With a few chords under their belt, and perhaps a plectrum to hand, almost anyone can have fun strumming away on the banjo. In fact, as newcomers to the instrument that's where most of us tend to start out. If you wish to unlock the instrument's unique sound, however, you will have to learn one of the unique styles used to play it.
In the case of 3-finger style, that means mastering the art of the roll pattern.
A roll pattern is a series of eight notes picked repeatedly with the thumb, index, and middle fingers on the right hand (if right handed, opposite if left handed). By playing patterns over different chord shapes you create a stream of arpeggios or ‘broken chords'. This means picking each note of the chord one after another as opposed to strumming them together, and is what gives 3-finger style such a distinctive sound.
In bluegrass and 3-finger banjo the vast majority of tunes are made up of these different roll patterns. The patterns may be chopped and changed to suit each song but can always ultimately be traced back to a few core ideas.
As a beginner, learning all the variations on 5-string banjo rolls is neither necessary nor desirable. All you need to kickstart your playing are these four essential rolls: forward, backward, forward-backward, and mixed.
When laid out on a tab sheet it looks like this:
Although in this example the index and middle fingers pluck the 2nd and 1st strings, they could be used to pluck any two strings which are ascending in pitch. For instance; the 3rd and 1st, or 4th and 3rd strings may be substituted instead, and it would still be considered a typical forward roll pattern. The first two notes, using the index and middle finger can either be played at the front of the roll pattern as it is here or you can move it to the end of the roll pattern. This would change your right hand fingering to play - thumb, index, middle - thumb, index, middle - index, middle.
Practice playing this pattern along to a metronome until you can repeat it unaided without faltering. Making sure there is equal spacing between each note is essential for establishing the proper rhythm, and the metronome will help you to achieve this.
Once you grasp the forward roll, the backward roll is sure to come hot on its heels. All you're doing here is reversing the order in which you play the 1st and 2nd strings:
Here it is presented in tab form:
As with the forward roll, the index and middle fingers can pluck any two descending strings to create a backward roll. Although the difference between these two rolls appears small, they have very distinct tonal qualities. The forward roll creates a rising arpeggio, bubbly and uplifting, while the backward roll creates a falling arpeggio, plaintive and almost melancholy by comparison.
After practicing the backward roll up to an equally high standard as the forward roll, you'll be ready to combine both in a brand new pattern. At the same time, your thumb can finally begin to be untethered from its home on the 5th string.
We went up, we went down, and now we're wavering somewhere in the middle. This 5-string banjo roll typically makes use of four strings as opposed to the three played in the forward and backward rolls:
In the tablature it looks like this:
The first thing you'll notice about this roll is that the thumb is centered on the 3rd string, only jumping up to pluck the 5th string once in the middle of the pattern. Although a subtle change, it affects the sound quite dramatically by lowering the root note an entire octave in standard G tuning.
You can also center your thumb on the 4th string, or move your thumb between 3rd and 4th strings on the ascending and descending parts of the roll. Practicing this moving thumb technique will prove particularly useful when you come to tackle the final roll pattern.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘thumb-in-and-out' or ‘alternating thumb' roll, this pattern is neither ascending nor descending and uses all five strings on the banjo. Notice how the thumb plays every other note:
The tab demonstrates this thumb movement clearly:
This 5-string banjo roll is perhaps the most quintessentially bluegrass. Without any specific direction in terms of pitch, it creates a sparkling aura over any chord shape and makes the fullest use of the banjo's open tuning. Some of the best-known banjo tunes such as ‘Cripple Creek' and ‘I'll Fly Away' are reliant on the mixed roll for their memorable sound.
If you find the alternating thumb too difficult at first, try restricting your thumb to the 3rd and 5th strings until you get a firmer grasp on the basic movement of the roll. As with each pattern, practice using a metronome and build up speed slowly until the roll becomes almost automatic.