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Bluegrass musicians forever changed by Earl Scruggs

By Keith McCord | Posted - Mar. 29, 2012 at 7:45 p.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY - Earl Scruggs, the man who defined the bluegrass banjo sound, died Wednesday at the age of 88.

Scruggs started playing the banjo when he was just 4 years old, and somewhere along the way, he pioneered a 3-finger rolling pattern. That created a fast, driving, pounding sound that turned music upside down.

To this day, banjo instructors almost always give new students a Scruggs tune to learn. John Kavanaugh has been playing bluegrass banjo for 30 years, and has been teaching it for about 20.

He's been an Earl Scruggs fan for as long as he can remember, and teaches the bluegrass legend's songs to all of his students. When he heard of Scruggs passing, he felt the blow.


You want your heroes to be around forever.

–John Kavanaugh


"You want your heroes to be around forever," Kavanaugh said.

Rex Flinner is another Scruggs fan who is also a veteran bluegrass banjo player. Like Kavanaugh, once he heard Scruggs play, he felt he had to learn too.

"His style of playing," said Flinner. "Though others before him had used the 3-finger style, he took it to another level of excitement and energy."

Scruggs played with just about every notable musician over the years, and even into his 80s could pound the notes as fast as the best players in the business. KSL interviewed a very gentlemanly and humble Scruggs in 2006 prior to a concert in Salt Lake City.


I really think his banjo playing is really behind the popularity of bluegrass music. To my ears, if it doesn't have Scruggs-style banjo playing in it, it's not really bluegrass.

–Rex Flinner


"What talent I have is nothing I created at all," he said. "It was just given to me, and I'm just trying to make the best of it."

Scruggs' family said he died of natural causes early Wednesday. Though he is gone, his music, style and legend will live on forever. Guys like Kavanaugh and Flinner plan to make sure of it.

"I really think his banjo playing is really behind the popularity of bluegrass music," said Flinner. "To my ears, if it doesn't have Scruggs-style banjo playing in it, it's not really bluegrass."

Scruggs is perhaps best known for playing the theme songs for "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Bonnie and Clyde."

The Scruggs style is so prevalent, new, younger-generation bluegrass musicians are learning his songs and modernizing them - creating a whole new sound.

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Keith McCord

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