I practice my rolls on my leg/desk/etc whenever I can. When I first started this I would count 1-8 for a complete roll. It seems the counting may now be slowing me down/confusing me as I can roll faster than I can count. Anyone else have this problem? Do you still count when you are playing?
I'm not sure if counting and playing is the best habit to get into long term...if you do try '1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and'.....inevitably you will get to a point where you're playing way too fast to count. Might be a good idea to play with a metronome?
I'm with Jim Bob. That said, I usually count when I'm learning a new pattern (1&2&....), because sometimes it is something different than straight 8th notes. And sometimes when I am working on a 2 measure pattern. You could always count/use a metronome, count 1234 and play a note at one, another note between 1 and 2, a note on 2, a note beteen 2 and 3.... you are counting to 4 but still getting 8 notes in there. Does that make sense?
First, don't confuse rolls with roll PATTERNS. A forward roll is three notes: T-I-M, I-M-T, or M-T-I. It refers to the seqence of the finger strikes. Same logic applies to backward rolls. Square rolls use the same logic - T-I-T-M or comparable variations that rely upon alternating the thumb with the index and middle fingers.
We can also insert single string hits or pinches. So for example, the so-called "forward backward roll" - which is actually a roll PATTERN - consists of a forward roll, a single string hit (thumb, usually on the 5th string) followed by a backward roll and finishing up with another single-string hit (middle, usually on the first string).
The idea of roll patterns emerged in the 1960s - and people had been playing three-finger banjo a LOT longer than that. Roll patterns were codified as a teaching tool, after it was noticed that Earl Scruggs used the same patterns a LOT. He didn't think in terms of patterns. He just thought in terms of notes and sound, and how to get both as efficiently as possible.
Whether roll patterns are useful or not isn't cut and dried. Personally, I'm in the latter camp; I think it's more useful for new players to learn this stuff within the concept of playing actual music, rather than spending endless hours on a mechanical skill that's only vaguely relevant to developing real skill on the instrument. My students DO learn roll patterns, but they learn them while actually playing.
Roll patterns are also limiting; many new players tend to develop a sense that there's a codified pattern to solve every musical equation. There isn't. A song such as Cripple Creek makes heavy use of two four-note square rolls, adding to eight notes, or what is thought of as a "Square Roll" (it's actually a square roll PATTERN). But there's a lot of stuff in there that ISN'T part of a codified pattern. Similarly, Fireball Mail makes heavy use of the forward roll - but if you're locked into an 8-note pattern, you get flummoxed when you realize that the forward roll actually continues well beyond the end of a measure!
Now, playing roll PATTERNS can be useful in some situations. I often spend a few minutes on patterns before gigs, just to warm up my picking hand (and then I start working on other warm-up exercises that work for me). They can be useful in helping some new players start becoming familiar with the feeling of moving the right hand, particularly in different combinations of direction. They can help some new players with timing.
But remember: they're really exercises. The metronome advice is good. You shouldn't need to count, especially if you're now playing them faster than you can do so. You should be beyond needing to do so - if you ever truly needed to do so in the first place.
I agree with what has been said so far. Counting beats is a habit that can get ingrained in your thinking and can hinder your progress. I can always tell when I am in a jam session with someone who learned to count beats, especially a guitar player. A friend of mine counts beats and if he gets a beat off he stays off beat for the rest of the song. I have known him for seven years and he is not getting any better.
I use a drum machine, "Band in Box, and "The Amazing Slow Downer". When practicing I use the slow downer. I start slow and software "loops" and gradually increases the tempo of whatever recording I am playing. I also exaggerate slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs and the notes or a longer duration and slides/hammer-ons/pull-offs. I want these things to be heard when I play.
For a long time, I used an inexpensive, electronic, Qwik Time metronome. I liked it because I could use it with an ear bud. Using the ear bud, assured that banjo would not drown out the sound of metronome click. Below is a link to one of many suppliers of the Qwik Time.
Recently, however, I've switched to a metronome cell phone app named "Simple Metronome". Since it's a phone app, It also can be used with an ear bud and it has the added advantage of a volume control feature. It also has a number of other features that you may find useful. Below is the link to the app for an Android phone. I suspect that it's probably also available for iPhones.