Rolls are a great way to learn to play -- particularly a great way to learn to play by ear and play songs on the fly.
Here are some reasons why:
1. Learning rolls teaches proper rhythm and timing. For most beginners, this is a huge obstacle they must overcome, and the rhythmic steadiness of repeating 8-count rolls with accented downbeats is a great way to develop proper timing (including good "bounce" timing). [I use the term "8-count rolls," rather than "8-note rolls," because the rolls I was schooled on included many with pauses in the stream of notes, such that you may play only 7 (or even 6) actual notes in a measure. I was also taught several 16-count rolls that either rolled through the bar line or grouped two 8-count rolls together into an interesting, longer pattern.]
2. Rolls are a good first step for learning to coordinate the left and right hands -- by playing rolls over a chord progression.
3. Rolls are a great "way in" to playing melodies. Each roll has specific spots where the melody notes fit most naturally. It's much easier, in my opinion, for beginners to add melody notes to the roll than rolls to the melody, particularly when trying to pick songs by ear. In addition, adding melody notes to a roll, rather than the reverse, is much, much easier to do without writing anything down -- an important skill to develop if you're ever going to play new songs on the fly at a jam session.
I was taught to play using a single roll for an entire song, adding the melody -- and then to repeat the process with a second roll for the entire song, then a third. My teacher called it "putting the song to the rolls, not the rolls to the song." You learn to use any roll in any spot, you learn where various rolls work best, and this process leads effortlessly to playing songs in which numerous rolls are woven seamlessly.
4. Using rolls is also a great way to learn how to recover from mistakes. If rolls are your foundation, and you skip a melody note, it's no big deal. Bluegrass arrangements drop melody notes all the time. You're still playing in time and over the proper chord. However, if the melody is your principal foundation, with roll notes perceived only as fill between the melody notes, then hitting a wrong melody note can send you off into no-man's land. The roll is your safety net.
5. Rolls also teach you how to play "rolling backup," in which you don't play the melody. If you think of rolls only as the fill notes between melody notes, rolling backup is a harder concept to grasp than if you think of it merely as rolls to which you needn't add the melody.
6. Establishing these roll patterns under your fingers -- particularly if you learn enough of them -- makes it easier to focus on the melody, and let your "muscle memory" fill in the rest. In other words, the more rolls (or roll variations, which includes the same roll on different strings or the same roll with pauses added) you know well, the less you have to think about rolls when you play. You simply go from melody note to melody note with your well-practiced fingers filling in the blanks from what you learned before.
7. Rolls are an excellent way to break the habit of playing a song the same way every time. The more rolls and roll variations you know, the more opportunity you also have to play the same passage in different ways, simply by swapping the rolls you use. This is a time when consciously thinking of the rolls you are using is helpful, as subconsciously you are apt to use the same patterns at various points of a song repeatedly.
Yes, I know that Bill Palmer has often been quoted saying that Earl Scruggs told him in 1965 "that he had never heard of a 'roll' until Bill Keith told him about them. He said that he basically played the melody with his thumb or his index finger, whichever seemed best, and filled in the gaps with whatever was left over." But when Earl wanted to communicate his method to students, in "Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo," he certainly thought it important to teach rolls.
With this in mind, here are some specifics to remember about rolls:
1. Every roll serves three purposes. First, it is your rhythm section. Second, it establishes the chord played behind it. And third, it can also catch melody notes at specific places in the measure.
2. Rolls are finger patterns, not string patterns. If the finger order remains the same, the roll is the same. A forward roll (TMTI MTIM) on strings 2152 1521 is the same as a forward roll on strings 2153 1541. Arguably, there is an exception to this: when the 5th string is involved. Playing a TMTI MTIM forward roll on strings 2132 1521 -- where the second "T" no longer is playing the 5th string but now plays an inside string -- does change the character of the roll. My teacher, Roger Sprung, always considers two patterns, one where the thumb plays "inside" versus another where the thumb plays "outside," two different rolls, even if the finger order remains the same.
3. You have options regarding how often you play the 5th string. Look at two common forward roll variations: 2152 1521 plays it twice; 3215 2131 plays it once. The less you play the 5th string, the more room you have for melody and chord notes (which is very helpful when trying to bring out the sound of an unusual chord). But the less you play the 5th string, the less it sounds like a banjo. It's an interesting balance.
4. Because every roll has specific places where melody notes fit most comfortably, for each roll you learn, you should also learn where the melody notes go when using that roll.
5. When comparing rolls, also compare the location of the melody spots. Take a simple example: Let's say the melody is all on the 2nd string and you're choosing between a 2152 1521 forward roll and a 2121 5215 FMB roll. Compare where those 2nd string melody notes fall. In the FMB roll, they're pushed more toward the front of the measure. That has a different pulse to it, which you might prefer in some places but not others.
6. You needn't always play the complete roll. You can drop roll notes (turning the prior note into a quarter note). This will tend to accentuate the roll notes you play before and after the pause. So if you want to emphasize the first note of a measure, you might consider dropping the second roll note -- or the last roll note of the previous measure (which also accentuates the 7th note of that roll, often a melody note as well), or both.
7. Learn some rolls that start on the 1st string (and they needn't be backward, or entirely backward). They come in very handy when playing songs in the C family (i.e., C without a capo; D and E with a capo) where the melody is often on the 1st string.
8. Learn some extended rolls, that cover two measures. They also work well and add variety to your playing.
9. In selecting a roll to use over a particular measure of a song, remember that the roll need not start on the first melody note of the measure. You can delay that melody note and play it as the second note of the roll. That's syncopation. So if the measure's first melody note is on the 2nd string, for example, it's okay to use a roll that starts on the 3rd string (e.g., 3215 1231) followed immediately by the 2nd string melody note. [Of course, you can often slide into, or hammer onto, that 2nd string melody note when playing the 3rd string. That's an option, too.]
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