What roll should a beginning banjo student first learn to use? Most instruction books start beginners off with the “alternating thumb roll” (otherwise known as the “square roll,” “box roll, “mixed roll,” “double thumb roll,” and a host of other names). Some start with the forward roll, a few with the forward-backward (or “reverse”) roll.
Roger Sprung, who has been teaching the banjo for over sixty years to more than 3,000 students, takes an entirely different approach – and I think it is sheer genius, especially if you want to learn to play songs, including the song’s melody, on the bluegrass banjo by ear. Unlike conventional methods, he starts every student off with what he calls the “incomplete forward roll.”
What is the “incomplete forward roll”? As illustrated on the Instruction page of Roger’s website using both a finger-number diagram (because Roger doesn’t teach using tab) and two sound clips from Roger’s instructional CD (“Roger Sprung’s Play Along Instruction Record for the 5 String Banjo ... Bluegrass Style”), the “incomplete forward roll” is a forward roll without the last note. You play seven notes, pause in place of the eighth, and then begin again. You also start each roll with your index finger for reasons I will explain.
So instead of TM TIM TIM, it’s IM TIM TI –. [Actually, Roger uses the numbers 1-2-3 instead of the letters T-I-M, so he illustrates the roll as 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 –. Those numbers represent fingers, not strings.]
But since Roger believes in “pairing the notes” to give your roll a bouncy rhythm, he more accurately illustrates (and plays) this roll as: 2 31 23 12 –, 2 31 23 12 – (to the rhythm CHAT-taNoo-gaCHAT-taNoo, CHAT-taNoo-gaCHAT-taNoo …).
But this still doesn’t explain what makes this roll so suitable to beginners first learning to play songs, melodies included. I’ve given this question a lot of thought and come up with four separate reasons.
First, the “incomplete forward roll” is very easy to play because it has few moving parts. The middle finger only plays the 1st string, and the thumb only plays the 5th string. The index finger is the only one that moves, covering strings 2, 3, and 4. By dropping the eighth roll note, you are able to begin each roll with the index finger and avoid having to bring the thumb “inside” to start the next roll (and then back "outside" to the 5th string to finish the roll). Alternatively, you avoid the awkward I-M-I (or 2-3-2) combination you would need to play if you had to complete the roll with your middle finger while leaving your thumb on the 5th string. This combination is especially difficult to play when the second “I” of the I-M-I is the downbeat of the next measure, which you must pick sharply. So simplicity of movement makes this a perfect first roll.
Second, as I illustrated here, the most difficult part about “pairing the notes” is learning how to join the eighth note of one roll with the first note of the next. Because the “incomplete forward roll” drops the eighth roll note, this “joiner” issue doesn’t come up. You can hold off tackling this challenge until you have a little more experience under your belt.
Third, the most rudimentary way to begin adding melody to a roll is to find where in the roll melody notes fit most easily and drop the melody onto those spots. In a forward roll, the melody fits most easily as the first, fourth, and seventh roll notes. Because, by dropping the eighth roll note, we are able to start each roll with the index finger, the first, fourth, and seventh roll notes of an “incomplete forward roll” are all played with the same finger. The index finger thus becomes your “melody finger.” What could be simpler? And to make matters simpler still, when playing songs in G, most all melody notes can be played on (or moved to) the 2nd , 3rd, and 4th strings – the very strings covered by the index finger when playing an “incomplete forward roll.”
Three melody notes per measure is about right. If there are fewer, you can repeat a melody note, in the same way a singer holds a note. If there are more, perhaps four, you can drop one while still playing a recognizable melody. For example, a repeated note within a measure can be dropped. Otherwise, the second of four melody notes often can be dropped without losing the sound of the tune.
So pick out the melody with your index finger, and then play these melody notes with your index finger while completing an “incomplete forward roll” with your thumb and middle finger (and, of course, changing chords at the appropriate time). Listen to Roger play “This Land Is Your Land” this way.
Fourth, when playing a rolling melody, it’s important not only to play the correct melody notes but also to make them stand out. There are several ways to do this. Accenting the notes is one way. Slurring into the notes (with a slide or hammer-on, for example) is another. But a third way is to drop roll notes, adding pauses to the roll. Pauses tend to accentuate both the note before and the note after the missing note. So by dropping the eighth roll note, you are making both the seventh note of that roll and the first note of the next roll stand out. As discussed above, both the first and seventh roll notes are generally melody notes – and probably the most important melody notes in each measure. The “incomplete forward roll” naturally accentuates them.
Friday, October 31, 2014 @1:57:01 PM
Wow! I've only been playing for a few months, I'm over 60, and cannot afford a teacher. While I've learned a lot and am quite happy with my progress I've been struggling with learning how to 'banjofy' a melody. I stumbled upon this today and after reading it a few times, wam bam I put one of the melody's I've learned to pick into the incomplete roll and ended up with something that could almost pass for a banjo tune.
Can't thank you enough. I'll buy at least one of Roger Sprung's CDs to thank him.
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