Now let’s try some exercises such as the following, which are simply four-finger equivalents of some well-known three-finger rolls; the forward roll, backward roll, reverse roll and a couple of variations of the alternating thumb roll. (Note: This terminology is referenced from the names of rolls as found in Earl Scruggs’s book). Practice these as being phase I of your studies in 4-finger playing. Just as when you were learning your three-finger rolls as a beginner, practice these literally at least 500 times. 1000 for each roll would be even better!
One thing you’ll quickly notice in doing these exercises is that the ring finger simply cannot be lifted as high above the banjo bridge as other fingers! Perhaps some folks can do this, but I don’t think many people will find it an easy task to get much lift above the bridge with the ring finger. You’ll also soon see why this is important; the ring finger, now a picking finger, comes quite close to the first string, more so than any other finger. You wouldn’t want this finger to get lazy and occasionally hit the first string, especially if you’re not using the ring finger for a bit and it’s just sort of hanging there waiting for another four-finger roll to come along. One solution to this is to use a higher overall hand position. That’s a bit tougher for me, as my right hand position is pretty low to start with.
Because of this inability of the ring finger to get very high, the backward roll (the last one presented on this page) is an especially difficult one to do.
The next phase, which you can do concurrently with the rolls if you like, is to find good fretting positions to match these new roll patterns. At first, this simply means to do the rolls with various chords you already know. Later, though, this means to re-engineer some of you left-hand techniques; slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs, for instance. Start with left-hand techniques that go well with alternating thumb patterns, since they are already based on 4 notes, as opposed to three notes as with forward and backward rolls.
Create a new lick or two using this process and try this on one of your slower songs. Keep on working at it and see how it starts to sound once you start getting a moderate amount of speed to it (maybe 5 or 6 notes per second). Do you like the sound of it? If so, I suspect it’s worth pursuing!
Of course, you realize this is going to take some time. Remember how much effort you had to put into learning three-finger style? Well, this is no different – you’ll need to go find your initial enthusiasm once again to do your best at this, just as you did with three-finger. Be persistent. And don’t overkill with it. Remember to keep three-finger Scruggs as the ‘glue’ to bind everything else together and I believe it will be most effective.