by Ross Nickerson
This months column will complete my article entitled; What banjo roll should I use. In last month’s article I asked four questions in the opening paragraph. I answered the first two with some suggestions and instruction and now I’d like to discuss the next two which were: Which roll works best for playing the melody?, and Which roll works best for backup?. Again I’d like to reiterate that much of how you play is subjective and their are no absolutes. I would not dare suggest that I have all the answers or can tell you the only way to do something. I would however like to share my background, knowledge and experience as a professional to lead to a place where you’re more capable of making your own choices or rethink something which may help you have a more rewarding experience picking the banjo. Let’s move on to the first question.
Which roll works for playing the melody?
I think it’s safe to say the forward roll and the backward roll are the most useful in playing the melody. Using the thumb to play the melody and filling the spaces where the banjo is unable to sustain the melody note with the forward roll is an effective and simplistic way to pound out the melody so it can be heard. The roll I’m referring mostly too is T-TIMTIM. (the dash is a rest or in other words the first thumb is a quarter note and the remaining six are eighth notes equaling a total of four beats). Earl Scruggs preferred playing the melody with the thumb and I totally agree. There are times when the thumb is not available to you because you just used it on an eighth note, so please don’t interpret my suggestion as you only play the melody with the thumb. I recommend that you use it as what I would call the “preferred finger” when playing the melody.
The backward roll works in the same way as the forward roll in your approach to playing the melody. The following roll is the backward equivalent of the forward roll above. T-TMITMI. The backward roll works particularly well when playing the melody on the first string. Lately I have been really into combing the two in a two measure sequence. for instance, this sixteen eighth note pattern, TIMTIMITMITMITIM. Try that pattern on the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings. I have some tab available that demonstrates the things we’ve been talking about. If you would like some you’re welcome to e-mail me. Now on to the next question.
Which roll works best for backup?
This may be a little harder to answer but it would probably be a good thing if I give you some suggestions on backup as well. When you’re picking behind vocals or behind another instrument when they are soloing it’s safe to say you don’t want to interfere. Keep your rolls fluid, rhythmic and uncontroversial musically. By being uncontroversial I mean, try not to play notes that stick out in all the wrong ways or detract from what the listener should be more focused on. The forward roll I mentioned above is very fluid and the roll TMTIMITM works great on turnarounds. The reverse roll can be effective and not playing the fifth string every time around is good also. This backup question could be explored much more deeply but these suggestions may lead you to some of your own conclusions. I think the most important thing you can do with rolls is play them in time and very rhythmically. Probably the most important role of a banjo play is to drive the band, hold it together and provide the fluid motion that really drives people to love Bluegrass music. That is accomplished by a solid rhythmic right hand. Not to be confused with playing a bunch of complicated licks with poor timing. Poor timing is the kind of thing that drives people to have an attitude about banjo players sometimes.
I address a lot of these issues on the:
Ross Nickerson’s main teaching website