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Forward Roll

Foggy Mountain Breakdown – Earl Scruggs

A banjo is not a guitar. A banjo is not a guitar as a bat is not a bird. What’s the exact point of sameness? Strings, a head, a neck… and the head isn’t even close to being a commonality. But that’s not the Rubicon between the two. It’s in the hand, the trusty right hand, man, thumping away on the strings. Guitarists strum, they clench a pick between two callused fingers, their hand dances two and fro across the thrumming body of the instrument. 

Banjo pickers suit up. 

You strap on three picks, like steel claws; finger, finger, thumb. Your hand stays right in one place, it’s there to do one job and do it well. Follow the rolls: forward, reverse, alternating thumb, Foggy Mountain, middle-leading… puzzle pieces. One-two-three-four, over and over, again again again. Be a machine. Thumb index middle thumb index middle thumb index middle until the hills sing.

Until Earl Scruggs appeared in a flash of bluegrass lightning, the banjo was a backing instrument. Relegated to keeping time and adding that touch of rural sound, it was the guitar’s awkward cousin. Until Earl Scruggs. Heaps of folks want credit for it, but none of them recorded Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I deplore being the man to say it was any sort of an overnight deal, but it was overnight. Bluegrass-wise, Scruggs has no antecedent. He delineates the life of the banjo.

For all the right-hand rolls, the left hand keeps busy too. You can pick fast, but not quite as fast as it sounds. The left hand is the illusionist, the set dresser. It taps out hammer-ons just behind the beat, slides up and down like a snake, sneaking in notes anywhere it can. It’s like a magic trick. “Step right up, folks! Watch me take a series of ordinary rolls – that’s just eight notes, folks, eight notes tops, count em – and turn them into something the likes of which you ain’t never seen before! Just watch!” 

It’s almost too fast to watch. Ears are not equipped. You just have to feel. Feel it drag you along like you’re tied behind a car. ‘They didn’t start chasing us till you turned on that getaway music!’

They said it sounded like an electric guitar. Never sounded like that before. People were throwing open the windows of shacks so their neighbors strolling by through the hollers could catch a listen. 

“Have you heard this new song?” 

“You’re telling me that’s a banjo?”

“But… that don’t sound like clawhammer!”

It sounds too fast to be true. Until people start trying it.

I want to learn this song like the dickens, but I’d give it three months before my fingers can even approach the speed that one so desperately wants. That’s not even counting the time to actually learn the instrument; no, I’m just speaking of drumming thumb finger finger on the side of my desk for hours on end. Like a typing lesson on drugs. The sheer monolithic enormity of this song is too much to grasp for one man without a tiny rock at the bottom for me to cling to. Thumb index middle. Thumb index middle until people throw their windows open to snatch those notes off the wind. 

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