Discover What Banjo Earl Scruggs Played and Why It’s So Iconic

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If you’re a fan of bluegrass music, you know the name Earl Scruggs. He’s one of the most influential banjo players of all time, and his style has been copied by countless musicians. But what banjo does Earl Scruggs play? In this article, I’ll tell you what kind of banjo Earl Scruggs plays and how you can get ready to jam with him.

The History of Earl Scruggs

The History Of Earl Scruggs

  • Earl Scruggs (1924-2012) was an American bluegrass musician and banjo player.
  • He is best known for popularizing a three-finger picking style (now called Scruggs style) that is a defining characteristic of bluegrass music.
  • Scruggs started playing music at the age of four and first performed with his family’s band on regional radio shows in North Carolina.
  • In 1945, he joined Bill Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys, and soon became the most talked about musician in the genre.
  • In 1948, he left the Blue Grass Boys to form the Foggy Mountain Boys with his brother, Lester.
  • The group released its first album “Foggy Mountain Jamboree” in 1949.
  • In 1962, Scruggs was featured in the popular song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” from the movie “Bonnie and Clyde”, which helped him gain wider recognition.
  • Scruggs continued to record and perform throughout the 1960s and 1970s, winning five Grammy Awards during his career.
  • In 1988, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
  • Scruggs passed away in 2012 at the age of 88.

Scruggs played a 5-string open-back banjo, which has become his signature sound. He typically used a three-finger picking style, characterized by a syncopated pattern of notes and a fast tempo. He is often credited with popularizing this style of banjo playing, which is now referred to as “Scruggs style”.

Scruggs’ Early Influences

Scruggs' Early Influences

Influence Style
Uncle Dave Macon Fiddling
Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith Fiddling
Gid Tanner Fiddling
Snuffy Jenkins Picking
Kessinger Brothers Scruggs-style picking

Earl Scruggs was heavily influenced by a number of musicians, many of whom were fiddlers. Uncle Dave Macon, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, and Gid Tanner were all fiddlers who influenced Scruggs’ style. He also was influenced by Snuffy Jenkins, who is considered the father of three-finger banjo picking, and the Kessinger Brothers, who developed the Scruggs-style of picking.

Scruggs’ Banjos

Scruggs' Banjos

The Gibson RB-3

Earl Scruggs is most associated with the Gibson RB-3 model. The RB-3 was one of the first 5-string banjos made by Gibson, and it quickly became the industry standard for bluegrass banjo playing. It has a flathead tone ring and a maple neck and resonator. Scruggs’ signature model is based on the RB-3.

The Gibson Earl Scruggs Standard

Gibson released the Earl Scruggs Standard model in 2005, as part of their Mastertone series. The model was designed with input from Scruggs himself, and it replicates the sound and feel of the original Gibson RB-3. The banjo features a maple resonator and neck, a flathead tone ring, and a mahogany fingerboard.

Other Banjos

Scruggs also played other banjos throughout his career, including the Gibson RB-88 and the Gibson Earl Scruggs Special. The RB-88 was a natural-finish version of the RB-3 that was released in the late 1950s, while the Earl Scruggs Special was based on the RB-3 but featured a more ornate headstock and fingerboard inlays.

Scruggs’ Legacy

Scruggs' Legacy

Name Instrument
Earl Scruggs 5-String Open-Back Banjo

Earl Scruggs was a groundbreaking banjo player and musician who was a major influence in the development of Bluegrass music. He is credited with inventing the three-finger picking style, which is a defining sound of Bluegrass. Scruggs used a five-string open-back banjo to create this unique style, and it has become the standard instrument for most Bluegrass players. The open-back design gives the banjo a bright, punchy sound that is perfect for the fast-paced playing that is a hallmark of Bluegrass. Scruggs’ legacy has been carried on by generations of banjo players, and his influence can still be heard in today’s Bluegrass music.

Differences between Scruggs-Style and Other Banjo Playing Styles

Differences Between Scruggs-Style And Other Banjo Playing Styles

Style Playing Style
Scruggs-Style Scruggs-Style is a three-finger picking style that was developed by Earl Scruggs. It is based on the melodic style of banjo playing that was popularized in the 1920’s by the seminal banjoist, Snuffy Jenkins. It utilizes a rolling right-hand pattern of thumb, index, and middle fingers, with the thumb playing the bass notes and the other two fingers playing the melody.
Other Styles Other banjo playing styles include clawhammer, frailing, two-finger up-picking, and single-string picking. Each of these styles differs from Scruggs-Style in terms of the playing technique, the type of picking pattern used, and the type of music played. Clawhammer banjo is a fingerpicking style that uses a downward motion of the thumb and index finger to produce its characteristic sound. Frailing is a similar style that is typically used to play folk, country, and bluegrass music. Two-finger up-picking is a banjo playing style that utilizes a two-finger picking pattern, usually with the index finger playing the melody and the thumb playing rhythm. Single-string picking is a style of playing that focuses on playing single strings in a melodic pattern.

Earl Scruggs is best known for his Scruggs-Style of three-finger picking banjo playing, which was developed in the 1940s and 1950s and has since become the most popular banjo playing style. While other banjo playing styles exist, Scruggs-Style remains the most widely used and recognized style of banjo playing.

How to Play Scruggs-Style Banjo

How To Play Scruggs-Style Banjo

Scruggs-style banjo playing is a type of three-finger style banjo playing developed by Earl Scruggs. It is characterized by a smooth, rolling, syncopated sound that is used in bluegrass and other forms of American folk music. It is typically played on a five-string banjo, with the player using their thumb, index, and middle finger to pick out the notes.

To begin playing Scruggs-style banjo, start by learning the basic roll pattern. This involves picking out the strings in a steady rhythm, with the thumb playing the fourth string, the index finger playing the third string, and the middle finger playing the second string. This roll pattern should be repeated in a steady, 8th-note rhythm.

Once you are comfortable with the basic roll pattern, you can start to add in other techniques. This includes using slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs to create a more complex sound. You can also use double stops, which involve playing two strings at the same time. Additionally, you can use rolls and licks to create a more varied sound.

Finally, practice playing with a metronome to ensure that you are playing in time. Once you are comfortable with the basics of Scruggs-style banjo playing, you can start to explore more advanced techniques and play along with recordings of your favorite songs.

Banjo Accessories Used by Scruggs

Banjo Accessories Used By Scruggs

Earl Scruggs played the five-string banjo, a type of banjo that uses five strings in a certain tuning. To play this instrument, he used a variety of accessories such as pick-guards, fingerpicks, and strings. Pick-guards are pieces of plastic or metal that are placed on the head of the banjo to protect the strings from being damaged. Fingerpicks are used to help with the sound and tone of the banjo, as well as to protect the fingers from the strings. Lastly, strings are used to change the pitch and sound of the banjo. Earl Scruggs used various brands of strings, including GHS, Martin, and D’Addario. He was known to change strings often to get the exact sound he was looking for.

Examples of Scruggs-Style Banjo Playing

Earl Scruggs is widely recognized for being the father of the three-finger picking style of banjo playing. His style of playing is characterized by a smooth, rolling sound, often employing a syncopated rhythm and a unique “Scruggs” roll. His signature style has been adopted by many bluegrass banjo players and has become a staple of the genre.

A few examples of Scruggs-style banjo playing include “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Cripple Creek,” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” All of these songs feature the signature Scruggs roll and are played in a three-finger picking style. Other examples of Scruggs-style playing include “Flint Hill Special” and “Ground Speed.” These tunes also feature the trademark Scruggs roll, but are played in a more traditional bluegrass style.

Earl Scruggs’ style of banjo playing is one of the most influential sounds in the history of bluegrass music. His unique style has inspired countless banjo players and has become a staple of the genre. His style of playing is still widely taught and practiced today, and his influence can be heard in many modern bluegrass performances.

Frequently Asked Questions

What type of banjo does Earl Scruggs play?

Earl Scruggs is well known for playing the five-string banjo. His style of playing, commonly known as Scruggs-style or three-finger picking, revolutionized the instrument and has been adopted by bluegrass musicians around the world. He is closely associated with the Gibson RB-100 and RB-3 banjos, which have become highly sought after by collectors.

How Did Earl Scruggs Become Famous For Playing The Banjo?

Earl Scruggs rose to fame as a banjo player in the 1940s when he joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. He developed a unique three-finger picking style that became known as “Scruggs style” and is now the most popular way to play the banjo. His groundbreaking solos, featured on songs such as “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Orange Blossom Special,” brought the banjo international recognition and established Scruggs as one of the most influential bluegrass musicians of all time.

How did Earl Scruggs influence the sound of bluegrass music?

Earl Scruggs is credited with revolutionizing the sound of the banjo by introducing a three-finger picking style that has now become the standard for bluegrass. His musical innovations also included the introduction of melodic breaks and a unique use of chord structures. His influence on bluegrass music was so great that it is now referred to as the “Scruggs style.” He has been inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor.

What style of playing did Earl Scruggs use when playing the banjo?

Earl Scruggs played the five-string banjo in the three-finger style. His approach to playing was characterized by the use of rolls and hammer-on, pull-off techniques. He was known for his innovative use of melodic and chordal patterns, which laid the groundwork for modern bluegrass banjo.

What is the most well-known song that Earl Scruggs wrote and performed on the banjo?

Earl Scruggs is best known for his rendition of the bluegrass classic “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” The song was composed in 1949 and has been featured in numerous films, television shows and commercials. It has become one of the most recognizable pieces of American music.


Banjo-playing legend Earl Scruggs has left a lasting impression on the world of bluegrass music. His innovative 3-finger picking style revolutionized the instrument and continues to inspire banjo players from all over the world. If you want to discover the type of banjo Earl Scruggs plays and get ready to jam, it’s important to understand the history of the instrument and the different playing techniques. With the knowledge of the basics, you can start learning the songs of Earl Scruggs and the other great banjo players of the past and present.


About the author

Hi there! I’m Jack Little – an avid country music fan with tons of live country performances in the past. I used to play banjo in a country band with my best friend John Peters, who’s a true country harmonica master. Those were great years and I’m still mastering new banjo playing techniques, writing my own country songs and lyrics, and collecting banjos!

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