Friday, December 2, 2011

Salty Dog Blues (& More!)

A happy Banjo Friday, folks!  There’s some great music today, so let’s get down to business.

Over the past couple of months on 
Banjo Friday we’ve looked at some less well-known types of banjos & banjo type instruments, & we’ve also looked at the regular 5-string banjo being used to make some types of music not usually associated with the instrument.  As a result, we’ve gotten quite far from the type of old-time banjo picking that I like best of all.  Fact is, when I sit down to listen to banjo music, it’s most likely to be players (& singers) like Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashely, Bascom Lamar Lunsford & others of that earlier generation.

But let’s face it: although that’s my personal preference, the average person doesn’t hear those weird old modal sounds so much when thinking about banjo music.  No—what they hear is bluegrass banjo, an exciting & virtuosic style that wouldn’t exist in its current incarnation without the huge contribution of one man—Earl Scruggs.

With the exception of Bill Monroe (with whom Scruggs played in the 1940s), no one person has done more to create the sound that we call bluegrass music.  Others have made huge contributions of course (including Lester Flatt, Earl’s partner both in Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys & later in Flatt & Scruggs)—but Monroe’s singing style & Scruggs’ banjo style were truly formative. 

Scruggs Picking or Scruggs Style is a so-called “3-finger” style of banjo playing.  While many old-time banjoists would use one finger & the thumb (or one finger’s nail & the thumb) in so-called 2-finger & frailing styles, 3-finger playing uses the thumb, index & middle fingers to pluck the strings.  In Scruggs Style, the banjoist always wears fingerpicks & thumbpicks on these digits, while the pinky & ring finger brace against the banjo head for stability.  The three fingers then execute “rolls”—arpeggiated patterns that very often feature syncopation, or a shift in accent to the offbeats.

I should note that Scruggs was not the first player by any means to use a 3-finger style.  Old-timers like Dock Boggs, Charlie Poole & George Pegram all used 3-fingers frequently in their playing, & the great Uncle Dave Macon would actually switch between clawhammer playing & 3-finger style within a given song!  But Scruggs Style differs quite a bit in technique & sound from what these musicians & other early 3-finger style players produced.  Those who are interested can find a further explanation & both notated music & banjo tablature here.

“Salty Dog Blues” is simply a great song, & the fact that we get to listen to Scruggs pick a short but sweet version of his “Flint Hill Special” just adds to the enjoyment.  I like this video also because it gives a pretty fair view of Scruggs right hand, so you get to not only hear but actually see Scruggs Style playing from the man himself. 

This month will be all bluegrass here on Banjo Friday, so if that’s the banjo style you like best, there are some more great tunes to come!  In the meantime, I know you’ll enjoy this!


  1. Oh this was a great way to start my morning John. Coffee and Earl Scruggs.
    Only thing better would be somebody cooking me breakfast.


  2. Ah! Thanks, John! I've always loved Earl Scruggs, and this was a treat. I've always been impressed with not only his musicianship, but also by what a good man he is. He had a lot to do with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken series, asking traditional country and bluegrass artists who would normally have avoided all those long-haired hippies like the plague to participate. And his son Randy, a mean musician on his own count, has carried on the producing duties as well as sitting in with his guitar. In an industry sometimes notorious for its bigotry, the Scruggs family shines brightly, and we're all better for it.

  3. Hi Karen & Roy!

    Karen: Yeah, where are those breakfast cooking people when you need them? Thanks!

    Roy: True, Scruggs is definitely a force for good. As you probably know, he also participated in Viet Nam War protests, which was extremely unusual for a bluegrass/country musician. & man, he sure could play!

  4. I first heard Earl Scruggs on the Beverly Hillbillies as I child, and I always smile when I hear that theme song. Thanks for sharing the video and the info. I learned something this morning and it isn't even 6 a.m. yet. :)

  5. Damn, those two guys on the left didn't even have time to change out of their workshirts! (I guess the banal nature of my comment reveals my lack of banjo-ness.)

  6. Hi Clare: Or their work caps! I actually wondered about their outfits a bit myself--thanks!


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