held a little longer. My Scruggs book is filled with circled eighth notes. I also circled various licks as soon as they revealed themselves to me as licks. Thus, I learned to separate licks from fill-in notes. Licks which played across measure lines drove me crazy. It didn't seem fair. I wanted the notes within a measure to make musical sense. Frequently they didn't. Maybe that's why I prefer to think in 4/4 time-you get longer measures!

The Earl Scruggs Book is an incredible documentation of Earl's playing. Hats off to Bill Keith, who did all the tabs (what an ear!) and then showed them to Earl. However, much as I loved The Book, the whole process of learning from tab was so incredibly frustrating I could hardly stand it. I'd never heard any of these songs before-not even Cripple Creek-and hadn't a clue as to how they were supposed to sound. Where was the music?

Finally I realized I could not live by tab alone. I started slowing down the records. That's where the music was. Earl's playing was so precise, so clear and so clean, that by listening to the banjo growling out the notes (it was a full octave lower) I was finally able to get somewhere. And what a sense of satisfaction it was to try to learn a song without looking at the book, and then to flip open the page to see if I'd got it right! Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes I liked my way better! (Sacrilege!) Eventually I was able to learn tunes of Earl's that weren't in the book like Salty Dog, Fireball Mail, Wreck of the Old 97.

Later I moved on to improvising, using Earl's licks or variations on them. But everything I do on the banjo is rooted in Earl. Earl was the Rock on which I built my playing. My banjo teaching, my livelihood, are anchored in Earl. As the song says, "My anchor holds and grips the solid Rock." Thanks, Earl, for the joy that playing the banjo Scruggs style has brought to me. The wise woman built her house upon the Rock and the house on the Rock stood firm.

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