How to Play Third String Fret Slides on the Bluegrass Banjo

By Bill Evans

The third string, second‐ to third‐fret slide is one of the main attractions of the bluegrass banjo classic “Cripple Creek” and is a great place to begin your sliding adventures. Here’s a step‐by‐step guide:

  1. Fret the third string at the second fret with the middle finger of your fretting hand.

  2. Pick the third string with the picking-hand thumb.

  3. Move the fretting finger up one fret, from the second to the third fret.

    It’s important to keep the pressure down with your fretting finger to sound the new note as you slide.

  4. After you’ve arrived at your destination, continue to apply pressure with your fretting finger to allow the new note you’ve just created to continue to ring.

Check out this slide; then take a look below to see how it appears in banjo tablature. You’ll see two notes (the second and third frets of the third string) connected to one another with a slur. The slur indicates the beginning and end of your slide. The s below these notes lets you know that you’ll be using a slide to connect the two notes.

Pick the third string, sounding the second‐fret note, and then move your finger to the third fret. You’ll need to maintain the ­fretting pressure on the string to hear the new note you’ve just created with your slide.

Playing third‐string slides from the second to the third fret.
Playing third‐string slides from the second to the third fret.

You use the same techniques to play slides anywhere on your banjo, so when you learn how to do this in one or two places on a couple of strings, it’s easy to apply these maneuvers whenever and wherever you need them.

Playing third‐string slides with the alternating thumb roll

Banjo players don’t live by fretting techniques alone! When you get comfortable with the slide, you want to use it while simultaneously picking bluegrass roll patterns. Don’t be surprised if a huge grin lights up your face when you combine these fretting‐ and picking‐hand techniques. You’re capturing the real bluegrass sound when you play in this way, and you should notice a big difference in the quality of your playing after you’ve mastered these skills.

When you add the third‐string slide to the alternating thumb roll, you’re playing a lick that just about every banjo player uses in the second half of “Cripple Creek.”

Playing third‐string slides with the alternating thumb roll.
Playing third‐string slides with the alternating thumb roll.

Every now and then, banjo tablature isn’t able to completely capture the nuances of how a lick or phrase is supposed to be played. In the example above, the tab seems to indicate that the slide is to be completed before you pick the second string. However, you’ll sound better if you stretch out the timing of the third‐string slide just a bit so that it leads directly into the second‐string open note that follows it, without an interruption in sound.

Think of the slide as a flowing movement from the third string, second fret up toward the second string open, and you’ll start to get the idea. There’s no way to write this in tab exactly the way it’s supposed to sound, so this is a case where listening and watching really come in handy.

It’s difficult for adults to undertake different tasks with each hand simultaneously, but that’s exactly what you’re being asked to do when you combine roll patterns with fretting techniques. The secret to sounding great is to keep an even, steady rhythm in your picking hand. Think of the slide and other fretting techniques as embellishments that are added to, but don’t alter, your picking‐hand rhythm. When you play the exercises this way, the sound of great bluegrass banjo playing will begin to flow effortlessly from both hands.

Playing third‐string slides with the forward roll

Now try adding one additional fret to your third‐string slide, moving from the second to the fourth fret with your fretting‐hand middle finger. Note that when you play the slide in this way, your arrival note should be the same pitch as your open second string (if not, check your banjo tuning!).

Playing third‐string slides from the second to the fourth fret.
Playing third‐string slides from the second to the fourth fret.

This third‐string slide sounds great with a forward roll. Take note of how this phrase really draws attention to the sound of the open second‐string B notes in the roll.

Playing third‐string slides with the forward roll.
Playing third‐string slides with the forward roll.

Playing third‐string slides with the lick roll

The third‐string slide takes center stage in the most frequently played lick in all of bluegrass banjo. When you add this slide to the lick roll, you’re well on your way to mastering an essential banjo phrase that you can use in almost every song you’ll play.

Take a look at this slide incorporated into the lick roll.

Playing a third‐string slide with the lick roll.
Playing a third‐string slide with the lick roll.

The 2–3 and 2–4 slides on the third string are interchangeable. Feel free to use one or the other with any roll pattern according to the sound you want to hear at that moment. When you slide to the third fret, you’ll hear a more blues‐oriented sound, while the fourth‐fret slide draws attention to the B pitch that is shared with the open second string.