To mark the life of the great Earl Scruggs who died Wednesday at the age of 88, I would like to celebrate a lesser known portion of his work. Earl Scruggs was an amazing guitar player! I first became familiar with his guitar playing watching reruns of the Flatt & Scruggs television program. In many episodes, Scruggs would mix up the arrangement by finger picking a song or two on the guitar using his banjo finger picks.
Scruggs was from the state of North Carolina, and was quoted by NPR as saying, “My music came up from the soil of North Carolina.” Indeed, his hometown of Shelby sits right in the North Carolina Piedmont and his guitar playing was some of the finest Piedmont blues you could hope to hear. He perfectly captured that combination of ragtime, country and blues that distinguishes the style. And just as with his banjo playing, he picked every song flawlessly.
I was lucky enough to see Earl Scruggs play at UCLA’s Royce Hall back in November. I remember one of his sons saying to the audience as Scruggs traded his banjo for a guitar that one of his favorite parts of every show was getting to hear his father play the guitar. It was definitely the part of the show I was most looking forward to and I feel very fortunate that I got to see it even just once.
Scruggs’ guitar playing may only ever be a footnote to what is an undeniably historical, musical legacy. Compared to his innovations with the banjo, he did not reinterpret the guitar as an instrument the way he did the five-string banjo. Indeed, that little splash he made at The Grand Ole Opry more than sixty-five years ago is still rippling around the globe, sweeping away armies of new devotees every year. On the guitar, Earl Scruggs was just immensely talented and immensely entertaining. But his skill on the guitar demonstrates the great depth of his musicianship and talent. He was truly an American treasure and with all of the recordings like the one below and the innumerable pickers he has inspired, there are great players yet unborn who will thank Earl Scruggs for showing them how it’s done.