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Roger Sprung & "Pairing"

Posted by Rich Weill on Sunday, June 3, 2012

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I was reading a recent banjo instruction book that emphasizes playing with “bounce” to the so-called “Chattanooga” rhythm (in which notes are spaced to the rhythm of the word “Chattanooga,” rather than spaced evenly).  This was not a new concept to me.  Roger Sprung taught me the “Chattanooga” rhythm at my very first banjo lesson in 2003.  Since then I have seen or read Bill Keith (on his video “Play Bluegrass Banjo By Ear”) and the late Paul Hawthorne (in his out-of-print book Gestalt Banjo) use the same device.

But there was a difference.  Other than Roger Sprung, none of these teachers taught you how to connect eight-note rolls together using the “Chattanooga” rhythm.  In fact, the recent instruction book I was reading (which does not teach using tablature) puts a slash mark (“/”) between each eight-note roll, and describes the rhythm as “Chattanooga, Chattanooga, Chattanooga …,” suggesting a break, rather than a connection, from one measure to the next.

To begin with, it is important to appreciate the term Roger uses for playing with “bounce.”  Roger calls it “pairing.”  Instead of playing a forward roll as T-M-T-I-M-T-I-M, for example, you pair the notes into two-note groups, so it's: T--MT--IM--TI--M.  When you're playing a long string of these rolls together, the pairs continue: (M)T--MT--IM--TI--MT--MT--IM--TI--MT--MT--IM, etc.  [Roger uses the numbers “1-2-3” instead of the letters “T-I-M,” but since letters are the current convention for identifying roll fingers, I decided to use the conventional method here.]

Roger also teaches accenting the 1st and 3rd beats: (M)T--MT--IM--TI--MT--MT--IM--TI--MT--MT--IM, etc.

In the “Chattanooga” parlance, this would be “CHAT--taNoo--gaCHAT--taNoo--gaCHAT--taNoo--gaCHAT--taNoo--gaCHAT...”  Note in particular that there are no breaks in the rhythm.  Each roll – each measure – drives into the one following it.  That drive – the “gaCHAT” that connects each measure – is what Roger calls the “joiner.”

Another way of looking at it is in terms of numbered beats.  Eight eighth notes are usually counted as: 1-&-2-&-3-&-4-&.  When you “pair” the notes (and accent the 1st and 3rd beats), this becomes: 1--&2--&3--&4--&(1).  The “&1” (like the “gaCHAT”) is the “joiner” connecting the measures, driving one into the next.

When I was learning how to connect “paired” rolls properly, I found it very helpful to start with the last note of the prior roll.  So, instead of playing T--MT--IM--TI--MT… (or “CHAT--taNoo--gaCHAT--taNoo--gaCHAT…” or “1--&2--&3--&4--&1…”), I would play MT--MT--IM--TI--MT… (or “gaCHAT--taNoo--gaCHAT--taNoo--gaCHAT…” or “&1--&2--&3--&4--&1…”) – in other words, leading into the roll with the “M” (or “ga” or “&”) that ended the preceding roll.  This solidified the “joiner” feeling from the very outset (particularly when I accented strongly the second note of that initial pair, the downbeat of the first full measure).

I've only used one roll here to illustrate Roger's concept of "pairing" and the "joiner," but the same principle applies for any repeating roll or for connecting different rolls.  The rhythm connecting the measures (the “gaCHAT” or “&1”) is identical.

Roger is quoted in Masters of the 5-String Banjo as follows:  “The most important catalyst for improving is the syncopation, phrasing, and ‘pairing’ of the notes.”  His “joiner” between measures is an essential part of that “pairing of the notes” – an element that other “Chattanooga” instructors seem to ignore.

6 comments on “Roger Sprung & "Pairing"”

johnno Says:
Monday, June 4, 2012 @3:57:09 PM

Great explanation - very, very helpful - Thanks!

Rich Weill Says:
Monday, June 4, 2012 @5:35:59 PM

Thanks, John.

fiddleedee Says:
Wednesday, June 6, 2012 @10:36:22 AM

I think this pairing is a big part of what gives Roger's playing that lyrical lilt that is so distinctive.

Rich Weill Says:
Wednesday, June 6, 2012 @11:29:49 AM

I agree 100%, Erick. It's the "happy sound" Steve Martin talks about. Or, as Roger puts it, it's the sound that makes you want to tap your foot.

lynn1 Says:
Saturday, October 27, 2012 @7:32:10 AM

Great explanation. It helps me a lot, thanks! The emphasis or accent placement is so important to the sound, but I've never heard it explained where I could understand it.

PhilipM61 Says:
Tuesday, February 16, 2016 @10:35:15 PM

Rich I have been following your comments and hopefully will find as equal a teacher as Roger Sprung-As a beginner do you think that Richie Mintz book would be valuable? I am a guitar player that is having issues with the rolls and not having the help of my thumb to keep time.
Thank Philip

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