NASHVILLE -- Bluegrass legend and banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs, who helped profoundly change country music with Bill Monroe in the 1940s and later with guitarist Lester Flatt, has died. He was 88.
Scruggs' son Gary said his father died of natural causes Wednesday morning at a Nashville ospital.
Earl Scruggs was an innovator who pioneered the modern banjo sound. His use of three fingers rather than the clawhammer style elevated the banjo from a part of the rhythm section -- or a comedian's prop -- to a lead instrument.
His string bending and lead runs became known worldwide as "the Scruggs picking style" and the versatility it allowed has helped popularize the banjo in almost every genre of music.
The debut of Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys during a post-World War II performance at The Grand Ole Opry is thought of as the "big bang" moment for bluegrass and later 20th-century country music.
After leaving Monroe's band, Flatt and Scruggs teamed up as a bluegrass act from the late 1940s until breaking up in 1969 in a dispute over whether their music should experiment or stick to tradition. Flatt died in 1979 at age 64.
They were best known for their 1949 recording "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," played in the 1967 movie "Bonnie and Clyde," and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" from "The Beverly Hillbillies," the popular TV series that debuted in 1962. Jerry Scoggins did the singing.
After the 1969 breakup, Scruggs used three of his sons in The Earl Scruggs Revue. The group played on bills with rock acts like Steppenwolf and pop acts like James Taylor. Sometimes they played festivals before 40,000 people.
In a July 2010 interview, Scruggs said that, in the early days, "I played guitar as much as I did the banjo, but for everyday picking I'd go back to the banjo. It just fit what I wanted to hear better than what I could do with the guitar."
Scruggs will always be remembered for his willingness to innovate. In "The Big Book of Bluegrass," Scruggs discussed the breakup with Flatt and how his need to experiment drove a rift between them.
In 1985, he and Flatt were inducted together in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"It wasn't a bad feeling toward each other as much as it was that I felt I was depriving myself of something," Scruggs said. "By that, I mean that I love bluegrass music, and I still like to play it, but I do like to mix in some other music for my own personal satisfaction because, if I don't, I can get a little bogged down and a little depressed."
He said he enjoyed playing because "it calms me down. It makes me satisfied. Sometimes I just need to pick a few tunes."
At an 80th birthday party for Scruggs in January 2004, country great Porter Wagoner said: "I always felt like Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be."