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,
Banjo tone, speed, accenting different fingers in the roll, playing the rolls louder and softer, improving your timing and developing repetition exercises to work on areas that you feel are weak in your picking.
Banjo Rolls Practice without Tablature
Practice these patterns. You can choose any string as long as the pattern stays the same.
|Alternating Thumb Roll Pattern||T I T M T I T M|
|Forward Roll Pattern 1||T M T I M T I M|
|Forward Roll Pattern 2||T I M T I M T M|
|Forward-Reverse Roll Picking Pattern||T I M T M I T M|
|Forward-Backward Roll Picking Pattern||T M T I M I T M|
|Foggy Mountain Roll Picking Pattern||I M T M T I M T|
|Backward-Forward Roll Picking Pattern||M I T M T I M T|
|Dillard Roll Picking Pattern||M I M T M I M T|
Now start at the end and of this list and work backwards.