Back to Basics – Intro and 4 Essential Rolls

Here’s another series of blogs I’ve started! This one is on beginning 5-string banjo techniques.

Sometimes, it is hard to sort out all the required details from the extras when you’re just getting started in something complex; learning to play the banjo, for example. What I want to do with this series of blogs is to distill the essential techniques and present them here. If you’re the kind who likes to just get the bare theory on something and then start tinkering with your own version, then this is ideal for you. If you know them already, just think of them as a good checklist to compare your progress against. If you don’t know some of them, then use this as an opportunity to “fill in the blanks”!

Today, I’ll start where I usually start new students – the 4 essential rolls. I assume you know how to read tablature only – not standard sheet music. Tab is pretty easy to pick up, fortunately. I also assume you can tune your banjo to open G tuning (GDGBD, from top string to bottom). Before we get started with the actual techniques, though, a couple of things to note.

I’m only limiting these to 4 to keep down the mental clutter. As you might suspect, there are literally hundreds of string and picking finger combinations that you could practice and use in actual songs, and that someone, somewhere no doubt already has. These 4 are chosen because they are some of the most common, as witnessed by their preponderance of use by most everyone. Almost all banjo instruction books cover them as well.

As you practice these, it is important that you always keep your ring and/or little fingers firmly resting on the banjo drum head. This is a very important requirement, as you’ll not be able to make much right-hand progress if you don’t. Some folks use just one finger firmly planted on the drum head  – that’s okay as well, but you should use both if you can. If you’re Greg Liszt, then yes, you may use just one finger! (Dr. Greg Liszt is a banjo player with Crooked Still and Bruce Springsteen who plays with 4 fingers! Something I’ll be blogging on one day soon!)

I’ll also be adding some more rolls to this series a few lessons later. And as always, if you hit some rough spots and need a hand, don’t hesitate to seek out a banjo teacher!

So, the first roll to consider is the forward roll:

 Forward Roll

Notice I have written in which right-hand finger to pick with with either a T (thumb), I (index finger) or M (middle finger). You’ll be picking down with the thumb, and up with the index and middle fingers.

Next is the backward roll. You can see if you look close enough, that this is simply the reverse of the forward roll:

 Backward Roll

Now for one of the most used rolls of all: the alternating thumb roll:

Alternating Thumb Roll

The alternating thumb roll is a bit more intricate than the first two. Keep with it though; it’s worth whatever effort you put into getting it down cold.

And last for today, the reverse roll. Study this one a bit and you’ll see why it is commonly called the reverse roll: it’s a sort of combination of the forward and backward rolls:

 Reverse Roll

With each of these rolls, practice them many hundreds of times. 500 or a thousand times for each roll over the course of a few weeks before moving on to new material will work wonders for your right hand techniques! I know that’s asking a lot of most folk’s time, but it’s well worth it. (I did that when I was first learning, so it’s not like I’m asking you to do something I’ve not taken the trouble to do myself.  🙂

That’s it for today. Next in this series will be some basic chords!

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About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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One Response to Back to Basics – Intro and 4 Essential Rolls

  1. Pingback: Back to Basics – 3 Essential Chords

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