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8 Banjo Reels to Take Your Playing to the Next Level

If you're learning how to play the banjo, the first thing you do is probably learn some chords accompanied by some familiar song strings.

However, the real magic of banjo playing begins when you put down the strings and start using your fingers. In this article, we'll show you a technique called "banjo rolls," which were made by people like Earl Scruggs and Bill Emerson.

We explain what they are (we show you 8 patterns) and how to play them. Once you have a good bunch of rolls up your sleeve, you're well equipped to play a wide range of bluegrass banjo songs.

What are banjo rolls?

A banjo roll is a set of eight notes that are picked repeatedly with the thumb, index and middle fingers. They allow you to play the open chord patterns that are characteristic of bluegrass music. There are many variations on how to use your fingers, each with a slightly different sound as well as a different name. Descriptive names for rolls include "forward roll," "back roll," and even "foggy mountain roll.

Where to put your fingers

Here are the notes of a 5-string banjo tuned to an open G. They follow this order. d, b, g, d, and g (written in lower case).

In the notes below, you'll see the finger references. If you need a quick reminder, each finger here is called

Forward rolls

The simplest and most common of these is the "forward roll". Like all rolls, it can be described as a set of eight commands.

  1. Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.
  2. Pluck string 1 with your middle finger (D)
  3. Pluck the 5th string with your thumb (g).
  4. Pluck the 2nd string (B) with your index finger.
  5. Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.
  6. Pluck the 5th string (g) with your thumb.
  7. Pluck the 2nd string (B) with your index finger.
  8. Pluck the 1st string (D) with your middle finger.

Here is the TAB of it.

Although in this example, the index and middle fingers are plucking the B and D strings, you can choose any two strings with rising pitches to play "roll forward". They don't even need to be two strings next to each other. Why not try it, with your G and B, D and G, or even D and B?

Reverse (or backward) scrolling

Once you've mastered the forward roll, your next step is the backward roll. The eight steps of the Reverse - or "Backward - Roll are as follows.

  1. Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.
  2. Pluck string 2 with your index finger (B)
  3. Pluck the 5th string with your thumb (G).
  4. Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.
  5. Pluck string 2 with your index finger (B).
  6. Pluck the 5th string (g) with your thumb.
  7. Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.
  8. Pluck the 2nd string (B) with your index finger.

As you can see, it's like a forward roll, but switches the order of the first and second strings. This works well when the melody of the song is on the 1st string (D). You can hear it in the legendary Scruggs' 'Home Sweet Home'.

Forward-backward roll

This roll is the first to move your thumb and really boost your hand technique. Its eight steps are

  1. Pluck the #3 string (G) with your thumb.
  2. Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.
  3. Pluck string 1 with your middle finger (D).
  4. Pluck the 5th string (G) with your thumb.
  5. Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.
  6. Pluck the 2nd string with your index finger (B).
  7. Pluck the 3rd string (G) with your thumb.
  8. Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

So far, the forward and reverse wheels may be more difficult to remember than the other wheels. You may find it useful to sing the finger numbers or string names as you play, as singing has been shown to help with memory .

Mixed volumes

A "mixed roll," sometimes called an "alternate thumb roll," uses each string on the banjo and plays alternate notes with the thumb.

  1. Pluck string 3 (G) with your thumb.
  2. Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.
  3. Pluck the 5th string (G) with your thumb.
  4. Pluck the 1st string (D) with your middle finger.
  5. Pluck the 4th string with your thumb (D).
  6. Pluck the 2nd string (B) with your index finger.
  7. Pluck the 5th string (G) with your thumb.
  8. Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.

The alternating thumb roll pattern is used in the classic bluegrass banjo songs "Cripple Creek" and "I'll Fly Away".

The "Lick" Roll

The "Lick" roll starts with the same picking pattern as your forward roll and ends with the second half of the backward roll. It is often used to meet the fourth string melody note at the end of a bar.

  1. Pluck the 3rd string (G) with your thumb.
  2. Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.
  3. Pluck the 5th string (G) with your thumb.
  4. Pluck the 3rd string (G) with your index finger.
  5. Pluck the 1st string (D) with your middle finger.
  6. Pluck the 3rd string (G) with your index finger.
  7. Pluck the 4th string (D) with your thumb.
  8. Pluck the 1st string (D) with your middle finger.

This may take some practice. Remember to take your time and remember only a manageable portion of the notes at a time.

Misty Mountain Roll

The cool-sounding "Foggy Mountain Roll" from the song "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" by Earl Scruggs , 1949 with "Foggy Mountain Boys" was recorded. There are two variations, the most common being.

  1. Pluck the 2nd string (B) with your index finger.
  2. Plucking string 1 with your middle finger (D)
  3. Plucking string 2 with your thumb (B)
  4. Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.
  5. Pluck the 5th string (G) with your thumb.
  6. Pluck the 2nd string (B) with your index finger.
  7. Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.
  8. Pluck the 5th string (g) with your thumb.

The second variation of the "Misty Mountain Roll" just leaves out the plucking of the second string. Instead of playing the D with your middle finger, rest on this beat. All other notes remain the same. The song "Foggy Mountain Avalanche" uses these two variations of the roll pattern.

Rolling of the middle lead

The "Middle Leading Roll" is a famous performance by banjo virtuoso Sonny Osborne. It is sometimes referred to as the "Osborne Roll". As the name implies, it uses a lot of the middle finger.

  1. Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.
  2. Pluck string 2 with your index finger (B)
  3. Pluck string 1 with your middle finger (D)
  4. Pluck the 5th string with your thumb (G).
  5. Pluck string 1 (D) with your middle finger.
  6. Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.
  7. Pluck the 1st string with your middle finger (D).
  8. Pluck the 5th string with your thumb (G).

As with all of these examples, which string is played can be changed. What matters is the pattern of your fingers. Try playing slowly, gradually increasing your speed as you feel comfortable.

Finger lead rolls

The last reel to practice is the "Index Lead Reel". As you may have guessed, it includes a lot of index finger.

  1. Pluck string 2 (B) with your index finger.
  2. Pluck string 3 with your thumb (G)
  3. Pluck the 2nd string (B) with your index finger.
  4. Pluck string 1 with your middle finger (D).
  5. Pluck the 2nd string with your index finger (B).
  6. Pluck the 3rd string (G) with your thumb.
  7. Pluck the 2nd string (B) with your index finger.
  8. Pluck the 1st string (D) with your middle finger.

This one is easy to remember and easy to pick up. Your index finger strikes the second string on an alternating beat, so a flow can be established quickly.

To summarize

As you can see, there are quite a few reels to memorize here. Each of them has a slightly different vibe to it, and combined, many of them will make you a versatile bluegrass player!

When you play the banjo, make sure your notes sound clear and don't rush the tempo too soon. Remember, you're making music, so it's best to make sure every note sounds clear when you practice, even if it's slow.

As you get used to playing patterns with open strings, try each rolling pattern on the different chord shapes you already know. Once you've mastered this, it's time to find those classic banjo songs you know and love. You can guarantee that these rolls will appear on the TAB.

Learning how to play the banjo is an exciting step. I hope this collection of banjo rolls has given you the confidence to take the next stage of your banjo playing journey.

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