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.