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Dec 23, 2017 - 6:22:41 AM
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13484 posts since 12/2/2005

Let me start with a story. Not long after I purchased it, my first banjo went into a closet and sat untouched for more than 15 years. The reason? Rolls – or, more specifically, roll patterns, which many new players mistake for rolls.

I was a competent finger-style guitarist when I bought the banjo. I wasn’t looking for one, but I always liked the sound and the seller was a friend who needed cash. I wanted to help him out and figured that given my experience with fingerpicking the guitar, the transition to banjo would be fairly easy (it’s not, but that’s a topic best discussed elsewhere).

At the time, I lived in northern Maine. If there was another banjo picker living within 30 miles, I never knew about it. The Internet, for all practical purposes, didn’t exist yet – so there was no Skype, no YouTube, no Banjo Hangout. The only way I could find to learn was a book, which I purchased on one of my infrequent day-off trips to the Big City (Portland).

That book is still in print, and still respectfully referenced now and then on the Hangout. I’ll give no clues to the author beyond that, but I will tell you that the emphasis on practicing roll patterns as a starting point made no damned sense to me at all. After about a month or so, I gave up. The banjo went into its case. The case gathered dust.

Fast forward to the next time I picked it up. I had moved close to Portland, winter was coming on, and I needed a project. It occurred to me that I was probably in reasonable proximity to a teacher, and figured that I’d take lessons for a month or two and see if it clicked. If it didn’t, I’d sell the banjo, because I already had enough places for dust to settle.

I found a teacher. On our first encounter, he asked about my musical background. I told him about my experience as a kid with piano and guitar and drums and bass, and church choir, and musical theater and later as a wannabe singer-songwriter, and especially the part about the banjo book and how the rolls thing made no sense to me.

“Yeah,” he nodded. “Lots of people have that problem. Look, forget about those patterns. There are really only three rolls, and they’re not what most people think they are. There’s forward…” and here, he played T-I-M on strings three, two and one; “…backwards…” and here he played M-I-T on strings one, two and three; “…and if you notice, there are just three notes in those rolls, not eight. And here’s a square, like you play on your guitar.” And he played the alternating-thumb T-I-T-M – four notes total.

“So what’s the deal with all those rolls the books want you to learn?” I asked.

“For the most part, those are made up of those three things I just showed you, sometimes cut in smaller pieces and then combined,” he said. “Those basic moves get combined to make those eight-note patterns. And between you and me, I think those patterns probably cause more problems than they solve.”

That broke the log jam, and as I improved as a player, I became increasingly skeptical as to why eight-note roll patterns received so much emphasis in so many learning methods. I wasn’t practicing them, and I was progressing fast enough that my teacher booted me out after about a year (“You’ve moved beyond what I can teach you,” he said. “You need to start working with someone who’s a better player than I am.” THAT’s a teacher who puts the student first, and I’ll always be grateful to him.)

My next teacher built on what I brought in. He DID believe in practicing rolls, though mostly for working on timing, and he chuckled when I told him of my allergy to them. “Yeah, not everybody benefits from it,” he admitted. “Wait right here – I’ve got something you’ll like.” A few minutes later he came back with a photocopy of a three-part series on re-thinking rolls from the Banjo Newsletter. It was written by a guy named Jeff Kimble, published in 2004, and it expanded upon what my first teacher told me about rolls.

In addition to the three-note forward and backwards elements my first teacher discussed, Kimble suggested what he called a “Beta” roll instead of the latter – a T-M-I move that, when repeated, has all the elements of the backward roll (count it out for yourself and you’ll see). He also identified TWO-note moves – (T)humb and (F)inger (index or middle), or (F)inger and (T)humb. Put two of those together, and you’ve got your basic square patterns. And then, of course, pinches – either two or three-finger.

And that’s basically it. Kimble argued - and after I started working with this precept in mind, I came to agree - that when you look at the roots, this handful of rudiments is combined to produce nearly every so-called roll pattern ever formally codified and given a name. More importantly, it helped me further recognize and understand the moves and processes required anytime I ran across something out of the ordinary - which the best banjo playing usually is.

The naming of these patterns compounds the issue. Consider an eight-note measure involving the forward roll – a pattern, if you like. There are actually lots of ways you can make that happen. You could play two T-I-M forward rolls and a T-F, adding to eight notes; or the T-F followed by the two forward rolls; you could roll forward once, throw in the T-F and then roll forward again. Or you could play ONE note with a finger, roll T-I-M once, another finger note and then roll again (similar to what’s often called a Dillard roll) or hang the orphan note at the end. Or leave it out altogether and let that last note ring an extra half-beat.

Once you figure in the five strings and various permutations of those, each combination can produce a different sequence of notes – and thus sounds – but they’re all essentially dependent on the forward roll – the ROLL, not the pattern. And that reality stretches the bounds of the term ‘forward roll” if we limit our understanding of rolls to 8-note patterns.

Taking this further: in addition to having all those possible variants, the process of rolling forward can extend well beyond one measure – and if we’re trained to think of a forward roll as something like a 3-3-2 combination, the way so many learning methods and roll exercises present them, we’re effectively undermining one of the best ways to get that thrilling, driving banjo sound, by keeping that forward roll going well into the next measure – and not infrequently beyond that.

The analogy I like to use is this: nowadays, there are several common ways houses are built. With manufactured homes, pre-cut lumber for studs is slapped into jigs, the plates are put in place, the whole thing is fastened with pneumatic nail guns and within a few minutes you’ve got a panel. The panels are then bolted together, and with enough panels you’ve got the framing for the house.

Stick building gets the same structural result, but the components are assembled individually by folks who understand every single step of the process. They’re called carpenters. I don’t know about you, but I think it would be difficult to hang that title on the folks who assemble panels all day long in a factory.

From my perspective, reliance on codified roll patterns is the equivalent of bolting together a house from panels. The folks who build them certainly have skills, and those panels are certainly useful. But what if the design calls for something other than the way the jigs are set up? That’s when it helps to think about things like a carpenter does.

Like a MUSICIAN does.

Depending upon the learning method, you’ll frequently see anywhere from six to more than a dozen 8-note “rolls.” Sometimes you see them set up as two-measure patterns. The problems come with the fact that, when we’re taught this way, many folks either have difficulty with the relevance of these patterns at the start, because the idea behind how we’re supposed to use them isn’t yet understood. How could it be?

And possibly worse, we’re essentially trained to think that there’s a defined “roll pattern” to solve every musical equation. There isn’t. Someone with far better math skills than mine once figured out that if every possible eight-note pattern were codified – incorporating all of the possible ways of using all three fingers and all five strings – there would be in excess of 10,000 of them. Dunno about you, but that’s more than I want to imagine, let alone practice.

So should we dispense with roll patterns altogether? I’m not arguing for that. I do think they can be useful in several areas. First, they can be handy for experienced players as warmup exercises. They can certainly be useful for enhancing skills with timing if we work with a metronome. And they CAN help beginners start to develop the dexterity to send the fingers where they’re needed, when they’re needed – though I personally believe there’s a better way.

At minimum, I think it should be made clear to those beginners that this is all they’re really going to do – help them start moving the fingers. There are certainly defined patterns that do get used a LOT – that’s why these patterns got established in the first place. The square, Foggy Mountain and forward-reverse rolls come to mind – but that there are simply too many other variations to assume that patterns can ever be the be-all and end-all. In addition to patterns he played often, Earl played countless measures of brilliant music that weren’t based on 8-note patterns. There’s a reason for that.

Earl and Ralph and Don Reno didn’t study rolls, nor did they define or name them. They just figured out how to move their fingers to produce the combinations of notes and spaces they wanted to play. They weren’t thinking about patterns – they were thinking about MUSIC, and developed ways to produce that music in the most biomechanically efficient way that they could. The concept and codification of “rolls” as eight-note constructs developed years later – arguably, first showing up in the first edition of the Scruggs book in the late 1960s as others were trying to understand what Earl and his peers were doing – and, possibly, to help others understand it. But many, many fine banjo players developed without them.

Think about that. In less than fifty years, 8-note roll patterns have made the transition from unknown to dogma – and the problem with dogma is that while one faith may subscribe to a given set of precepts, others may see other paths to enlightenment. The pattern approach has become an article of faith. It unquestionably has its adherents – including people who have successfully navigated beyond its rigid pedagogy and become competent players, and no small number of teachers.

But ultimately, isn’t the MUSIC what’s really important? Get right down to it, and it’s the notes and spaces – the melody, the rhythm, the tempo – that we’re really after. None of these things are rolls, let alone roll patterns; rolls are simply the mechanism by which we produce the music – a means to an end, not the end itself. Name your favorite banjo player, and I’ll just about guarantee that he or she doesn’t think about roll patterns. He or she thinks about the notes and spaces.

I will cheerfully admit that I’ll never be a great player. For one thing, I started too late in life (I’d love to have that fifteen years back), and for another, I simply don’t have the time to practice that would be required to reach my full potential. So, if you’re wondering “who the hell is THIS guy, and what qualifies HIM to pontificate on this stuff?” you could well have a point. In my own defense, I invite you to consider Matt Patricia, the defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots. He played some college ball but wasn’t an NFL player, let alone a hall-of-famer. He did no formal study regarding how to be a coach; he was trained as an aeronautical engineer. He has three Superbowl rings.

Or, as a wonderful old Vermonter I used to know was fond of saying, “even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while.”

If the approach of drilling on roll patterns is working for you, fine – far be it from me to tell you otherwise. And if you’re working with a teacher who believes you should practice patterns, I’m not about to second-guess your teacher – they know you, and I don’t. I WILL say that I don’t ask most of my students to practice roll patterns; I found the concept too limiting as a student and still find it too limiting today as a teacher. I’d far rather students develop those right-hand skills within the context of playing actual music. With this approach, as long as they’re practicing at all, they DO practice rolling skills – they just don’t do so as a standalone element. And they do become better players.

As the old saying goes, Your Mileage May Vary. You can disagree with this premise; I've little doubt many of you will. But I do invite you to think about it. From experience, I do believe that it’s more effective to understand the rudiments – that tiny handful of moves described by Kimble – of what goes into each measure of music and practice THAT than it is to spend extensive periods of time working on standardized patterns that produce approximations of one. I believe that the time spent practicing the playing of music itself is more rewarding and useful than time spent practicing what amounts to a mechanical skill.

Edited by - eagleisland on 12/23/2017 09:43:07

Dec 23, 2017 - 6:36:05 AM
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2567 posts since 11/29/2007

I am with you Skip. My experience was when I started there were all these 8 note rolls that we were to learn and then when you went to the tab of a particular song those rolls didn't seem to fit at all. When I learned that they were just patterns of movement that could be broken up into the different roll patterns (rolls) in order to get more of the melody notes into the song, I breathed a sigh of relief. I see many beginning players who state with pride, "I learned all of the rolls....." to which I wonder, "okay, what are you going to do with them now?"

Dec 23, 2017 - 7:00:23 AM
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mikebanjo Players Union Member


251 posts since 10/30/2007

I think the reliance on rolls got momentum because it is a quicker way to get a beginner started playing the banjo and it sounded to most that the better players were just playing a combination of rolls, right? Eventually some of us realize those rolls were made up of notes which had alphabetical names and specific identifiable sounds that could be reproduced at various parts of the neck. From there some of us went on to reading standard musical notation and reproducing musical sounds and songs that are not made by just playing rolls. Known as evolution of a banjo player education on his instrument.

Dec 23, 2017 - 7:15:15 AM



34328 posts since 10/5/2013

Good essay, Skip. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an instruction book, good or poor, banjo or guitar, that didn’t delve right into playing a song or fragment thereof after the first introductory lesson. Yep - play music, save the exercise drills for later.

Dec 23, 2017 - 7:24:27 AM
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791 posts since 7/12/2004

I'm totally in agreement with you, Skip. I've been teaching this way for over 20 years. Eight note rolls are very constraining and once you start thinking in that way it's difficult to coherently play a melody, which may change many times before that eight note roll is over. Your first teacher was right on, but I'd go farther - the third pattern is any two alternating fingers, just as the forward and backward rolls can start on any of the three fingers. TIM, IMT and MTI are the same roll, but each one allows a different rhythm and emphasis; people think of alternating patterns as TITM, but MIMT also works, as in Alan Munde's "Deputy Dalton". In fact, so does MITI, where the alternating finger is on the 2nd and 4th notes of the pattern. Combine this with the fact that any of the three fingers can carry the melody note, and you have endless possibilities just within each two or three note grouping. Each has a different rhythmic effect, but they all share one of two characteristics: something repeats every third note, or something repeats every second note.

Break rolls down into these two and three note groupings, and it's much easier to think about playing melodies.

Edited by - waystation on 12/23/2017 07:27:26

Dec 23, 2017 - 7:42:23 AM
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3561 posts since 6/17/2003

Well put, Skip!

By the way, I think we're long overdue re-thinking most, if not all, dogmas.... ;-)

Dec 23, 2017 - 7:56:14 AM
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842 posts since 3/14/2003

Great article and logical discussion on evaluating one of the holy writs in bluegrass banjo, Skip!
When I started 15 years ago, I had a gift banjo that I didn't know how to even tune and a popular dvd that proposed if you learn these 8-note roll patterns and three basic chord shapes, well presto - you're a banjo player! I wasted months on that approach before realizing I wasn't producing anything that resembled music, much less a song that anyone could recognize. I just kept waiting for the magic to happen, which of course, it never did. Hhhhmmmm...sorta like waiting up for Santa.
For me, the roll patterns were good for learning muscle memory, practicing timing, and learning to coordinate right-hand picking with left-hand chord changes, but when asked now, I usually have no idea what roll patterns that I play in most songs. Some, like Grandfather's Clock, are clearly forward roll heavy, but most songs are not nearly as easy to analyze.
Again great article - love the ones that make us think.

Dec 23, 2017 - 7:59:54 AM
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2901 posts since 7/12/2006

well it seems that roll patterns help the beginner get his right hand in shape for whatever may come after. I mean, even Bela started out doing the same thing we all did when we started

Dec 23, 2017 - 8:15:22 AM
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Texasbanjo (Moderator)


21354 posts since 8/3/2003
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Excellent post, Skip, wish I could have said it that well.

There's nothing wrong with learning rolls, but.... learning to play the melody should be first before rolls, then integrate the rolls or roll patterns, into the melody. (Actually, learning to count should probably be first, but that's getting into music theory).

When I first started out, it was like Skip said: no internet, no teacher, no video, one book basically. Rolls were "king". That's the way I learned and I was tab dependent for years because I didn't understand that melody came first, not rolls. I tried fitting the melody into a roll and lots of times (most of the time) it just didn't work. When I stopped thinking "roll" and started thinking "melody", my playing improved dramatically and I lost any desire to look at tab.

Dec 23, 2017 - 8:27:04 AM
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13484 posts since 12/2/2005

Originally posted by waystation

I'm totally in agreement with you, Skip. I've been teaching this way for over 20 years. Eight note rolls are very constraining and once you start thinking in that way it's difficult to coherently play a melody, which may change many times before that eight note roll is over.

Wow - I'm flattered. For those of you who don't know him, Rich is one of those guys who fits into that "best banjo players you probably never heard of" category.

Dec 23, 2017 - 8:41:04 AM
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rickhayes Players Union Member


1817 posts since 1/21/2003

Skip I'll agree with you and all of the others who have already done so. I'm not an accomplished picker nor will I ever be. I never took lessons. I simply loved the sound of the picking so I tried the best I could to emulate what I was hearing. I never even knew what a forward roll or any of the others were, nor have I ever practiced any of them. I just tried to pick notes in a rhythm that fit around the melody as best I could.

Dec 23, 2017 - 8:51:38 AM
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5994 posts since 2/14/2006

yes  Right on the money

Dec 23, 2017 - 9:01:32 AM

13403 posts since 8/14/2003


Dec 23, 2017 - 9:09:58 AM
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285 posts since 2/28/2006
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Your post makes some very good points about rolls, especially the 8 note roll.

I think there is a value in breaking down right hand technique with the ultimate goal of expressing the music you want. (I know you’re not disagreeing with that.) The interesting question is how best to develop right hand technique?

Peter Pardee developed an exercise that incorporates 24 four note/finger combinations in one activity. The goal is to be able to play it fluently and then develop the ability to accent any note within the exercise at will.
When I was working hard to improve, I found it very helpful.

All the best.
Brian Saulsman

Dec 23, 2017 - 9:11:41 AM
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1452 posts since 11/7/2003

That was well said Skip,

I am able to understand what you said more clearly because I've got the booklet
by Jeff Kimble right here in my hand.
After reading it a few times, chewing on it, and then trying it out, it started to make
a lot of sense.

It turns out that I am a very slow learner. And I used to think of myself as being
really quick to pick things up. Time has proven just how slow, but that does not stop me from enjoying listening.

The main learnable help from Jeff Kimble's "new approach" for me was the "unlocking"
of how to understand reading tab, and fitting the small pieces together.

disclaimer: This "approach" has helped my understanding and playing, even been
eye opening, but has done very little to change my mind about "what" I choose to
learn to play, how it "fits in" with the established standards, or how it is received by

That's OK too, and does not stop me from enjoying listening to true bluegrass.

Dec 23, 2017 - 9:19:14 AM
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2300 posts since 5/29/2011

Well said, Skip. I think it is long past time we rethink the practice of learning rolls. As you so well put it, Earl, Ralph, and Don were not thinking about rolls they were thinking about music. Trying to master rolls is probably a leading reason why so many people give up trying to learn the banjo after only a short time.
My mentor, Troy Brammer, once told me that if you concentrate on the left hand the right hand will follow. I have found that to be the case for many years now. Learning rolls should not become more important than learning musical phrasing, theory, etc.

Dec 23, 2017 - 9:24:15 AM

13484 posts since 12/2/2005

Originally posted by kentr

I am able to understand what you said more clearly because I've got the booklet
by Jeff Kimble right here in my hand.
After reading it a few times, chewing on it, and then trying it out, it started to make
a lot of sense.

Kent, thanks for posting that - I had a hunch I'd spelled Kimble's name wrong and your post allowed me to verify the spelling (corrected in the original) and add the publication date for the series.

Dec 23, 2017 - 9:35:45 AM

RevSpyder Players Union Member


201 posts since 3/28/2013

Well this is one of the most encouraging posts I've read in a long time. I have found the whole roll thing to be completely confusing, as in how do I make music with those blasted things? So I found 2 finger thumb lead worked really well for me. Then I started using some alternating thumb 3 finger patterns, and a couple of forward and backward rolls that just seemed to fit in. Disclaimer: I play banjo to back up singing mostly, with maybe the occasional simple (really simple) picking break. Anyway, I had already decided the heck with rolls, and I'm never going to be able to figure out how to play a melody with 'em.

The other encouraging thing was a short video I found last night by Bela Fleck, and he basically has only two techniques he's teaching as a foundation: alternating thumb roll and TITI on the same string. Simple. Flexible.

And Bruno, I couldn't agree more about dogmas. Of any kind.

Dec 23, 2017 - 9:48:21 AM

1495 posts since 9/12/2016

I use forward roll as lazy fill in licks ,forward type fingering stolen from it ,is a good energy boost also. I have always been criticized by some for not putting it's importance ahead of the true melody .Lately I have leaned that way a bit more ,but not much especially on the first break.
Though I learned all the rolls from the book,after learning a few Earl arrangements I went more into square licking complex melodies so my listeners would actually recognize things a bit more.Good Earl picking would blow me out the door with wow factor and more talent,but my head like a rock disease stayed put.I just could not get a'' hold'' on where those great Scruggs players were coming from.I would not suggest anyone follow suit.One thing in my corner is all the good ones put doing it your own way high on the list

Dec 23, 2017 - 9:55:57 AM
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2207 posts since 11/15/2003

Your "Wisdom" in a sea of hamburgers(including especially myself)
You sir, ARE A STEAK!

Dec 23, 2017 - 9:58:08 AM

1240 posts since 4/5/2006

Originally posted by hicotton

Great article and logical discussion on evaluating one of the holy writs in bluegrass banjo, Skip!
roll patterns were good for learning muscle memory, practicing timing, and learning to coordinate right-hand picking with left-hand chord changes

Like most of us that have commented here, my beginnings preceded the internet by decades. And although tablature existed at the time, it was not widely accepted by music academics. Nowhere in any of the beginning instruction manuals I referenced, was there any mention of "muscle memory" let alone rolls or patterns thereof.  With the exception of two, (you all can figure that out) the primary focus of all, was learning to play music. The fact that you were attempting this on a five string banjo was secondary. Aside from simple songs thought to be appropriate for the five string banjo, were short, often no more than eight bar lines referred to as 'Etude in C major, or whatever.

Although a lot of people tried to define Scruggs style picking by formulating rules, Earl was not opposed to trying anything that worked. Pat Cloud tells his students the first rule of playing banjo is, there are no rules. You get the note any way you can. But that's a horse of another color.

Edited by - monstertone on 12/23/2017 10:01:11

Dec 23, 2017 - 10:35:54 AM

791 posts since 7/12/2004

Originally posted by eagleisland

Wow - I'm flattered. For those of you who don't know him, Rich is one of those guys who fits into that "best banjo players you probably never heard of" category.

The flattery is all mine, Skip. You've started a really valuable conversation here. I've always found it funny that when I introduce "square" patterns to beginners after I've shown them a couple of tunes made entirely of forward rolls and quarter notes, they find those patterns very foreign. Just the opposite of most methods that start based on alternating thumb rolls, where people hang on to the quarter note beat emphasis as if they'll sink out of sight if they lose it. The same thing happens with eight note rolls - the downbeat becomes the most important thing in the world, and using smaller note groups to achieve natural phrasing is much harder to understand. It's easier to teach syncopation first and then introduce square phrasing than the other way around.

Dec 23, 2017 - 6:32:26 PM

102 posts since 7/12/2013

Skip, thanks for posting this. I too struggled with eight note rolls and almost gave up the banjo entirely because I couldn't bring myself to practice something that never seemed to fit any song or melody. I could not play a forward roll exercise without mixing TMI or reverse into it. But once you follow the melody it's much easier. Not many songs seem to use an uninterrupted forward roll anyway.

Dec 23, 2017 - 6:48:42 PM

102 posts since 7/12/2013

I'm not trying to hijack this thread, but Rich, could you elaborate on your comment a little for the, ahem, musically challenged among us?

Dec 23, 2017 - 10:42:35 PM

Boadicea Players Union Member


145 posts since 6/28/2014

Originally posted by RevSpyder

The other encouraging thing was a short video I found last night by Bela Fleck, and he basically has only two techniques he's teaching as a foundation: alternating thumb roll and TITI on the same string. Simple. Flexible.

The problem with this - is that as I am in a country which doesn't have a lot of banjo players, so you are all talking from a level of assumed knowledge that I don't have.

Bela Fleck is out of my league - because I can't see what "simple" rolls he is doing, and when he plays up and down the neck, part of that is literally done off camera.

I know what a slide and a hammer on is, so that is good. 

So what you are complaining about - things not being accessible is actually being replicated in this thread. I blogged my frustrations here:

Maybe I am too new as a Scruggs player to be posting on this forum, but I am finding it most frustrating. 

Dec 24, 2017 - 3:35:32 AM
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4353 posts since 10/13/2007

Here is a question I had for Jack Hatfield and his kind response. IMO Jack has been brilliant in his organization and teaching. Thinking of the parameters he attributed to Scruggs helped me out a lot. It is much in line with your thinking:
From Jack Hatfield: 7/30/10

2. (my question) Scruggs invented most of the licks but he was also a very melody oriented player. Do you think most of his licks originated as a way to state specific melody notes at one time in a song?

Jack's answer:
"Yes. It is very simple: Earl was trying to render a melody using the thumb on the melody notes as often as possible while maintaining a steady stream of eighth notes and not repeating a digit on consecutive eighth notes. These three parameters resulted in the four or five basic rolls he created. IMO, he never even conceptualized the rolls as static building blocks of his style until others such as Bill Keith attempted to put it down on paper (tab) and coined the term “roll”. By then it was already innate with Earl. He just tried to play the melody with the stronger thumb, and the signature licks and finger sequences (rolls) that resulted became his vocabulary (“I call it his Lick-cabulary”) unconsciously.

All the more reason to set as a goal thinking the melody instead of thinking about the rolls and licks and memorized arrangement. If you have practiced the licks and rolls enough, REALLY ingrained them...they will appear on your fingers in some unplanned order to render the melody you intend, and you will not be ridden with a string of errors because you made one mistake in a memorized arrangement. Playing memorized arrangements by rote is a starting place, (in truth, many lifelong players never get beyond this) but it is like a chain...when you break one link the whole thing ceases to function. If you think the melody instead of the memorized arrangement, you may play it differently every time, but there are no TIMING errors which is catastrophic, and few if any dropped notes. "

Edited by - From Greylock to Bean Blossom on 12/24/2017 03:36:49

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