12 Essential Fill-In Licks on the Bluegrass Banjo
Fill‐in lick 1
This is absolutely, positively the most important lick in all of bluegrass banjo. You can use it for the final G chord for just about any song you play, and you’ll convince everyone that you have true bluegrass street cred (well, at least for a moment!). If you’re a newbie, take care to play every note of the roll correctly. This is a bit tricky as the roll changes direction halfway through the measure, first going forward and then backward. This lick is so crucial that the roll pattern that goes along with it is called the “lick” roll, by the way.
Fill‐in lick 2
Banjo players live and breathe by the slight variations that separate one version of a lick from another. Lick 2 is a lot like lick 1 with the addition of a fourth‐string pull‐off that makes it sound totally different — okay, not totally. The second measure offers up a nifty forward‐roll phrase that presents a different way to exit the lick than the pinch pattern in lick 1.
Fill‐in lick 3
If lick 1 is number one on the all‐time great fill‐in lick popularity chart, this lick holds down the number‐two spot. As you gain experience with more and more licks, you’ll experiment with breaking down the parts of licks to combine them in unique ways to create new sounds. The last four notes of measure one are the last four notes of a forward‐reverse roll. This phrase segment appears in many different contexts in all kinds of licks.
Fill‐in lick 4
You may have guessed this one was coming! As early as the late 1940s, Earl Scruggs started combining licks, and it’s time for you to do the same. Lick 4 combines licks 1 and 3 to create a frequently used sequence that’s ideally suited for the end of any solo.
Fill‐in lick 5
This lick has the same effect as licks 1 and 2 but uses a different roll pattern. This one is good to use when the song is at a rocking, medium tempo.
Fill‐in lick 6
A great fill‐in lick can make you jump out of your seat when you hear it for the first time. Earl Scruggs played this phrase in his classic instrumental “Earl’s Breakdown.” You’ll follow the first third‐string hammer‐on with a new maneuver: a hammer‐on followed by a pull‐off. There are also quite a few consecutive index fingers you’ll pick in this lick as well. Take it slow and check out the audio and video examples to get every detail correct.
Fill‐in lick 7
A growling variation on lick 3 that adds a first‐string third‐ to second‐fret pull‐off to the mix. If you move downward with the fretting fingers for your pull‐off, you’ll really be able to snap that first string all the way to Nashville. Earl Scruggs and J. D. Crowe employ this lick in “Down the Road.”
Fill‐in lick 8
Things really start to happen when you combine shorter licks into longer phrases to extend the length of the end of your solo. Here are three separate licks that work well when combined into one mega‐lick.
Fill‐in lick 9
Lick 9 pulls in elements of lick 6, but take note of the unique timing and fingering. This is the kind of lick that J. D. Crowe often plays to end a hot solo on a medium‐tempo song.
Fill‐in lick 10
Speaking of J. D. Crowe, here’s a frequent way that he ends solos on such favorites as “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” and “Your Love Is Like a Flower.” You can use this longer lick just about anytime you’re ending a banjo solo in the key of G but you want to keep your momentum going for another couple of measures. Keep your rolls driving as you add the fretting‐hand techniques, and you’ll soon sound just as good as J. D.!
Fill‐in lick 11
Lick 11 combines lick 1 with a lick commonly used in “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” Earl Scruggs played this kind of fill‐in lick early in his career on songs such as “Little Girl in Tennessee.”
Fill‐in lick 12
This is probably the most complicated fill‐in lick you can play down the neck! You can hear Earl Scruggs play this lick in “I’ll Stay Around.” It combines elements of licks 6 and 7. Don’t try to tackle a lick like this just from examining the tab. It’s absolutely essential to listen and watch to get the sound of this lick just right.