8 Banjo Rolls to Take Your Playing to the Next Level

If you’re learning how to play the banjo, the first thing you probably did is learn a few chords and strum along to some familiar songs.

However, the real beauty of playing banjo playing starts when you put down the pick and start using your fingers. In this article, we’re going to show you a technique called a ‘banjo roll’  made famous by the likes of Earl Scruggs and Bill Emerson.

We explain what they are (we show you 8 patterns) and how to play them. Once you have a good bunch of rolls up your sleeve, you’re well-equipped to play a wide range of bluegrass banjo songs.

What is a Banjo Roll?

A banjo roll is a set of eight notes that are picked over and over again, with the thumb, index and middle finger. They let you play open chord patterns that are characteristic of bluegrass music. There are many variations on how to use your fingers, each of which has a slightly different sound as well as a different name.

Rolls have descriptive names including ‘forward roll’, ‘backward roll’ and even ‘The Foggy Mountain roll’.

Where to Put Your Fingers

Here are the notes of the 5 string banjo tuned to an open G. They go in this order: D, B, G, D, and g (written in lower-case).

Open G Tuning Banjo

 

In the instructions below, you’ll see references to fingers. Just in case you need a quick reminder, here’s what each finger is called!

 

Finger names

The Forward Roll

The simplest and most common of these rolls is the ‘forward roll’. Like all the rolls, it can be described as a set of eight instructions:

1) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

2) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

3) Pluck string 5 (g) with your thumb.

4) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

5) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

6) Pluck string 5 (g) with your thumb.

7) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

8) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

Here’s the TAB for it:

Forward Roll TAB

Although in this example, the index and middle finger pluck the B and D strings, you can choose any two strings that ascend in pitch and still be playing a ‘forward roll’. They don’t even need to be two strings next to each other! Why not experiment, with your G and B, D and G or even D and B?


The Reverse (or Backward) Roll

Once you’ve mastered the forward roll, your next step is backwards. The eight steps to the reverse – or ‘backward – roll’ are as follows:

1) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

2) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

3) Pluck string 5 (g) with your thumb.

4) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

5) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

6) Pluck string 5 (g) with your thumb.

7) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

8) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

Backward Roll TAB

As you can see, it’s just like the forward roll, but switches the order of the first and second strings. This one works well when the song’s melody is on string 1 (D). You can hear it in the legendary Scruggs’ ‘Home Sweet Home’.


The Forward-Reverse Roll

This roll is the first one to move your thumb around, really boosting your hand technique. Its eight steps are:

1) Pluck string 3 (G) with your thumb.

2) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

3) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

4) Pluck string 5 (g) with your thumb.

5) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

6) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

7) Pluck string 3 (G) with your thumb.

8) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

The forward-reverse roll might be a bit harder to remember than the others so far. You might find it useful to sing the numbers of your fingers or the string names as you play them, as singing has been proven to aid memory.

Forward-reverse Roll TAB


The Mixed Roll

The ‘mixed roll’, sometimes called the ‘alternating thumb roll’ uses every string on the banjo, with the thumb playing alternate notes.

1) Pluck string 3 (G) with your thumb.

2) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

3) Pluck string 5 (g) with your thumb.

4) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

5) Pluck string 4 (D) with your thumb.

6) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

7) Pluck string 5 (g) with your thumb.

8) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

Mixed Roll TAB

The alternating thumb roll pattern is used in classic bluegrass banjo songs ‘Cripple Creek’ and ‘I’ll Fly Away’.


The ‘Lick’ Roll

The ‘lick’ roll starts with the same picking pattern as your forward roll and ends with the second half of the backward roll. It’s often used to cater for a fourth‐string melody note at the end of a bar.

1) Pluck string 3 (G) with your thumb.

2) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

3) Pluck string 5 (g) with your thumb.

4) Pluck string 3 (G) with your index finger.

5) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

6) Pluck string 3 (G) with your index finger.

7) Pluck string 4 (D) with your thumb.

8) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

Lick Roll TAB

This one can take a bit of practice. Just remember to take it slowly and memorize a manageable portion of notes at a time.

 


The Foggy Mountain Roll

Foggy Mountain

The cool-sounding ‘foggy mountain roll’ comes from Earl Scruggs’ song ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’, recorded with ‘The Foggy Mountain Boys‘ in 1949. There are two variations, the most common being:

1) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

2) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

3) Pluck string 2 (B) with your thumb.

4) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

5) Pluck string 5 (g) with your thumb.

6) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

7) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

8) Pluck string 5 (g) with your thumb.

The second variation of the ‘foggy mountain roll’ simply misses out the second pluck. Instead of playing D with your middle finger, rest for that beat. All the other notes remain the same. The song ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ uses both variations of the roll pattern.


The Middle-Leading Roll

The ‘middle-leading roll’ was famously played by banjo great Sonny Osborne. It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘Osborne roll’.

As the name suggests, it uses a lot of middle finger.

1) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

2) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

3) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

4) Pluck string 5 (g) with your thumb.

5) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

6) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

7) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

8) Pluck string 5 (g) with your thumb.

Middle-leading Roll TAB


As with all of these examples, which strings are played can be changeable. What’s important is the finger patterns. Try the rolls slowly, gradually increasing your speed as you feel comfortable.

The Index-Leading Roll

The final roll to practice is the ‘index-leading roll’. As you’ve likely guessed, it includes a lot of index finger.

1) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

2) Pluck string 3 (G) with your thumb.

3) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

4) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

5) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

6) Pluck string 3 (G) with your thumb.

7) Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.

8) Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

This one’s pretty easy to remember and get up to speed. Your index finger strikes the second string on alternating beats, so a flow can be quickly established.

Index-leading Roll TAB

Summary

As you can see, there are quite a few rolls here to memorize. Each of them has a slightly different vibe, and combined, the lot of them will equip you to be a versatile bluegrass player!

As you’re playing the banjo, ensure that your notes sound clear and don’t rush the speed too soon. Remember, it’s music you’re making, so it’s best to make sure each note sounds clear as you practice, even if it’s slow.

When you get used to playing the patterns using the open strings, try each roll pattern on different chord shapes that you already know. Once you’ve mastered that, time to search for those classic banjo songs you know and love. You can guarantee these rolls will turn up on the TABs.

Learning how to play banjo is an exciting step to take. I hope that this collection of banjo rolls has given you confidence for the next stage of your banjo playing journey.

Roz

Roz is a music teacher and our resident expert when it comes to music theory. When she's not teaching or writing for Zing, Roz writes and plays in an alternative art-rock band.

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