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Beginning Banjo Rolls - Practicing Banjo Rolls

Beginning Banjo Rolls - Practicing Banjo Rolls

Beginning Banjo Rolls
Learning and Practicing Banjo Rolls

by Ross Nickerson

When you are beginning to learn banjo rolls, the most important thing to remember is the roll is determined by the finger pattern used not the strings played. For example a beginning banjo alternating thumb roll, sometimes referred to as a “square” or “box” roll is

T I T M T I T M (thumb index thumb middle)

This roll is most commonly first taught or introduced as playing thumb on the 3rd, index on 2nd, thumb on the 5th then middle on the 1st string, T I T M.  However those strings can be changed at will while still using the T I T M pattern and certainly are changed at will down the line when playing melodies. The finger patterns and techniques in the Scruggs style work, period, but the melody and strings needed to play a song can vary quite a bit.

One thing that could simplify things is in the Scruggs style banjo rolls is the thumb primarily plays the 5th, 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings, the index plays the 3rd and 2nd strings and the middle primarily plays the 1st string.

That is not to say there are not exceptions, for instance, as you get more advanced the middle comes up and hits the 2nd string at times and the index is played on the 4th etc., but this advice is a very good place to start.

Below I have a list of the common banjo rolls used in the bluegrass banjo three finger Scruggs style written as only the finger patterns used. Try practicing them without being told what strings to play. This will help you to avoid dependency on tablature and encourage you to work these things out and practice more effectively. FIRST, MEMORIZE THE PATTERN (memorize it by saying it out loud as many times as needed). Then use the hints and suggestions I gave to choose and alternate which strings you pick. The finger changed will primarily be the thumb and index fingers, the middle can stick to playing the 1st string for now. The index will be choosing between the 2nd and 3rd strings and the thumb choosing between the 5th, 4th, 3rd and 2nd strings.

There are number of important things you can practice after you get the hang of this,
For instance;

  • Learning to practice and repeat rolls in complete measures picking steady with no pauses.
    (a measure is any combination of 1/4 notes and 1/8 the notes that equal four 1/4 beats.
    (two 1/8 notes = 1/4 beat) The examples below are 8 1/8th notes which equals 4 beats
  • Accenting different fingers in the roll
  • Playing the rolls louder and softer (dynamics)
  • Banjo Tone - Make sure you are not looking at a sheet of paper when working on tone or any of these exercises for that matter. say the pattern out loud 10 times, you won't forget it.
  • Speed - Unless you try to play faster it wont just happen out of nowhere. Use correct technique and accept the fact that it might not sound great at first but it will smooth out.
  • Using a metronome and improving timing - Start slow and Simple to you get on the horse.
  • Practice substituting 1/4 notes in a roll by removing one or more of the 1/8 notes
    For instance; This; T M T I M T I M - Becomes This; T  T I M T I M - it is counted 1 2+3+4+
  • Learn to develop clear definition between 1/4 and 1/8th notes
  • Discovering weakness's and developing repetition exercises to work them out.

Banjo Rolls Practice without Tablature
Practice these patterns. You can choose any string as long as the pattern stays the same.

Alternating Thumb Roll PatternT I T M T I T M
Forward Roll Pattern 1T M T I M T I M
Forward Roll Pattern 2T I M T I M T M
Forward-Reverse Roll Picking PatternT I M T M I T M
Forward-Backward Roll Picking PatternT M T I M I T M
Foggy Mountain Roll Picking PatternI M T M T I M T
Backward-Forward Roll Picking PatternM I T M T I M T
Dillard Roll Picking PatternM I M T M I M T

Now start at the end and of this list and work backwards.

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