Bluegrass Rolls

Once you own a banjo and you have managed to get the thing tuned, one of the first things you will want to get started with are some basic bluegrass rolls. Rolls are the finger picking patterns used in bluegrass and I want to lay out a few basic examples to you started. One thing to remember is that there is no bible of banjo playing that mandates only certain rolls and not others. There are different names given to different rolls by different people, and there are a near infinite number of acceptable variations. The intention here is to offer a few exercises that I think are a good starting point. Once you get the hang of them you can combine different rolls as needed and it will make less and less sense to try and categorize every roll. And if you want a printable sheet with all these rolls scroll to the bottom and find the PDF.

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Important tips:

Use a metronome- it is crucial to even out the timing of your rolls.

Steady not fast- it is way more important to play evenly than to play fast.

Even volume- make sure that you can maintain an even volume across thumb, index, and middle fingers.

Alternating Rolls

Picking patterns that alternate between the thumb and fingers are called alternating rolls. They get used quite a lot and they are really easy to understand so it seems like a good place to start.

Forward Rolls

Picking patterns that move in the direction of thumb, index, middle, thumb are known as forward rolls. You can start on the thumb and move to index then middle, or start on index and go to the middle then thumb, or start on the middle and go to the thumb and then index. It doesn’t matter, they are all forward rolls if they are moving in that direction. Since we only have 3 fingers but we are often playing with 4 beats in a measure there is a need to “even up” by skipping a finger in order to make the roll fit in one measure. This “even up” doesn’t always have to happen but it is musically simpler to do it even if it isn’t immediately intuitive.

Example one kicks off with the thumb and skips the index initially. That’s what is known as a thumb lead which is a Scruggs thing. You can start that roll with the index instead if that works for you. Likewise I have example 2 starting with the index but you can do that one with the thumb lead too if you want to. It’s up to you but do try both.

Forward Reverse Rolls

Forward reverse rolls, as the name suggests are rolls that start in the forward direction (thumb index middle thumb) but then change directions. They usually pivot on the thumb when changing directions. Once again since a forward plus a backwards only adds up to 6 and we need 8 notes to fill the measure we can even up by skipping a finger.

Reverse Roll

At this point you may not need me to define the reverse roll but just in case you are wondering it is in fact just the opposite direction of a forward roll. This means it moves in the direction of middle index thumb middle. Cool?

Foggy Mountain Roll

Don’t be intimidated by the Foggy Mountain roll, it is just another variation on the forward roll. This is the roll used in the Earl Scruggs classic Foggy Mountain Breakdown. The temptation for me was to start the roll with index middle index middle since it is the same 2 strings but Scruggs played it and taught it as index middle Thumb middle. I found it awkward at first to bring the thumb down to the 2nd string in the middle of the roll but eventually I came around and now I like it.

Minstrel Roll

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Rolls PDF

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