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Learning Banjo Rolls Online with Tony Trischka

What’s A Banjo Roll?

At its simplest level, a banjo roll is simply a pattern of picking the strings with the right hand. Oftentimes, that same finger pattern is repeated throughout the measure.

To go a little deeper, from a music theory standpoint, a banjo roll is a repeating arpeggio. An arpeggio is also called a broken chord, which means that instead of playing all the notes of a chord at once – as with a strum – the chord’s notes are played successively in time with the music.

What Does A Banjo Roll Sound Like?

Usually one string carries the melody of the tune while the other strings fill out the chord around the melody or sometimes even provide a counter-melody. The roll produces pleasing notes around the melody a bit like a wave lifting a surfer on its crest.

Once you learn a particular roll, you can keep playing that same finger pattern even as you change chords. The new chord produces new notes even when you continue to use the same roll.

How Are Banjo Rolls Typically Used?

Banjo rolls are extremely versatile. They can provide a song with rhythmic drive, fill in the background beat and melody behind other instruments, or a soloist can improvise his break around them. Although rolls can be used any way you like, they’re usually associated with bluegrass music, thanks to Earl Scruggs.

The Legend Of Earl Scruggs

“And just who was Earl Scruggs?” you ask. I’m glad you did! Earl Scruggs pioneered banjo rolls in bluegrass in the mid-1940s. If you’re new to banjo music, you might recognize him as the banjo picker who played "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" for The Beverly Hillbillies TV show.

Here’s Earl performing "The Ballad" in a 2002 concert for PBS’s Great Performances:

But if you’ve been around bluegrass for even a short amount of time, you’ll also associate Earl with one of his most famous tunes, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."

Here’s Earl playing "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" with Steve Martin on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2002:

If you can follow how fast Earl’s fingers fly, you’ll see that he is using the eponymous “Foggy Mountain Breakdown Roll” which he invented.

You can learn more about the Foggy Mountain Breakdown Roll -- and how Tony teaches it -- in this ArtistWorks blog post.

Banjo Rolls For Beginners

At the beginning of this blog post I quoted Tony, who mentioned that the first roll he teaches is the Alternating Thumb Roll in playing Ode to Joy. (By the way, how cool is that? One of your first banjo songs is by Beethoven!)

At first, you only need two fingers on your right hand. For the Alternating Thumb Roll, you “alternate” between plucking with your thumb and then plucking with your middle finger. Once you’ve mastered the 2-finger version of the song, Tony shows you a different arrangement of Ode to Joy which uses 3 fingers -- where he adds the index finger.

Learning Banjo Rolls Through Video Exchanges With Tony

Here I am playing the 3-finger Alternating Thumb Roll version in my Video Exchange with Tony:

Natalie gets banjo rolls advice from tony trishcka

Next up, Tony uses the classic banjo tune "Boil Them Cabbage Down" to teach you these popular rolls:

  • Roll
  • Finger Picking Pattern
  • Forward roll
  • Thumb - Index - Middle
  • Backward roll
  • Middle - Index - Thumb
  • Forward/backward roll
  • Thumb - Index - Middle -Thumb - Middle - Index - Thumb

And that’s just the beginning. After you master these rolls, Tony lets you jump right in and start mixing up the rolls within the song!

My First Rolls As A Beginner at Tony Trischka’s Banjo School

Learning banjo rolls almost broke my brain at first. I’d get my fingers all mixed up. I had to concentrate on each finger’s job and go extremely slowly at first -- which is difficult because by nature we want to play quickly!

However, the way Tony layered each lesson on top of the previous one, I eventually got the hang of it with lots of practice. Practice helped me get to the point where my fingers automatically know what to do when my brain tells them: “Alternating Thumb Roll.” After that, the rolls happen almost on autopilot. 

Tony’s Helpful Feedback On My Banjo Rolls

Tony not only helped me learn the basic rolls, but at the same time he also coached my playing in other ways. For example, he told me I was hitting the banjo head with my thumb sometimes -- and can you believe I didn’t even notice it until he mentioned it? Now I’ve become so attuned to that thumping sound that I hear it like thunder!

You can see Tony’s feedback on another one of my Video Exchanges here:

banjo rolls - video exchange from natalie

Tony Trischka’s Bonus Advice about Learning Banjo Rolls

When I asked Tony if he has a favorite quote that inspires him, he said:

“Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box”  -- Twyla Tharp

Tony then translated Tharp’s advice for banjo players:

“In other words, learn your Scruggs's rolls before trying to play like Bela Fleck.”  -- Tony Trischka

I guess that means it’s time for me to go practice my rolls!

Click here to learn more about ArtistWorks Online Banjo School with Tony Trischka

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