Create Your Own Bluegrass Banjo Breaks

by Joe Zeke

So you’ve been going thru banjo songbooks and YouTube videos, progressing pretty well on a nice collection of bluegrass standards. But now you want something more. You’ve noticed how the banjo players in the videos and even the folks you jam with embellish their playing with their own brand of hot riffs - you’d like to be able to do that as well.

First of all, it’s important to have a good knowledge of the various chord positions up and down the neck. Chunking chords in first position (down by the nut) is not enough. Earl, even on a tune like Foggy Mountain Breakdown or songs where he is playing behind Lester’s vocals, played back-up rolls and lead riffs up at 7th fret and 12th fret and beyond. Many of those were out of chord positions.

At first look, some of these chords can look rather daunting, especially the closed position chords like G at 3rd fret, or D at 2nd fret where you finger all four strings.


But the good news is you don’t have to play the entire closed position. Depending on your picking pattern, you can get away with playing three or even two strings.

For example, a standard forward roll in G on strings 2, 1, 5: you can play the3rd and 4th strings open and fret 2nd string 3rd fret, 1st string, 5th. Or throw in the 4th string at 5th fret and play the roll on strings 4, 3 (open), 1, 5; or 4, 3(open), 2, 5 for a cool bluesy effect.

For a nice low-D effect, play the first position D chord with the 4th string open. Or play a D7 chord for another cool bluesy effect.

 Try a D forward or reverse roll fingering only the 3rd string at 2nd fret, playing strings 4, 3, 1, 5.

Learning someone else’s riffs off a video or CD, or out of a book like Tony Trischka’s Melodic Banjo or Pete Wernick’s Bluegrass Banjo is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you don’t rely solely on these riffs for your repertoire. If you’re not careful, you come off sounding like you’re “channeling” another picker. But you can modify those or insert parts of them in your own riffs.

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Once again: Relax! Have fun! And don’t worry about making mistakes. We all make them, but it’s what you do with them that counts. They can come as a pleasant surprise. Many times I’m noodling while I’m watching TV. I’ll play a wrong note, or even an entire riff one fret up or down from where it belongs. Next thing I know, it’s become part of my repertoire.


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