The Gibson Earls Scruggs banjo model was initiated in
1984. If you go back to the advertisements of that time, 1984 were to be
signed. And that's how many were signed as stock models. I know the person
who purchased the banjos with serial numbers 1983 and 1984.
This banjo in the beginning was the developed through
the efforts of Roger Siminoff collaborating with both Gibson and Earl.
The tonering was a standard Stewart- MacDonald ring with a standard Stewart-MacDonald
3 ply rim. The flange was made from the same die from which all the flanges
had been made since the late 20's. The peghead shape and color is an interesting
story by itself.
Earl had let Jim Faulkner from Indianapolis put a new
neck on his banjo. Jim was the creator of the Scruggs/Ruben capo and, according
to Earl, he wanted to build a neck for Earl's banjo at the time. Earl really
didn't want a new neck, but, since Jim was such a nice guy, he let him
take the banjo home with him after playing Bean Blossom in 71 or 72. Earl
said when Jim brought the banjo back to him in Madison, he opened the case
and was not immediately fond of the new neck. Jim thought he would do Earl
a favor and refinish the resonator to match the new neck (and possibly
to put his own twist on banjo history). Earl again said that Jim was such
a nice guy and he didn't say anything about it.
It is also important to remember that in the late 60s
and early 70s, peghead and pearl cutting was not the art it was to come
in the next several years. Gibson actually did a great job in recreating
the copy neck that Jim Faulkner had made and the color was absolutely correct.
The pearl in the first Gibson Earl Scruggs banjos was cut by pantograph.
Gibson even used several petal and heart designs to attempt to make the
neck look like the one made by Jim Faulkner.
I started work with Gibson as a consultant in October,
1986 and went full time in June, 1988. By that time we had Granadas in
production. The RB-3 came next and then others of the original Gibson banjo
line. Greg Rich did not want to do anything to the Scruggs model for the
time being. Earl was reluctant to change the model since so much hype had
been made about how it was a recreation of his banjo.
In the spring of 1989, we put together a prototype of
what we wanted to present to Earl as the "new" Earls Scruggs
model banjo. The prototype used a standard Granada neck and had a solid
colored resonator with the same reddish brown color on the resonator side
walls. We took it out to show to Earl and he played it for a while and
said there is just something missing. I had a slightly different prototype
model in my van, even more similar to the Granada, the only difference
being in the resonator construction. He loved it. His words were "Boys,
that's what I wanted when we started this whole thing". After talking
with him at length that day, he suggested that we use an ebony fingerboard
and put the inlay at the first fret to make it look "better than the
Granada". Soon afterward, we refinished Earl's original resonator
and put a new neck on his banjo. That's about the way it's been since.
The last of the first run of Scrugg's yellow banjos was
serial number 1141. After that, all of the standard Scruggs models, except
a few special production banjos, were finished exactly like the the Granada.
For a while, the resonators were still made with complete maple side walls.
The old resonators had a 3-ply sandwich consisting of a face maple veneer
on the outside, and a ply of poplar running perpendicular to the back,
then a third ply of maple on the inside. At Gibson's request, Stewart-MacDonald
had been making resonator sides of 3-ply of maple. Since there was a good
supply of those at the time, all of the remaining resonator sides from
that supply were used on the RB-250 and Scruggs models until they were
gone. Stewart-MacDonald had already gone to poplar in the center of the
sandwich except for the ones they were making for Gibson. Once the supply
of 3-ply maple resonator sides was exhausted, all resonators contained
the maple- poplar-maple sandwich combination.
The small peghead was a product of the Faulkner neck.
For those who don't know, Jim Faulkner also made some of the first copy
Top Tension hoops in the late 60s and early 70s and a series of one of
the most desirable tonerings that Gibson had during that period. Many of
these tonerings ended up in the RB-800s and RB-500s. But Jim, like the
rest of us who were attempting to build banjo necks back then, didn't have
the greatest patterns from which to work. The peghead design was weak by
today's standards. It was small and cryptic looking.
The tonering in the early Scruggs model banjos was indeed
a Stewart-MacDonald ring. The problem with those banjos was with the setup!
The Stewart-MacDonald tonering is an excellent ring, and I'd still rather
have it than most on the market today. Some banjo "critics" didn't
like the Stewart-MacDonald ring. I've found one thing in my 30 or so years
in dealing with banjo parts and the players. Banjo players always want
whatever they can't get. There is a mystique about trying to get something
that others cannot attain. And when Stewart-MacDonald rings were readily
available, many thought they can't be any good. Any one can order them.
(A side bar to that. Does anyone know who made the tonering for Stewart-McDonald
for several years? I'll leave that for speculation, but you'll be pleasantly
The problems with the originally produced "yellow"
Scruggs banjos were not with respect to the tonering. The problems came
from other places:
1. The ring and shell did not fit properly together.
The tonerings varied in inside diameter (the way practically all good rings
do) and the shells were cut with a slight taper so that the tonering would
tighten as it slid down onto the shell. This caused a dampening effect,
producing a tight fit once the ring was put on the shell, but leaving a
small airspace where the skirt of the tonering was suppose to make contact
with the outside of the shell.
2. The resonator was way too heavy. Gibson had ask Stewart-MacDonald
to make sidewalls as I mentioned previously from 3-ply maple instead of
1/3 poplar. Anyone who has ever worked with wood knows the difference in
the weight of poplar and maple. I found out about the poplar in the resonator
from an old friend Harry Sparks, who helped me as much as anyone in getting
my act together with banjos. Harry, once while living outside Frankfort,
Kentucky tried an experiment with several original flat head banjos. In
the late 60s and early 70s he had his hands on many of those. He said that
they tried banjo after banjo exchanging resonators and each time it would
change the sound; some drastically and some only slightly. The most dramatic
sound change of all occurred when they put a top tension resonator on a
non-top tension banjo. But, that's another story altogether.
3. The neck fit was not the best. They basically put
the heel on the pot the way it came from the carving machine. Those of
you who have had those banjo necks off the rim will notice that they did
no final fitting of the neck and the shell. They just bolted them on and
sent them out. I've seen just a little tinkering help those banjos considerably.
Those types of details are, by the way, done at the factory before an instrument
leaves Gibson today.
4. The ebony fingerboard has a different sound. Though
Earl liked the ebony fingerboard because it made his banjo look different
from the others, ebony does produce a distinct sound unlike that one gets
from a rosewood fingerboard. Some will argue this, but I traveled the country
for a few years and heard more than my share of banjos. Take it from me,
there is a difference and if those of you who have an ebony board could
hear their banjo with a good neck and a rosewood board, you'd agree. Sounds
crazy, its only a little over 1/8 of an inch thick, but there is definitely
a sound variation.
And one last note about Earl playing the "honey
colored" banjo. This happened a couple of years after Flatt &
Scruggs had broken up, during the Earl Scruggs Review days. If you're looking
for Flatt & Scruggs photos exhibiting this banjo, you're not going
to see it. Also, there were a few times I was able to get security clearance
while the 'Review' was together to go back stage. Earl had another banjo
set up with a pickup that he used part of the time.
Another side bar. The neck that Faulkner replaced was
a neck made of mahogany. This neck had been on the banjo since the Beverly
Hillbilly days. It was made by G.W. Gower. Many talk of the sweet sound
of the Granada opposed to the more harsh and strong sound of the Scruggs.
Try one of the Scruggs Deluxe, it is basically a Granada with an ebony
board and an extra inlay or two. It has the same harshness of the Standard
by Doug Hutchens
(Editor's note: Doug Hutchens is a respected historian
of the Gibson banjo and consultant