Recently we have had to endure the passing of two legendary figures in the music industry. Earl Scruggs (born 1924) and Jim Marshall (born 1923) were both household names, depending on whether you played banjo or electric guitar. (Or both, as I do.) Despite their obvious differences—one being an American folk artist, the other a British amp manufacturer—they had many things in common: humble beginnings, a sense of humility that they kept throughout their entire lives, and the ability to create a singular sound that musicians couldn’t live without once they heard it.
Their surnames, along with their contributions, made a lasting impression on the culture of popular music. I was fortunate enough to have met both men several times, and while my meetings were either too brief or too formal (at least from the perspective of a journalist on assignment who idolized his subjects), I took away valuable lessons from them each time. These often came as passing remarks from the great men, but their wisdom etched itself in my brain as indelibly as the sound of the three-finger roll and the EL34-driven stack.
I had first heard Earl Scruggs’s work the way most suburban kids do: in the blistering arpeggios that back the vocals on The Beverly Hillbillies TV show theme. Sometimes Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs would make guest appearances on the show as themselves. But even after being mesmerized by the banjo playing, I still didn’t even know that they were real people. After all, this was a show with characters like “Dash Riprock” and “Bolt Upright.” The appellations “Lester Flatt” and “Earl Scruggs” could well have been concocted by Hollywood screenwriters for these gentlemanly Appalachian pickers.
But Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt were real, and could really, really play. And their true history was far more exciting and tumultuous than the subdued and reverential treatment they received as guest artists on a TV sitcom. Flatt and Scruggs started out as sidemen in Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, the legendary band that, among other achievements, defined the classic bluegrass ensemble formula. In fact, the very word bluegrass was backformed from the name of Monroe’s band. While Monroe might have been the entrepreneur that named the genre, the most profoundly influential musician in the band would be Earl Scruggs. He codified a loose, folk-based fingerpicking style into the driving, syncopated, and irresistible form it is today, called “Scruggs-style.” You simply cannot play the five-string banjo in a bluegrass or folk-based band without first learning your Scruggs rolls and a few signature Scruggs licks. There have been many great stylistic additions and players that have come along, but Scruggs was first, he got it right, and he got it perfect. No one has, or can, improve on what Scruggs did for the banjo and bluegrass in the early 1940s.
Jim Marshall was poor and ailing for much of his youth. Anyone who takes even a cursory glance at his biographical milestones cannot help conclude that Marshall was irrepressibly clever, industrious, hardworking, talented, and tough. His physical countenance was slight and he spent a large portion of his developmental years in a bodycast due to “tubercular bones.” But once the cast was off, we find the young Marshall, in almost breathless succession, going from working menial jobs to boxing to dancing to playing drums to fronting bands as a singer, dancer, and drummer. Too poor to afford a motorized conveyance, the busy and in-demand Marshall rigged up a trailer to his bicycle so he transport his drums to the gig. He opened a music shop and, as an adjunct to the workaday business of selling gear and giving drum lessons, he designed amps. One day Pete Townshend walked into the shop. (Marshall had known Townshend’s father, who was also a musician.) Townshend needed more volume from his amps than current makes and models could provide. Marshall took on the assignment. And the rest, as they say, is history.
From a gear perspective, the three biggest names in rock and roll are Gibson, Fender, and Marshall. Orville and Leo are long gone, but Jim Marshall was still going into the office and making the trek to trade shows until just recently, when he was well into his 80s. He came up through life as a self-taught inventor and inveterate tinkerer, learning much of his technical knowledge from engineering books and with no formal education. He also didn’t play guitar. (In this way he was similar to Leo Fender, whose amps he was influenced by in the early years, before he found his voice.) But Marshall was a brilliantly intuitive, and he always listened to what people around him were saying. Throughout his life he would reiterate that his knack for listening was the key to his success: he listened to people—whether it was Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix, Slash, his staff engineers, or his family. While Marshall had design help from Ken Bran and Dudley Craven in those early years, we remember Jim Marshall in the same way we do Steve Jobs (also the non-technical partner in a successful business relationship): because he was the visionary. He was able to prevail and sustain his business because he kept on listening, both to the wise counsel of his supporters as well as the tones that emanated from his namesake amplifiers. This ear-to-the-rail approach, with artists and his own conscience, is what earned him his place in history, as well as the affectionate moniker “the father of loud.”
Earl Scruggs and Jim Marshall were both 88 years old. They were graced with long lives, and lives well lived. And we are better for them. Thank you, gentlemen.
|This Week on HC|
GrooveZoo, the online creative-collaboration community, announced the winners of the Mix Phase of its Write|Track|Mix Contest.
For the reggae song “Insecure,” Tom Chadwick, a full-time electrical engineer who sings, plays drums, and records and performs with his wife in Essex, VT, claimed the top spot for his good vocal handling and effects, drum treatment and balance, and innovative approach to the breakdown. Tom lists among his recording gear the Lexicon I-O|42 and Apple GarageBand.
Russ Ragsdale, an active recording, mixing, and mastering engineer from Nashville, TN, won for his version of the contemporary country ballad “Turning of the Page.” Ragsdale showed command of the genre, and applied his masterly touches to such production aspects as vocal support, balance, overall cohesion, achieving a totally professional sound. He lists Shure SM7 and Lawson L47 mics, the Focusrite Red 1 preamp, MOTU UltraLite-mk3 interface, and Avid Pro Tools among his recording gear.
Both winners will receive a Universal Audio UAD-2 DUO—plus rousing congratulations from the contest judges, HC, and GrooveZoo for their display of excellence in a contest filled with worthy submissions.
Vintage Recording Approaches for Modern DAWs
By Phil O'Keefe
By Craig Anderton
Backing up projects is easy—until external hardware gets involved. Fortunately, there's a solution
Nuke Those Finger Squeaks
We've all heard them—those annoying squeaking sounds the guitar makes when you quickly shift your hands to a new position on the neck. Here are a few ways to lessen their impact, starting with tips for live performance, or while tracking in the studio.
And now, some tips if you’ve already finished tracking and still have squeaks.
|Featured Industry News|
This week's pick hits from our News section
A few of this week's top discussions from our Forums
Nothing beats the bite of a Tele single-coil pickup. But the tradeoff for that searing sound is that we must learn to live with the noise inherent in all single-coils. Or do we? In this thread, Telepickers weigh in on specific brands and approaches that hamstring the hum without hampering the highs.
From clip-on tuners to adapters to solving “wall wart” problems to wireless keyboards and even what makes the best coffee when you’re stuck in a hotel, this thread delivers the tips.
Your acoustic guitar was designed to produce optimal playing conditions when a set of strings at the recommended gauge is brought up to tension of standard tuning. So what effect does playing in altered tunings have on the long term health and playability of your guitar? Find out here.
A very cool video showing the creation of a Fender Strat from raw wood to completed guitar—and thanks to the magic of modern video technology, you see it all happen in about four minutes.
Greatest analog drum machine ever? Or not? Not surprisingly, opinions are divided—but they’re pretty interesting opinions.
Good question, and there are a lot of tradeoffs either way. This thread will help you decide which tradeoffs matter the most to you.
Occasionally a fuzz or other pedal, when set up to sound “right,” lowers the volume when activated. How do you compensate, yet still activate everything with a single footswitch? This thread has the answers.
Are some musicians more “credible” than others? Does a rapper qualify as a musician? Are drummers less “musical” because they don’t have to know about melody . . . or do they need to know about melody? This thread touches on a lot of diverse subjects.
So you had to move your drum kit, and now you just can’t seem to get it back to the way it was. What’s the best way to rebuild a drum setup from the ground up?
So which is it—hall? Plate? Spring? None at all? Something else? And how much is the right amount? The Solo and Duo Acts forum weighs in.
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Editorial Craig Anderton, Editor in Chief • Jon Chappell, Senior Editor • Phil O’Keefe, Associate Editor • Chris Loeffler, Reviews Editor