How to Play Foggy Mountain Rolls on the Bluegrass Banjo - dummies

How to Play Foggy Mountain Rolls on the Bluegrass Banjo

By Bill Evans

There are two kinds of Foggy Mountain rolls you can play on the bluegrass banjo. Earl Scruggs was 25 years old when he recorded his composition “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with guitarist Lester Flatt and their band the Foggy Mountain Boys in December 1949. This recording is probably the most important song in the history of bluegrass banjo, and the key to playing it like Earl is to get to know your Foggy Mountain rolls.

It’s a good idea to get familiar with both variations of the Foggy Mountain roll because then you can use one or the other depending upon which roll sounds best and feels the most comfortable.

  • Foggy Mountain roll 1: Here’s a step‐by‐step guide:

    • Pick the second string with your index finger.

    • Pick the first string with your middle finger.

    • Pick the second string with your thumb.

    • Pick the first string with your middle finger.

    • Pick the fifth string with your thumb.

    • Pick the second string with your index finger.

    • Pick the first string with your middle finger.

    • Pick the fifth string with your thumb.

    The key to playing the Foggy Mountain roll with power and speed is to begin the roll with the picking‐hand index finger playing the second string followed by the thumb (instead of the index finger) striking the next second string you play in this roll. Take note that this roll ends with the thumb, which requires you to begin a new Foggy Mountain roll with the index finger.

  • Foggy Mountain roll 2: This version of the Foggy Mountain roll is exactly the same as roll 1, except you now leave out the second note. The first note of roll 2 is a quarter note that takes up the space of two eighth notes. You’re playing seven instead of eight notes, but keep in mind that you’re still filling the same amount of musical space usually occupied by eight notes.

    Here’s a step‐by‐step explanation:

    • Pick the second string with your index finger.

    • Pick nothing, allowing the second string to ring.

    • Pick the second string with your thumb.

    • Pick the first string with your middle finger.

    • Pick the fifth string with your thumb.

    • Pick the second string with your index finger.

    • Pick the first string with your middle finger.

    • Pick the fifth string with your thumb.

This is what both Foggy Mountain rolls look like in banjo tab.

Foggy Mountain rolls 1 and 2.
Foggy Mountain rolls 1 and 2.

It’s a lot more fun practicing rolls using the chord progressions to real songs. Try the Foggy Mountain roll with the bluegrass classic “Long Journey Home” after you’ve worked up a bit of speed. You can use roll 1 or 2 or mix and match as you play through the chord progression.

“Long Journey Home” with Foggy Mountain rolls.
“Long Journey Home” with Foggy Mountain rolls.