Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Would any of us be here without Earl?

So this random thought just popped into my head, would any of us be playing banjo (or even know what one was) if Earl hadn’t created Scruggs style? And more specifically about Scruggs style, do you think that it was inevitable that someone start playing that way, and he just happened to be first, or do you think that if he hadn’t no one would have? I’m gonna make a poll, and I’d like to see your votes, but I’d also like to hear your opinions, there’s no wrong answers as it’s all speculation, but I want to know what y’all think

  • Was Earl the only one who could’ve done it?
  • Or was it inevitable and he was just first?

0 voters


I’m going with inevitable. Which doesn’t mean that it would necessarily be exactly what Mr. Scruggs did, but something somewhat similar. Human ingenuity and creaticity is an amazing gift. I believe someone would have come up with fancy fingerlings.


Not enough choices here Gunnar, Earl certainly inspired me but there are many other banjo players that tweeked my ear.


Regarding the style, I think it was inevitable. Throughout history, we can see examples of inventions coming to fruition at nearly the same time from people who weren’t working with each other. Tesla and Marconi working on radio is a very popular example of that.

Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. - Victor Hugo.


My question is about the origin. Those other players who inspired you came after Earl didn’t they? Would they have been playing without Earl?


The thing is Gunnar, Earl wasn’t the first banjo player to inspire me, There was Sonny Jenkins, Charlie Poole, Uncle Dave Macon, Eddie Peabody, George Formby, Pete Seeger, Don Reno and a host of other banjo players that tweaked my ear. Not all played the five string banjo but their music drew me to learning the five string. If you follow. I still believe Earl has had the biggest influence on me.

Here is Ronnie Browne of The Corries one such banjo player from Edinburgh who’s picking had an impact on me in my youth.


It was Earl and his book “Earl Scruggs and the 5-string Banjo” with a cassette of him teaching, that started it all for me. I believe I was in 8th grade when mom & dad bought me my first banjo.


My early memories of banjo would be the Ballad of Jed Clampett, Dueling Banjos, Rocky Top, and Foggy Mt Breakdown.

These days I admire anyone that plays. What fascinates me are the ones that make picking look like an involuntary bodily function. Like breathing. Much of what I have seen Katy plays fits this category, along with Alan Munde.


Katy makes it look so easy. It blows me away watching her perform complicated runs while singing.


I couldn’t agree more @Mark_Rocka I wish she would do a couple of lessons showing how she can play and sing at the same time.


I’m going to weigh in here because I have written multiple papers on the history of the the banjo. Earl Scruggs was not the first to develop 3 finger picking. There were others in the late 19th century-early 20th century, it’s known today as classic style. It didn’t have all the rolls that Earl used and developed. When Earl was young (he started playing at 3 years old) there were others who were using rolls. He figured out how to do his own style on the song Ruben. Around the same time Don Reno was doing the same experimentations that Scruggs was however Don Reno went off to war and Earl Scruggs did not allowing Earl to become famous for the style we know today. When Don Reno came back from the war, Don started experimenting with single string because Earl had beaten him to being known for the style we know as Scruggs style. I think if Earl hadn’t figured it out we would be playing “Reno Style” instead of “Scruggs Style”. That’s the history in a nutshell.


I am surprised by your response @Archie. It seems to me that given a choice, you have the stronger opinion to work inside the question and give a straight answer. :thinking:

Your strong opinions are something I admire about you… to keep things simple and straight forward… not that I don’t appreciate your thoughts behind the response.

That said, I was happy to see that in the end, we both sided with Earl’s influence! :facepunch:

I have a tendency to want to read into questions and add too many factors into it… which is why I appreciate @Dragonslayer’s approach here. :+1:


I went with the unconventional answer because… well, I think there were a number of factors that all converged at the perfect time for Earl to have established such a strong influence… and clearly, my answer is the affects in American music… Instead of the influence of Banjo in World music context.

Why did I choose that insight or perspective? Because of the nature of the question itself about whether the collective we - ultimately being here.

It was the timing (so often a factor in paradigm shifts) with the recording industry and its’ expanding distribution, Radio in those times, the emergence of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass style, the method and artistry behind it… and so much more.

The whole ‘Monkeys with typewriters writing a classic’ Theory comes to mind. Sure, it may have happened one day… but in this special case with the Banjo being considered a “Parlor Instrument” of a past era… puts another strong factor on the instrument’s use in any modern music context (of the 1940s, I mean)…just seems to me that it was the perfect storm.

The fact that the question is tough to answer with such limited options is exactly why I liked it.

Bravo @Dragonslayer!

By the way, the nature of the transition of Earl deciding to leave Bill and Bill’s hurtful efforts to keep the “Genie in the bottle” by intimidtion… as in my humble opinion, Bill saw the genuis emerging and a testament to Earl… but that Earl just had to leave… without intention to start his own thing at that time (he decided to play with Lester later so it was NOT an Exodus thing to leave Bill) as I read in Earl’s book.

As Earl went out on his own, it is just so symbolic of soooooo many artists who had to walk their own path in pursuit of their definition of expression and excellence.

Many times, these splits… but sometimes… these moves alter history and have true genius emerge… that surpasses the humble origin… almost as it it would not be denied… or that it was destiny.


Thanks for the history lesson, Kaleb! That’s a very interesting story, and one that I’m sure has been repeated in many fields by many people through the years.

It’s also interesting that it falls in line with my guess above, that the idea had come and multiple people were working on it simultaneously. It was inevitable.


Would any of us be here without Earl Scruggs?

I can only speak for myself here (although it’s very possible that Ben’s site- “here”- would be affected in some way if Earl Scruggs never played banjo), but for myself, I’m going to say no. My playing is strongly influenced not only by Earl himself but also those who play very similarly to him (Jim Mills, J.D. Crowe, Russ Carson, Joe Dean, etc.), and although we would probably have people who played 3-finger style banjo, people like those mentioned above might not have taken an interest in the banjo if it weren’t for the particular sound that Earl pulled out of that Granada. Jim Mills said the thing that got him hooked was the particular sound of Scruggs’ original recording of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Same thing with Russ Carson, who is quoted as saying:

“My Dad was fanatical about recording stuff on VHS, and one of those tapes was Earl Scruggs playing at the Ryman. Ricky (Skaggs) introduces him, and he comes out and plays ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown.’ I was absolutely obsessed with that. My mother came down about 3 in the morning to find me about four inches from our TV screen, just hitting rewind and rewind, you know. I had to do that. And now I find myself in Ricky’s band playing that stage, almost on a regular basis. I still can’t believe that.”

I’ve seen that performance on YouTube, and before Earl comes out and plays, Ricky Skaggs plays some mellow clawhammer banjo for the audience and says, “That is how banjos would be played today… if it weren’t for Mr. Earl Scruggs.”


Not sure where your heading with this Will. I have said what I wanted to say on this topic and I see no need to justify it further.


In this reply, you have said it all. Thanks!


Very interesting discussion so far!
I do want to just clarify that I asked multiple questions in the post, and the one in the poll is not the exact question as is on the thread title. Sorry for being confusing :joy:


You hit the nail right on the head. Perfect explanation Michael Mark. I agree with you 100%.


Wow… Fascinating results! :face_with_monocle:

I’d enjoy to see where @BanjoBen, @MissMaggie, @Jake, @AdamAsh (The Hypeman), @Fiddle_wood, and many others of the “regulars” would weigh-in on the poll and topic!