How to Use Two-Measure Forward Rolls to Play Backup Bluegrass Banjo

By Bill Evans

When you’re comfortable with playing one‐measure forward rolls in down‐the‐neck backup, you’ll come closer to capturing the real bluegrass banjo sound when you extend the one‐measure roll across the bar line to create new two‐measure patterns that are similar to what professional players play to accompany others in bluegrass bands.

With these two‐measure groupings comes a new challenge: knowing when and how to stop the forward roll to meet whatever is coming your way in the next (third) measure. More often than not in bluegrass music, that’s going to be a new chord.

Capturing the escape lick

The formula that skilled players use to organize these longer patterns is to end a two‐measure forward‐roll grouping with the picking‐hand striking strings played by the index finger, thumb, and middle finger. Sometimes called an escape lick, this closing I–T–M sequence allows you to begin the next phrase with another forward roll that can be initiated by either the thumb or the index finger.

Using forward‐roll patterns in the key of G

Try playing through these two‐measure forward‐roll patterns to match the chord progression to the bluegrass classic “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.” The escape licks used for each chord are enclosed in boxes.

Look closely at this example and you’ll discover that the I–T–M escape lick has two different string options: You’re going to play either a second‐string–third‐string–first‐string sequence or a third‐string–fourth‐string–first‐string version. Either version will sound fine for any chord, but as you gain more experience and confidence using the escape lick, you’ll hear that your choice of strings will largely be determined by what you’re going to play next.

Two‐measure forward‐roll backup for “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” progression.
Two‐measure forward‐roll backup for “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” progression.

Using forward‐roll patterns in the key of C

You can also use escape licks to create forward‐roll backup in other keys. Try this same type of progression, transposed to the key of C, using escape licks that allow you to smoothly transition from the C to the F and G chords.

Two‐measure forward‐roll backup in the key of C.
Two‐measure forward‐roll backup in the key of C.

Adding slides to forward‐roll patterns

Now it’s time to make your forward‐roll accompaniment sound even better by adding slides to several different G forward‐roll phrases. This example introduces you to four different backup licks that you can insert into any song that has a two‐measure G‐chord sequence (and that includes a lot of songs!). Note that each of these examples concludes with an escape lick that leads into the next phrase or chord.

G1 is built on the same roll pattern used above with the addition of a fourth‐string slide at beat two. Note how adding this slide immediately makes this phrase sound infinitely cooler! G2 builds upon G1 by adding an additional roll note just after beat one to create an unending flow of roll notes through the two measures.

Adding slides to two‐measure forward‐roll backup licks in G.
Adding slides to two‐measure forward‐roll backup licks in G.

G3 will be familiar if you know Earl Scruggs’s classic tune “Fireball Mail.” In this example, the fourth‐string slide moves to the beginning of the pattern, using a forward roll that begins with a thumb–index‐finger–middle‐finger picking sequence.

G4 is a classic J. D. Crowe backup phrase that he uses in the Bluegrass Album Band recording of “Your Love Is Like a Flower.” The first measure in this example is the same as in G2, but check out the extremely hip phrase in measure two. Here, J. D. fakes low by going to the F note (fourth string, third fret) but then moves high with a third‐string slide sequence.

The tab below shows how J. D.’s G lick transitions nicely into another forward‐roll pattern used for the C chord. Because the last note of the G phrase is a fifth‐string picked by your thumb, you’ll need to begin this C phrase with an index finger instead of the usual thumb.

J. D. Crowe’s backup licks using forward rolls for G and C chords.
J. D. Crowe’s backup licks using forward rolls for G and C chords.

Perfecting your backup with target tones

One of the last steps in getting a professional sound to your down‐the‐neck backup playing is to give some thought as to how you can use escape licks to transition smoothly from one chord to the next in a chord progression. A helpful concept in this regard is to use target tones to chart a course through a chord progression.

A target tone is the note you’re choosing to play on the first beat of a chord change as you move through the chord progression of a song. Although choosing the target tone is important, even more crucial is the creation of a forward‐roll sequence that convincingly leads into the target tone of the new chord.

You can think of a target tone as your destination, but as in much of life itself (not to mention bluegrass banjo playing), it’s the journey to that destination that provides the challenge and the thrill.

When playing a bluegrass song, the target tone will be one of the notes in the new chord you’re about to play. It’s that simple! If you can locate your target tone on the second, third, or fourth string, it’s possible to pick that note with the right‐hand thumb to launch into another two‐measure forward‐roll pattern that you can play over the new chord.

A target tone can be fretted or unfretted, but it makes sense to choose a target tone in the new chord that isn’t shared by the chord you’re moving from. For instance, both the G and C chords share the third‐string open G note. For this reason, choosing that string as a target tone for the C chord usually won’t be as strong a choice as either the fourth string or the second string, which are both fretted for the C chord. Your choice of target tone will often determine which strings make the most sense to play for the escape roll that leads into that target tone.