How to Play the Forward Reverse Roll on the Bluegrass Banjo

By Bill Evans

The forward‐reverse roll is probably the most user‐friendly of all bluegrass banjo roll patterns. It’s a versatile roll that is used in many playing situations and it just feels good to play. Your picking‐hand fingers will like it!

Here’s a step‐by‐step guide to learning your first bluegrass roll pattern. Fit the picks on your fingers, place your right hand in position, and try out the following sequence of notes:

  1. Pick the third string with your thumb.

  2. Pick the second string with your index finger.

  3. Pick the first string with your middle finger.

  4. Pick the fifth string with your thumb.

    Now it’s time to reverse the flow of right‐hand notes.

  5. Pick the first string with your middle finger.

  6. Pick the second string with your index finger.

  7. Pick the third string with your thumb.

  8. Pick the first string with your middle finger.

Check out what the forward‐reverse roll looks like in banjo tablature.

The forward‐reverse roll.
The forward‐reverse roll.

The quickest way to master these roll patterns is to repeat them over and over again until they become automatic. To avoid driving your loved ones any crazier than they may already be, try changing chords at the beginning of each new roll pattern to add some spice to your practice sessions. Using the chords that you already know, you can make up a chord progression of your own or you can follow the chord progression to a real bluegrass song.

Playing roll patterns in this way is also a great way to accompany others. This is what the forward‐reverse roll would sound like when used to accompany the bluegrass classic “Nine Pound Hammer.”

The forward‐reverse roll with “Nine Pound Hammer.”
The forward‐reverse roll with “Nine Pound Hammer.”

This is what it sounds like when used to accompany the classic “Little Maggie.”

The forward‐reverse roll with “Little Maggie.”
The forward‐reverse roll with “Little Maggie.”