The Broken Banjo

A message from Earl?

Weird but true: After my experience last week with simulated gut strings, I ordered a banjo set, figuring I’d restring my beautiful Deering with “nylgut” for an old-timey pre-bluegrass sound. But as soon as I tuned up, BANG! The head ripped in two.

I went upstairs and told my wife, “That’s weird — I’ve had that head on there for more than 20 years,” and she said, “That’s really weird — Earl Scruggs just died. Your banjo must be in mourning.”

Maybe. Or maybe Earl was just saying, “Don’t turn your back on bluegrass too fast, now, son.”

I’m not much of a player, though I’ve used the instrument a lot on Tom Waits records. I bring the Deering to sessions, but he always says, “Why don’t you play one of mine?” He has a couple of beat-to-hell early-20th-century open-backs with crusty old strings — a sound he describes as “death banjo.” Which is especially morbid given yesterday’s sad news.

Anyway, I learned as a kid from Scruggs’ 1968 instruction book. I still keep it on my shelf.

1 comment to The Broken Banjo

  • Matt Seniff

    I saw the Earl Scruggs Revue in the 70’s four times he was amazing. He had such a beautiful touch and tone, it made me want to cry at times. I am not a real big bluegrass fan but Earl sort of transcended that in a way I’ve never heard since. He could have played any style of music and fit like a glove. Earl Scruggs was an American treasure.
    I toy with a banjo now and then but only record with it in a free improv trio I play with. Mine isn’t real old and crusty yet but it is getting there. I have a contact pickup on it and a single coil pickup under the head right at the neck joint. I like to play it with the single coil on thru a lot of fuzz and echo. I have the same instruction book, I found in a used book store 10 or so years ago.
    Have you ever seen Eugene Chadbourne? He was the guitarist/vocalist with Shockabilly back in the 70’s. He plays banjo a lot these days and he is pretty amazing. I’ve seen him sight read Erik Satie’s Marche du Grand Escalier (March of the Grand Staircase) on banjo a couple of times. It is a pretty amazing performance he plays it all perfectly but the banjo is just so wrong it’s right. Of course he also had a hybrid banjo/toaster he used for a while it had a banjo neck and a toasters guts for the body so he is the definition of odd and eclectic. Quite the amazing stringster go see him if you ever have the chance. He also tends to do odd stuff guitar wise like use a crusty spitty broken fuzz pedal  thru the verse and chorus and turn it off for leads while playing thru a PA head and cab. But he makes it work, I wish I could feel comfortable doing that sort of oblique stuff. Disclaimer: I used to hang out with him when he played around here. Amazing guy toured the Soviet Republics as a “jazz” act back in the 70’s before the Iron Curtain came down  (they didn’t allow rock or country much but getting a visa for jazz was easy because it was the music of the oppressed black Americans).

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