Friday, June 14, 2013

Earl Scruggs, the Backward Roll, and good taste

When I first started out learning bluegrass style banjo I had no "method" or direction to learning the instrument and style. And by, "style", I mean the entire list of possibilities that are out there for bluegrass banjo. Melodic style, single string style, jazz style, newgrass style, "Bela" Style, "Reno" Style, and of course the ever popular "Scruggs" Style. When I first started out I had a book of tablature that included a mix of Scruggs, single string, and melodic so my earliest stages of learning had a bit of all that. Looking back I'm not sure that was the best thing for my playing. I would argue that it wasn't but hindsight is 20/20 I guess.

As I slowly improved at banjo playing I started branching out into as much music as I could. I went through a Jazz phase and learned a bunch of standards. I worked up lots of fiddle tunes in the melodic style and wrote my own melodic licks. I learned a few Bela Fleck tunes that I really liked. I even messed around a tiny little bit with a classical piece. Some of those musical ventures were more successful than others and it's obvious to me looking back that I was often trying to play above what I was really capable of. I'm still guilty of this and feel like its my weakest link in my playing. It's great to push yourself but at a certain point you have look at your limitations, accept them, and move on. John Hartford or maybe it was Johnny Cash who said that a style is created as much by limitation of talent as talent itself.

After trying to learn all this high-tech banjo music I realized after a while that I don't even really like to listen to high-tech banjo music. Well that's not exactly true but I didn't like to listen to a lot of the music I was trying to play. I mean I don't love to hear melodic banjo all that much. I don't just LOVE jazz banjo. I appreciate and am amazed by folks like Pat Cloud, Bela Fleck, and any number of great jazz banjo players. It's fun to play but I realized I'd much rather hear Earl Scruggs than any banjo player or banjo music for that matter. Why wasn't I focused on playing that music? So about a year or so ago, after playing banjo for 12 years, I really started to get deeper and deeper into "Scruggs" style and try to understand the finer points of his playing. I realized I should have been doing this from the start.

What is it about Earl Scruggs' playing that is so captivating to so many people? Good question. This has been heavily discussed elsewhere so I won't get to into all that but when it comes to the finer points of his playing I'm starting to see what it is he's doing that's so cool. Here's a quick list that's aside from things like, TONE, SPEED, NOTE ARTICULATION, and SONGWRITING. This is a short list of technical things.

  1. He plays the melody, and plays it really well.
  2. He can change between any roll, at any speed, any time he wants.
  3. He's a master of subtle phrasing, especially in the 3rd Em position. (could warrant a whole post or more)
  4. He has strong pull offs. (understatement)
  5. He's a master of the backward roll.

Read that last one again. THE BACKWARD ROLL. Yeah that roll, the hardest roll to play. Now I'm sure we could go on and on about Earl Scruggs' technique and find lots of other things but I want to look at the backward roll for a minute. What is so special about it? Here's why I think it's unique and special. For starters, It's really hard to play. The middle finger is the weakest of the 3 and to start your roll on that finger takes a lot more work. The thumb is the strong digit. That's why the forward roll and alternating are so much easier. It does most of the work in those rolls. Not so the backward, the middle does the work and plays most of the melody notes. The backward also breaks up the pulse of the notes and a quick switch from a forward to backward or vice-versa creates cool syncopation. This is most evident in Scruggs' playing in the songs (at least that I know of):

  • Ground Speed (The first two rolls of the song are backward and then switch to forward. Really tough. Call it the Ground Speed roll.)
  • Home Sweet Home (He masterfully plays the roll on the high D string by deftly switching out of a backward roll to a forward. Especially in the 2nd B part right before he plays those quick staccato chord vamps. Very weird!)
  • Shuckin' the Corn (In the first few measures he syncopates his rolls with a lightning quick change from a forward to a backward then back to a forward. Really strange and difficult!)
  • Ballad of Jed Clampet (The last section where he plays C, C# dim, then D is somewhat odd and is a long string of backward rolls even for Scruggs.)

These examples are just a few of the most obvious to me and I'm sure a more detailed look at his playing would find more examples. Of course the "G run" that is possibly the most recognizable lick in Scruggs style includes a quick backward roll. Thinking more about the backward roll in bluegrass banjo I feel like the backward roll is a big aspect of Scruggs' playing that a lot of banjoists' neglect. I know I could stand to work on it more.

Ultimately the thing about Earl Scruggs' playing is that he can consistently surprise you. Just when you think you know what he's up to you'll find some lick or phrase that doesn't fall into any pattern and can only be explained to Scruggs trying to play something that compliments the song at hand. For examples see:

  • Little girl in Tennessee (kick off)
  • Foggy Mountain Rock (those crazy slides)
  • Down the road (just try to play that roll)
  • Bugle Call Rag (his classic chromatic lick over the vamp)
And perhaps that's the ultimate lesson Scruggs has to teach us. Not how to play a great banjo break at lightning speed. Not technical things like rolls or licks and such. But, good taste. Can you find any example where he OVERPLAYS ANYTHING? If it's been recorded I've not heard it. A good buddy of mine who's a heck of a great carpenter dropped this little tidbit of wisdom. He said that the hardest thing to achieve in this world is simplicity. On the surface that might seem like a contradictory statement but the banjo playing of Earl Scruggs would suggest otherwise. Happy picking.

1 comment:

Gaby Lampkey said...

Thanks for thay article/blog on Earl.I always learn something new everyday.