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Back-Up Series: Rolling Back-Up

Posted by Banjophobic on Friday, November 1, 2013

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Hello, John Boulding here, aka "banjophobic", welcoming you to another newsletter spot. This BHO Newsletter lesson article continues on the topic of playing "back-up" and this month we're focusing on what we call "rolling back-up." Rolling back-up generally refers to rhythmic rolling patterns played behind vocalists and or soloists, to provide both nice "filler" notes and to keep the rhythm flowing and driving. The term is kind of self explanatory as "rolling" and "back-up" are both things we are familiar with as 3-finger style banjoists. But for new players, exactly how and where to play rolls for back-up can be something of a challenge not only to understand, but to get good at from a technical standpoint. It can seem that rolling back-up is simple enough to do "on paper," but getting that rhythmic feel and characteristic syncopation we all love to hear won't be so easy to get when you are new to the concept.

Let us talk about the rolls themselves first in this discussion. Generally speaking, any standard Scruggs roll can and will be used at times for rolling back-up patterns. They can be quantified as 8th notes or 16th notes, depending upon the time signature you are expressing them over. But how you choose to express them on paper has nothing to do with how they will syncopate and groove in real time. That is one of the things about music that has to happen by doing and hearing, not thinking and seeing.

We know the standard rolls: Forward, Backward, Alternating thumb, Reverse/foward-backward and double thumb. Any of them can be used, in any combination, depending on your needs and what you feel and hear. But each pattern has its own "vibe" or specific syncopated feel and sound. While you will hear great players switching between these various patterns, the most favored roll for bluegrass players is most definitely the forward roll pattern. There is something about this pattern that evokes a sense of drive and deliberateness to your rhythm that makes this roll a big part of the "Scruggs" back-up sound. Now don't think I am saying you use the forward roll exclusively, or all the time, as this is not the case. But the roll pattern you should get great at as a goal, and one that instantly gives you that driving, authentic feel for rolling back-up will be the forward roll. The best way to get a sense of how each roll feels and syncopates is to experiment with them as you learn to play rolls as back-up. Once you get experience with them, you'll understand what I am relaying about forward rolls and why they dominate the landscape for rolling patterns.

There are various left hand "ornaments" that add flair and emphasis to these rolls such as slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, etc, but the rolls themselves are the engine that pushes things along. In the accompanying video for this article (below), I will use some ornamentation, as well as show examples of rolling back-up.

The next important question once you understand the rolls, is where to use them. Since we are talking back-up here, you can use them wherever you like, but let me give you some guidelines as to what works well in most situations. One great example of rolling back-up is its use behind vocalists. It's generally accepted that rolling behind a vocalist is a good idea. But you might want to take note that it is also a sign of good taste and musicality to choose rolls that compliment the singer, not detract from them. One way to do this consistently is to choose rolls in areas of the neck that stay away from the exact notes and or octaves of the singers notes. An easy example if a male singer with deep voice singing his notes in the "first" octave (first in the banjos' 2-1/2 octave range that is), while the banjoist plays rolls in the next one. In another example, a female singer who is in a higher octave range can be complimented well by choosing to roll in the first few frets. There are always exceptions and this is a simplistic view of the overall concept, but it's generally accepted that "staying off of" the singer's range is a good way to learn taste while rolling back-up patterns.

Another area where rolls make for good back-up is behind other instruments. Some great examples are during fiddle solos, where the banjo is expected to roll along. You can try rolls behind any other soloing instrument, but again, there are some accepted good and "'bad" places to roll, taste wise. Playing rolls behind a mandolin solo, for instance, can be a bit dicey at times, depending on what you consider appropriate. Many times rolling while a mandolin solos can make the two instruments compete for "space" and sounds cluttered. But there are times when done well, with taste, one can roll behind a mandolin solo and get good results. Rolling behind a guitar solo, or resonator guitar solo can also be a good idea, or a bad one, depending on the type of solos the other instrument is taking. You'll also need to watch you volume and dynamics, especially on guitar solos where the instrument typically won't have the power to compete with your banjo. (I'll add: watching your volume overall, in any rolling situation, is always a good idea.)

If done with the right feel, syncopation and precision, rolling back-up is one of the most effective types of banjo back-up and is one technique that is certainly a requirement of any proficient Scruggs player. Even players who are proficient in single string and melodic style know how important rolling back-up is. Everyone from a beginner to Bela Fleck will use rolling back-up. If your goal is to be a complete back-up player, don't neglect rolling back-up. Listen to great players who use it. Learn to mimic where and how they use it until you grasp the "why" behind the choices they make. Once you understand what is going on, there is almost limitless freedom to use rolls in your back-up any way it seems appropriate, tasteful and rhythmically essential.

Now get your banjo out and get to rolling that back-up. You'll be really glad you spent the time later on in your banjo journey! Thanks for spending time with me in the newsletter and I look forward to the next installment.

15 comments on “Back-Up Series: Rolling Back-Up”

llscracker72 Says:
Monday, November 4, 2013 @1:28:29 PM

Really appreciate the backup series John, i don't think this subject is studied as much as it should be. Thanks

drhardin Says:
Monday, November 4, 2013 @2:36:29 PM

Thanks for the article and the video. Being a beginner to not only the banjo but to bluegrass in general, learning to play interesting backup is my goal instead of learning breaks/leads/licks/etc.

Tam_Zeb Says:
Monday, November 4, 2013 @2:56:36 PM

Hi John

Thanks for tackling this topic John very much appreciated, I'd liked to have seen some examples, of rolling over the G C D Am Em F A B chords in some sample progressions. As you'll know from working with your own students, anticipating a chord change can be quite difficult and confusing. A few short example progressions played slowly would really help get that A-Ha message across.

BBKing26 Says:
Monday, November 4, 2013 @3:35:39 PM

Well done! Thanks for taking the time to share this. Looking forward to working on this that has been such a mystery.

Runamukrancher Says:
Monday, November 4, 2013 @3:50:30 PM

whoa this will keep me busy all month. just starting making some fun noise. thanks what a great lesson on back ups you gave.

lindafhorton53 Says:
Monday, November 4, 2013 @4:40:18 PM

Hey John, for someone like me just beginning to learn backup, I have what may be a kindergarten question. When you're learning the rolling back up--I notice they are all mostly 3 note rolls, so how many of the 3 note rolls do I do to get the number notes I need in each 8 note measures?

Banjophobic Says:
Monday, November 4, 2013 @5:04:16 PM

You can roll however you like, over any of those chords. Rolling backup is universal to any key or chord progression. Hearing the cadences of these changes just takes time listening and trying logical patterns, like I IV V, then a song that has a vi, or ii or b7,etc. Music is about patterns

Banjophobic Says:
Monday, November 4, 2013 @5:06:46 PM

Yes the typical roll is 3 notes using your three fingers. If you are playing the roll notes as 8ths, that means 2 notes per note of the roll on a downbeat, the next on the offbeat, the next on the down, the next on the up..etc,etc. But also remember that there is no 'rule' that say you MUST play 8 note rolls in every measure. This is BACK-UP, which means you can roll 6 notes, 7, 5..whatever you like. Just keep in mind that you need to keep a steady rhythm and syncopation as you roll.

lindafhorton53 Says:
Tuesday, November 5, 2013 @5:12:42 AM

Thanks John, I needed that! I've been under the impression all along that even in backup you HAD to make sure you did exactly 8 notes (or beats) (depending on the timing of the song) in each measure (or 3's in waltz type songs). Thank you for the time you're spending doing this thread I know I'm not the only one who needs it and is profiting with it.

jonah4832 Says:
Tuesday, November 5, 2013 @5:22:54 AM

Linda, What John forgot to mention is even if you don't use 8 notes in 4 quarter time you still have 4 beats, so in other words don't forget to count the (rest's) which are beats too. It's all in the timing.

Banjophobic Says:
Tuesday, November 5, 2013 @6:20:54 AM

Yep, like Jonah said..there are 4 beats in a common time measure Linda. A beat has 2 parts..a down/up. So playing a roll note on teh down and one on the up sections equals 2 notes per 'beat'. If you multiply 2 notes per beat X 4 beats you get 8 notes in the measure. And as Jonah said, if you decide to drop a note or two from your roll you havent changed the beat count in the measure at all-you are just replacing the note(s) with a 'rest' (space where you dont play).

Tam_Zeb Says:
Tuesday, November 5, 2013 @8:21:20 AM

Hi John...
When I play a forward roll over chords I don't seem to get that energy and tone I hear other players getting. Which is why I was asking for some examples. The G Chord with the slide has that full tone but when I play the C and D Chords they seem to lack the same fullness. Do you alternate strings in the roll? Do you aim to hit all strings over a two measure sequence ? Do you always include the 5th string in the roll pattern. I have tried varies forward roll sequences but I've yet to find a pattern that gives that drive I hear when others play.

jonah4832 Says:
Tuesday, November 5, 2013 @8:42:09 AM

Tam Zeb, not trying to undermine John, but there are alot of different rolls, that can give you that fullness of tone, Jack Hatfield's method three of backup techniques goes into great detail covering the rolling backup down the neck and up the neck and you can hear that fullness of tone your talking about. There are certain ways to play rolls for a one measure sequence, and then there are different ways for two measure sequece with what some ppl refer to as escape notes. And you can aslo do three and four measure sequece's similiar with the escape notes but it gives it that fulness ur refering to.

banjerman Says:
Wednesday, November 6, 2013 @9:41:13 AM

The trick Tam is to know that you are using the 1st 3rd or 5th note of the chord and start the roll on the one you like best. Each note either is the melody note or the harmony note of the singers singing note. Its very difficult to explain on paper but easily shown by a competent teacher.

Frisco Fred Says:
Tuesday, February 4, 2014 @1:15:12 PM

...slide into the, "The In The Mood roll." Good one,

Thanks John

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