Odd that last month I wrote a column about Earl Scruggs, and then the great banjo master passed away last Wednesday. The column was about a radio show I did about Earl for KPFA on the occasion of his 50th birthday, and how I didn’t exactly cover myself with glory in the broadcasting world.
I don’t remember a lot of what Earl and I talked about, other than the development of his amazing style of picking, but there was one question and answer that lives in my mind yet, and it offers a tiny insight into Earl’s sense of honesty and morality.
Back in about 1959 Vega began selling an Earl Scruggs model banjo. Here’s a quote from the 1963 Vega catalog: “Earl Scruggs now uses a new type Vega Banjo, designed according to Mr. Scruggs’ own ideas of construction and tone. It is the perfect banjo for C&W (!) musical performance with brilliant tone and distinctive stage appearance. Different than any other banjo.
“Features a new slim, fast action neck. New bracket ring around rim and new resonator flanges. Flat head as always preferred by Scruggs. Pearl position inlays, ebony fingerboard, 3 piece neck. Resonator sunburst finish on back, burgundy pearl sides. All metal parts polished nickel plate. Plastic head is moisture proof and stays tight for tone.”
The instrument was priced at $345, or $390 with built-in cam tuners. The case was another $50. A gold plated presentation model with fancy peghead, “engraved and colored” was $880 plus case.
Back in 1974 I knew this banjo existed, and I also knew Earl was playing his usual old Gibson, so I asked him about it. He looked a little pained as he explained the situation. I could tell he really wasn’t comfortable with how it had worked out. I’m going to put quotation marks around his answer; I took no notes but this is a pretty close paraphrase, even 38 years later. There are some people who when they talk, you listen very carefully.
“The Vega company contacted me about endorsing their banjo (pronounced ‘banjer’ in Earlspeak),” he said. “I had always used the Gibson banjo so I went to the Gibson people and asked if they would like my endorsement, but they weren’t interested.”
[Just one more of many examples of the lameness of the Gibson company, in my humble opinion.]
“So I talked to the Vega people and told them what I wanted and they made me a banjo and brought it to me,” Earl said.
Then he paused. Earl was kind of a slow talker; I don’t know if that’s just a North Carolina thing or if it was just his personal way. But his next sentences were slow, and, I think, sad and regretful.
“I tried to play that banjer,” he said. “I really did. But I just couldn’t. So I went back to playing my Gibson.”
Eventually, as all banjo players know, Gibson did do a deal with Earl and made a whole series of Earl Scruggs banjos. Since the big Nashville flood last year there have been no new Gibson banjos produced. No one knows if the company has any plans to make any more.
My own opinion is that they won’t bother. Banjo production at Gibson is barely a pimple on the butt of the electric guitar business. Plus the banjo world is way different now. There are so many fine banjos being made by Deering, Stelling, Huber, and boutique makers like Arthur Hatfield, Warren Yates, Rob Bishline and Will Williams that Gibson would have to invest a bunch of money for just a small share of the market. Plus, on the lower end, there are a bunch of Asian banjos around that (the ones I’ve played, anyway) aren’t really great instruments but are perfectly acceptable and playable and very reasonably priced.
In a way it’s kind of fitting that Gibson banjos and Earl Scruggs should vanish from the scene about the same time. Gibson helped Earl achieve “the sound” that most of today’s banjo pickers still try to achieve. And Earl made Gibson “The” banjo for many years.