Courses  Instructors  How It Works Plans & Pricing Resources 
x

Log In

Log In 
Don't have an account? Sign Up

Reset Password

Submit 
An email has been sent with instructions on how to reset your password.

Sign Up For Free

Then join a course

Continue 
Already have an account? Log In

The History Behind "Foggy Mountain Breakdown"

Earl Scruggs - History Behind "Foggy Mountain Breakdown"
It was a warm and rainy day at Herzog Studio in Cincinnati, Ohio 1949, when a young Earl Scruggs wrote an instrumental bluegrass piece that would shatter the confines of country music and introduce American bluegrass to the world.

More than any other work, Earl Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” highlighted the prolific role that banjo had in bluegrass music, inspiring the hallmark tune featured in cult classics, group picks, and worldwide culture.

A native North Carolina boy, Scruggs had spent the preliminary years of his career on the road, touring first with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, before performing as Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Playing with Bill was the culmination of the American bluegrass pickers dream, but with smooth singing and Scruggs' radical approach to the banjo The Foggy Mountain Boys band was a success from the start. These two exceptional groups were the first string bands to experiment with a lightning-fast, hard driving sound where Scruggs' unprecedented banjo virtuosity was at the core of this revolutionary movementIt has been said that Earl Scruggs was a prodigy of his time. He had helped shape the world of bluegrass music by branding his style of rapid fire banjo playing into what was then still considered country music. With his captivating three-finger picking style, inspired by a blind picker Mack Woolbright, the magic of Scruggs’ artistry was found in the phrasing and candor of his playing. Scruggs carefully balanced his simplistic technique while navigating a heightenedd tempo and a melodic approach, which brought new life to the African-inspired ragtime rhythms on the modern banjo at a time when its popularity had been waning.

Scruggs walked into that studio with his Gibson Grenada in hand, where one of the recordings that was cut to disc that day, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," would go a long way toward defining the history of bluegrass music, the five-string banjo, and of the master picker himself.

The quintet of Scruggs, Lester Flatt (vocals, guitar), Benny Sims (fiddle), Curly Seckler (mandolin), and Howard Watts (bass) recorded other tunes that day, but nothing else made heads turn like the "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." Starting off hot with a staccato chord from the banjo, the tune quickly comes to life with a rapid tempo rarely attempted in country music. Scruggs does not hesitate on pouring out 16th-note rolls in a 16-bar chord pattern repeated 13 times during the roughly two-minute, 40-second recording.

It is important to note that Scruggs' banjo style in this piece uses only three chords, G, Em and D, but contains several variations. In addition to what might be called the "head," two other variations are played in higher positions on the banjo's neck which was a notorious style technique true to Scruggs’ banjo playing.

"Foggy Mountain Breakdown" didn't receive global notoriety after its 1950 release, but it gained immediate momentum with adoring fans. Banjo players were mesmerized by Scruggs' unique banjo style, with complex parts for the left and right hands that took patience and practice to master.

Flatt and Scruggs continued to rise through the ranks of country music, as their style was still called then, but by 1955 they had earned a coveted spot on the Grand Ole Opry radio show, which broadcast weekly from Nashville to more than half the nation. Not long after, “bluegrass” became a household name in the south encompassing master pickers such as Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs himself.

Thus began the long and memorable history of the "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." In 1963, Flatt and Scruggs provided the banjo-driven signature of the hit CBS series "The Beverly Hillbillies." In 1967, the song was featured as a recurring theme in the film "Bonnie & Clyde,” ringing true during every car chase following mischief or a debacle. In 1969, the song took a surprising turn as it reached lower rankings of the pop-music charts and won a Best Country Performance Grammy that year.

Scruggs, who passed away in March of 2012, continued to play the tune at every show throughout his long and memorable career. He never set out to write a great piece of music on that rainy day in 1949, he says it just “fell together” as a tune that perfectly fit the banjo. His unintentional artistry created something that would inspire musicians and audiences for years to come. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown" has been recorded a myriad of times, earned a reputation for creating an instant fascination with Scruggs-style banjo for generations of pickers, and is just one of the legacies and joys that the great Earl Scruggs left on the world. If you consider yourself a self-respecting bluegrass picker, you best know this classic by heart.

Interested in Scruggs style playing and taking your Banjo skills to the next level? Sign up for lessons directly from the legendary Tony Trischka. You'll get access to hundreds of lessons, and personal video feedback from Tony himself.

Relevant Content

Banjo Tips from Tony Trischka: Foggy Mountain Breakdown Roll

How to Tune a Banjo by Ear

Banjo Tuning Notes

Purple Bar
 

Comments

X