RIP Earl Scruggs: The Story Of ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’

More than any other work, Earl Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” established the banjo as the star instrument in bluegrass music. That song is still perhaps best known as the accompanying theme for a pair of roving gangsters in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde.” A bright and quick tune written by a quiet North Carolina country musician that introduced American bluegrass to new audiences around the world.

Earl Scruggs is probably the best-known banjo picker in the world. And even people who don’t know his name know was is called the Scruggs style of playing when they hear it, a crackling, syncopated style in which the player uses the thumb and two fingers fitted with plastic and metal picks to play chords, melody and cascading rolls of notes.

Scruggs recalls that a crisp finger picking style with thumb and forefinger or a thumb and two fingers—similar to classical guitar playing—was the most common way to play the five-string banjo in his western North Carolina hometown. Scruggs remembers when he was four years old going to his uncle’s home and hearing a blind banjo picker named Mack Woolbright.

“He’d sit in the rocking chair, and he’d pick some and it was just amazing,” Scruggs recalls. “I couldn’t imagine—he was the first, what I call a good banjo player.”

Scruggs was hooked. His father—who had recently died—had owned a banjo, and Earl started to play it even before he was big enough to hold it. He started with just the thumb and forefinger, but one day when he was about 10 years old, something new happened.

“Well, my brother and I had been into a fuss with each other,” he remembers, “and I’d gone into a room by myself, and I had the banjo in there. And I was, I guess, pouting. And all of a sudden, I realized I was picking with three fingers. And that excited me to no end. I was playing a tune called 'Reuben.’ I had the banjo run down in D tuning, playing that. I went running out of the room and there was my brother—so sudden—I came out saying, 'I got it. I got it. I got it.’” (Paul Brown / The NPR 100 Most Important American Music Works of the 20th Century)

Photo: Tom Pich/National Endowment for the Arts


RIP Earl Scruggs: The bluegrass legend died in a Nashville hospital Wednesday at age 88. Scruggs was a quiet fellow at times, but he didn’t need to say much, considering he basically made banjo a key instrument of bluegrass. Rest in peace, bluegrass man. (Above: Here’s Scruggs performing with fellow banjo man Steve Martin on Letterman. Look at those fingers go.)

Foggy Mountain Breakdown
  • Foggy Mountain Breakdown
  • Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs
  • Foggy Mountain Breakdown

Foggy Mountain Breakdown by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs - This is the instrumental by which the skill of any banjoist is judged.  It is the equivalent of playing Eruption for the rock guitarist.  This is one of the all-time classic bluegrass tunes and was selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Recording Registry.


We lost a legend today. Earl Scruggs died today at the age of 88. Once known as “the boy who made the banjo talk”, he mastered the three-finger picking style now simply called Scruggs-style. Not limited to strictly bluegrass, he crossed over into multiple genres playing with pop, jazz and international artists. No doubt we’ll be hearing a lot of Foggy Mountain Breakdown and The Ballad of Jed Clampett over the next few days. 


It’s a little misleading to say three fingers. It’s actually two fingers, middle and index finger, and your thumb, and it’s kind of — some of the rolls will go, if you number your thumb one, the index two and your middle finger three, it’s like a one-two-three roll, over and over. But to do a tune, it’s like trying to say every word with the exact same amount of syllables in the word. You’ve got to alternate the rolls some to make the tune flow.
—  Banjo player Earl Scruggs talked to Terry Gross about his signature picking method.

Master banjo picker Earl Scruggs would have been 89 today. Born 1/6/24.

Here’s Earl & Doc Watson picking together on John Hardy & Cripple Creek. 


thoughts on earl scruggs & various banjo playing styles, featuring bela fleck, alison brown & chris pandolfi.

a must-see for banjo pickers!