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Thoughts About Rolls II

Posted by Rich Weill on Friday, March 22, 2013

Two and a half years ago, I wrote a blog entry entitled, “Thoughts About Rolls.”  For a couple of reasons, I thought I should revisit that topic.  For one, there have been numerous discussions in the Scruggs forum about the definition and utility of a “roll.”  Is it a measure-long unit (or, in some cases, a multi-measure unit), or is it only a three (TIM; MIT) or four (TITM; MIMT) note unit?  Are there lots of different rolls, or only three: forward, backward, and alternating (with the rest only combinations of these)?  Are they useful for playing songs, or only as right-hand exercises?

For another, while working on a song recently, I accidentally stumbled on a finger pattern I had never played or recalled having seen: TMIT MITM.  Since then, I also noticed two licks, one in Janet Davis’ book Splitting the Licks and the other in one of Bill Knopf’s Bluegrass Banjo Workshop books, with a related finger pattern I hadn’t noticed before: TI TIM TIM and TI TIM ITM.  [Both are variations on a standard forward roll (TM TIM TIM) and forward-backward (or “tag”) roll (TM TIM ITM), except that the first two notes are played TI instead of TM.]

Before deciding whether these rolls were worth adding to my repertoire, I tried them over a variety of string patterns to test their versatility.  I then tried them in various song situations to see how they sounded against an actual melody and harmony.  For the TI TIM TIM roll, which seemed the most flexible, I even tried playing entire songs using this roll only – taking the roll for a spin, so to speak, to explore the limits of its usefulness.

I came to two conclusions.  First, I liked all three rolls.  Second, I guess I’m a roll collector.  I have a long list of rolls I either learned from my teacher Roger Sprung (who teaches 20 different one- or two-measure rolls), picked up elsewhere, or happened upon myself.  All are one-measure or two-measure finger patterns; each finger pattern can, in turn, be played over numerous string patterns.  For example, the first roll Roger ever taught me (his "incomplete forward roll") can be played 36 different ways, even though four of the seven roll notes (there's also a rest) never change strings.

Which brings me back to the broader roll debate.  Why do I view rolls as measure-length units that are very useful when playing songs, while many others don’t?  The simple answer is: because they work for me.  After all, playing the banjo is more than just finding the best sequence of notes to play.  The banjo is, at its core, an improvisational instrument and, as importantly, one played with considerable speed.  Without a sufficient template for my finger movements, designed to establish a flowing, repeating rhythm with pronounced downbeats and create pleasing chord-based fill around a melody – patterns I can practice and practice until they are part of my “muscle memory” – I don’t know how I could come up with jam versions of songs that I can play at jam speed.  Furthermore, when I find and learn new rolls, I am also finding new, and hopefully more interesting, ways of improvising a song in real time.

In my view, rolls to a banjo player are like tools to a woodworker.  The more tools you have within reach, the more you can do right away.  If, on the other hand, for each task you had to perform, you first had to assemble the necessary tool from a box of component parts (the woodworking equivalent of assembling a measure- or multi-measure-length roll from various three- or four-note combinations), the harder it would be to execute the task immediately.

Yes, custom making each tool to the precise specifications of the task at hand could improve the quality of the result.  But that assumes speed is not a factor.  For a jamming banjo player, having ready-to-use tools you can employ quickly, so you can play in time with the other players, may be the most important factor.

Moreover, never conceiving of a roll in measure-length units makes it more difficult to use that roll to establish the flowing rhythm, which repeats each measure with a strong downbeat, that you need.  Of the three elements of music – melody, harmony, and rhythm – rhythm is the least forgiving.  Missing a melody note or a chord change is far less noticeable that falling out of rhythm.  And rhythm comes in measure-length units.

For those who say that roll patterns are too confining, I say:  The more rolls you know, the less confining rolls are.  Start a collection.  Fill your toolbox with lots of ready-to-use tools, primed for a wide assortment of immediate tasks.  Practice each finger pattern over many string patterns, until your fingers can execute each roll reflexively.  Practice several rolls over the same melody to see what each can do.

In other words, practice rolls – and practice playing melodies with rolls – until you can stop thinking about the rolls and start thinking only about the melody you're trying to produce.

But just because you're not still thinking about what rolls you're playing doesn't mean the rolls aren't still there.  They're the superstructure of the song.  And when you decide to revamp the way you play that song, new rolls will provide a new superstructure.

Without the template rolls provide, I don’t know how I could ever play with other people.  Without knowing rolls, the song would be over before I figured out what to play.

2 comments on “Thoughts About Rolls II”

Roper Country Girl Says:
Tuesday, April 30, 2013 @7:33:15 AM

Thanks for this. My Uncle learned to play as a kid just by ear. He said the best advice he could give would be for me to learn the basics. Learn the rolls and how to read the music. He can do all that now but it limited him back then! Thanks again, very helpful:)

Tam_Zeb Says:
Friday, March 21, 2014 @2:45:29 AM

Great blog Rich. I am with you on this... I see the Roll as the foundation stone of a lick. If you can't play the roll cleanly then you can't play the lick. Love to see your Roll collection sometime.

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