How to Use Roll Patterns in Songs on the Bluegrass Banjo

By Bill Evans

As you progress farther in your study of the bluegrass banjo, take note of the different ways that roll patterns are used to create melodies. The artistry of bluegrass banjo playing involves choosing the best rolls and licks to express the melody and emotion you’re feeling at that moment.

The first step toward this level of mastery is to be comfortable with the basic versions of as many roll patterns as possible, mixing and matching them in ways that sound good for the song you’re playing. The next step is to then experiment with variations of these rolls that even more effectively match your song’s chords and melodies.

Creating your own roll variations

Roll patterns are defined by the sequence of picking fingers (thumb, index finger, or middle finger) along with the specific strings that you play (first to the fifth strings). When you’re comfortable with the standard versions of the basic rolls, you can create authentically bluegrass‐sounding variations by using the same order of picking fingers to play different strings.

Using the forward‐reverse roll as an example, the order of picking fingers for this roll is T–I–M–T–M–I–T–M and the standard string sequence is 3–2–1–5–1–2–3–1. By moving the third‐string/thumb and second‐string/index notes down a string when needed, you can play variations that draw attention to these lower strings.

Check out how this process works. The standard version of the forward‐reverse roll is presented in the first measure, followed by a few easy‐to‐play variations.

Forward‐reverse roll with variations.
Forward‐reverse roll with variations.

The variations that you can play for each roll are going to be different, depending upon the order of picking fingers. Next, try coming up with new rolls of your own!

Using roll patterns as accompaniment

Backup refers to the many techniques banjo players use when accompanying other musicians in a bluegrass jam session or band. The brilliant, steady stream of notes that roll patterns provide is one of the best things you can play in this support role, and it’s also the banjo’s unique contribution to the bluegrass sound. So, roll away to your heart’s content, but not so loudly as to drown anyone out, please!

When you’re playing backup, your goal is to make everyone around you sound their best. All the basic rolls take up one measure of musical space and can be played interchangeably as you follow a song’s chord progression.

As long as you’re playing in good rhythm, you really can’t go wrong — all rolls are well designed to fill up the available musical spaces in a distinctively bluegrass way. When fretting chords, it’s a good idea to choose roll patterns that feature the strings you’re fretting, but if you’re only comfortable with just one or two rolls right now, it’s fine to play these over and over again.

The more roll patterns and variations that you’re comfortable playing from memory, the more variety you’ll bring to your backup playing. Although forward rolls provide the most drive, it’s a great idea to try using a variety of rolls, mixing them as you go, and let your ear guide you to what sounds best for each song.

Take a look at two bluegrass classics, “Nine Pound Hammer” and “Little Maggie” for examples of how to mix and match roll patterns to create an exciting‐sounding backup.

“Nine Pound Hammer” with roll‐pattern backup.
“Nine Pound Hammer” with roll‐pattern backup.

Pay special attention to the roll variations used for the C and F chords in these examples.

“Little Maggie” with roll‐pattern backup.
“Little Maggie” with roll‐pattern backup.