How to Play the Alternating Thumb Roll on the Bluegrass Banjo - dummies

How to Play the Alternating Thumb Roll on the Bluegrass Banjo

By Bill Evans

The alternating thumb roll is the first thing you might play on the bluegrass banjo if you were taking a leisurely stroll down a country road on a spring morning with banjo in hand. Sometimes called the thumbinandout roll, the easygoing sway of the alternating thumb roll is at the heart of classic songs like “Cripple Creek” and “I’ll Fly Away.” As its name implies, every other note is a thumb note. Here’s a step‐by‐step guide:

  1. Pick the third string with your thumb.

  2. Pick the second string with your index finger.

  3. Pick the fifth string with your thumb.

  4. Pick the first string with your middle finger.

  5. Pick the fourth string with your thumb.

  6. Pick the second string with your index finger.

  7. Pick the fifth string with your thumb.

  8. Pick the first string with your middle finger.

This shows the alternating thumb roll in banjo tab.

The alternating thumb roll.
The alternating thumb roll.

The alternating thumb roll neatly divides into two almost equal groups of four notes. The only difference is that the first note you pick is a third string and the fifth note is a fourth string.

Once you’re playing this roll smoothly, try it with the chord progression to “I’ll Fly Away,” and if the tempo is right for you, play along.

“I’ll Fly Away” with the alternating thumb roll.
“I’ll Fly Away” with the alternating thumb roll.