• The Banjos of Earl Scruggs - Part 1

    Joe Spann is a life-long card carrying banjo player with a professional background in genealogical and historical research, staff and facility management, fiscal planning and collection development. He is the author of Spann's Guide to Gibson 1902-1941.

    This article which is published in three parts was co-authored with Steve Huber, Huber Banjos.

    See Part 2 | Part 3

    At the heart of traditional bluegrass music is the banjo style of Earl Scruggs. He was the banjo player in the prototype bluegrass band, and it was his version of the Carolina three-finger style which brought Opry audiences to their feet in 1945, placing a rocket engine on American string-band music. The precision mechanics of his right-hand attack, coupled with his excellent and ever-developing musical sense, created a unique artistic treasure. In the years since his Opry debut, Earl has often been imitated, but has never been duplicated.

    During his lifetime Earl bought and sold a great number of banjos, which no doubt provided a much-needed extra source of income in the early days. He performed in concert with many of these instruments and even used a select few for recording. But this article is an attempt to recognize only the exceptional and extraordinary banjos which we most associate with his career. These are the instruments which the master himself deemed worthy.

    Earl's Early Banjos

    No discussion of Earl's banjos would be complete without a look at the instruments he used while learning to play. In his book, Earl Scruggs and the Five-String Banjo Earl mentions a number of instruments available to him as a child including his father's banjo and his older brother Junie's instrument. Earl evidently inherited the former, which was later on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame as part of an exhibit on his life. Nothing more is known of his brother's banjo, except that after Junie's marriage in 1934 Earl briefly kept the banjo.

    Earl Scruggs with brother Horace

    In 1937 at the age of thirteen, Earl purchased a mail-order banjo for $10.95. The maker of this instrument remains unknown, but some have speculated that it was a Gibson-built instrument, ordered from the Montgomery Ward company. Unfortunately, research shows that this cannot be true. Gibson did build a five-string for Montgomery Ward in 1937 (using the Recording King brand name) but the price of that instrument was $25.95. However, the 1937 Montgomery Ward catalog did offer a five-string banjo at exactly the $10.95 price point.The catalog art of that banjo depicts an instrument with many characteristics of a Kay-made product. A photograph taken of Earl as a teenager playing his mail-order banjo seems to confirm the point, as he is pictured holding a banjo with the appropriate peghead shape for a Kay instrument.

    Earl Scruggs and Kay banjo

    Earl Hears His First Mastertones

    Earl was exposed to banjos built by the Gibson Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan from an early age. Earl himself stated that in the early 1930's he listened to Fisher Hendley performing over radio station WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina and then later on WIS in Columbia, South Carolina. Hendley was known as the "North Carolina State Banjo Champion" and played two or three banjo numbers every week on his program. Earl stated that the banjo numbers "made the listening really worthwhile." Young Earl could not know that Fisher Hendley was using a Gibson "Mastertone" banjo, in fact a model RB-Granada (RB meaning "regular banjo" or five-string banjo), the most expensive five-string banjo offered by Gibson at that time. In a strange twist of fate it would be this very same banjo which Scruggs would later own and use as his primary instrument during the bulk of his career!

    The direct influence of Fisher Hendley on a young Earl was confirmed in a conversation between Scruggs and author/historian Bob Carlin in the late 1990's. At that time Carlin was researching Hendley for an article later published in The Old Time Herald. Scruggs reminisced about listening to Hendley on the Greenville, South Carolina radio station in 1935 and then to the amazement of those present volunteered to demonstrate Fisher's banjo style. Earl was handed a banjo and according to Bob did an excellent job of reproducing one of Hendley's tunes.

    For a few years starting in about 1937, Earl fell under the musical influence of DeWitt "Snuffy" Jenkins, a very strong three-finger style banjoist who began performing over radio station WIS in Columbia, South Carolina in that year. Jenkins was originally from Earl's own Cleveland County, North Carolina and often performed at local school houses, close enough for Earl to attend the shows. The banjo used by Snuffy Jenkins during this period was the same Gibson Mastertone RB-Granada which had previously belonged to Fisher Hendley. Jenkins had purchased the banjo from Hendley early in 1937 and then used it as his main performance instrument from 1937 through 1940.

    Earl's musical contemporary and childhood friend Don Reno often spoke of attending local performances and radio show broadcasts in the late 1930's at which Snuffy was present and playing the RB-Granada. At one of these shows the teenaged Don Reno first met a slightly older Earl Scruggs, whom he described as "very quiet and intense." Over the next few years, the two young men would encounter each other at other Jenkins performances, driven by the desire to understand what Snuffy was doing. Both of them were heavily influenced by the sound of the Gibson Mastertone banjo which Snuffy played. Both of them would eventually own it.

    Acquiring the RB-11

    The year 1941 was pivotal for both Don Reno and Earl Scruggs because in that year both young men would acquire their first Gibson banjos. Reno began performing over radio station WSPA in Spartanburg, South Carolina with the Morris Brothers. Probably in honor of this milestone, his parents helped him purchase the RB-Granada which Snuffy Jenkins had been playing. Snuffy was willing to sell it because the year before he had found in a pawn shop a Gibson Mastertone model RB-4 which he preferred to play. Reno's predecessor as banjo player with the Morris Brothers was Earl Scruggs, who no doubt had been using his $10.95 mail order banjo with the group.

    Also in 1941 Earl Scruggs located a Gibson model RB-11 in a local pawn shop and purchased it: his first Gibson banjo. We do not know much about this banjo, but in the few extant photographs of Earl playing it, some unique features are identifiable as characteristic of the RB-11's produced in 1940-41. Earl may have purchased the banjo brand new, as Gibson had many dealerships located in pawn shops throughout the south.The sound of the style 11 banjos was not of Mastertone quality, since they lacked the three-pound tone ring which characterized the Mastertones. The style 11's were visually different also. They had a pearloid fingerboard, peghead overlay and resonator back, with stenciled floral patterns in place of mother-of-pearl inlays. The neck and resonator sidewalls were painted a contrasting deep blue color. These features combined to make the appearance of the instrument flashy and attention grabbing on stage.

    Earl with Gibson RB-11

    Earl was deferred from the World War II draft because he was his mother's primary support, so he spent the war years working at Lily Mills in Shelby, North Carolina making thread used in sewing parachute cloth. During this time Earl performed only a little bit around home and once for a short stint on radio station WWNC in Asheville, North Carolina. With the end of the war in 1945, he decided to try playing music for a living and joined Lost John Miller and his Allied Kentuckians in Knoxville, Tennessee. After two weeks they moved on to a regular Saturday morning program on WSM in Nashville, Tennessee where they stayed for three months. During this period Earl continued to use his Gibson RB-11, in both concert performances and on radio.

    Earl and the RB-11 Join Bill Monroe

    In December of 1945 Lost John Miller decided to quit performing and Earl was left high and dry, looking for work. But he did not look for long. He was quickly hired by Bill Monroe to perform with the Blue Grass Boys and the rest is music history. For Earl's Grand Ole Opry debut Monroe selected "White House Blues," a number that showcased Earl's rapid-fire, three-finger style. The result was electrifying.The Opry audience went wild; they had never heard the banjo played that way.

    Earl continued to use his Gibson RB-11 for the next year and a half. His first studio recordings with Monroe and surviving air checks from WSM reveal that although the banjo had many of the best qualities of a pre-war Gibson, it could also lack sustain, sometimes sounding dry, hollow and dull.The absence of a Mastertone tone ring in this model and the vagaries of a calfskin head, are probably to blame. During an outdoor appearance at Blytheville, Arkansas on July 4, 1946,a sudden rainstorm caught the Blue Grass Boys unawares, giving them a good soaking. After the show the RB-11 literally began to fall apart, a victim of hard use and the moisture. The pearloid fingerboard which was such a flashy part of the style 11's appearance began to peel off, and the blue paint on the neck and resonator sidewall began to smear.

    Earl Scruggs needed another banjo badly.

    See Part 2 | Part 3