Tony Trischka and Earl Scruggs

Tony Trischka has a well-deserved reputation as both an innovator and an instructor of five string banjo. Prior to his current endeavor, the online Tony Trischka School of Banjo, he had more than a dozen banjo instruction books and DVDs, and nearly 30 recoded works to his credit.

His Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular album in 2007 pushed Trischka into higher orbit, with multiple television appearances, a Grammy nomination and a handful of IBMA awards coming in its wake.

Banjo players worldwide know Tony for his many contributions, but not as many know that he was also a friend to Earl Scruggs, a man he admired for his particular genius with the five string, but also for his warmth and kindness to fellow banjo pickers. Trischka had met Scruggs in the 1960s, when Tony was just a young kid with a dream, and Earl was in his prime. As Trischka’s career was arcing upward and Scruggs was slowing down, they remained friends and recorded and performed together on a number of occasions.

When I caught up with Tony late last night, he was still working through the range of emotions that everyone in the bluegrass and banjo worlds was feeling, just hours after learning of Scruggs’ passing. He mentioned that awkward sense of having known this day was looming, but still being caught a bit off guard by the news.

“I saw Earl just a few months ago, and he looked tired and was very quiet. When [Earl’s son] Gary told me that he had died in his sleep, I was relieved.”

But only moments later, Tony launched into a powerful distillation of what Scruggs meant to the banjo, and those who cherish it.

“Earl has had a profound effect on every banjo player who ever heard him, and he influenced millions of people through his music. Bluegrass would not be bluegrass completely without him. He defined it when he joined Monroe in 1945, and that sound became the template for all the bluegrass that would follow, and all that will be played from here on.”

Tony also touched on the question that historians bicker about to this day: whether Scruggs actually originated 3 finger style, or merely refined it.

“People had been playing three finger banjo before him, but the banjo’s never been the same since he arrived.

I talked to Earl about this when he was working on his book in the 1960s. His editor had asked him, thinking about a sub-title, ‘shall we call this three finger style?’

Earl’s reaction was, ‘What the heck. It’s Scruggs style!’ He looked at it as Scruggs style. He knew that he had come up with it, and had taken it further than anyone had to date.

When I interviewed him once, he told me that he felt that what he brought to the banjo was syncopation. Of course he did so much more than that.

You can’t even put into words how strong his right hand was, and the reaction to his playing in the 1940s when he was first with Monroe was electric. On the live recordings from that era, you can hear the audience respond instantly to his solos – and even just to him being introduced!”

Thinking of the 1940s, it’s hard for a banjo player living today to fully comprehend that there was once a time, pre-1945, when there was no bluegrass banjo; no Scruggs style picking in the world. Perhaps harder still, now there is no Earl Scruggs.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.

  • Dave Hollender

    Very sad. I was at Berklee at about 8:00 last night with Noam Pikelny and some students when I found out. He had finished two days of teaching just minutes before and everyone was upbeat when the phone rang. It was Matt Glaser calling to ask if I had heard. The room got silent. Noam plopped down into a chair and put his head in his hands. When he looked up he said, “The world became a different place today.”

    The day that Earl realized that his fingers had begun to do something he had been hearing in his head and declared that he got it he could never have known that he’d just made a ripple that would eventually grow into a tidal wave. I keep thinking about how many people I never would have met but for Earl. Multiply that exponentially and you begin to realize how much good came as a result of a shared connection to what he gave us.