February 05, 2006

#123: Blending melody notes into rolls

Jeff writes:

I love the Bluegrass Songbook, lots of great songs and singing info. I'm a banjo player and need some advice on incorporating rolls into the melodies. Any help is much appreciated...

You've asked a very big question. Learning to do this is the main project of my week-long Basic Banjo Camp. Everyone who's ready selects a familiar song from an approved list, and finds the melody by ear. Then they practice playing through the chord progression while rolling. Some of the melody notes will fall right into place, such as when the thumb lands on the 3rd string to start the last roll of the tune (back on a G chord) and the melody note, G, naturally pops out.

With the ability to have the thumb hit different strings when its "turn" happens in the roll, while still keeping the roll going, some additional melody notes can fall into place, since for instance, so many of them happen at the beginning of measures, when the thumb is usually "taking its turn".

Some rolls are better suited than others to allow the thumb to hit a string right at a time a particular melody note happens, and some rolls give the thumb the freedom to start a roll on the 2nd string. So learning to use different rolls at different times is part of the key to including melody notes.

There's more to it than that, but that's a taste of some of the processes that are involved. It's a lot to keep track of, which is why the first attempt at doing this can take several days of concentrated work. The process is largely just trial and error, and by doing it in a supportive context with a guide like myself helping along, most people who are ready for this step succeed by the end of the week. A fair number do it soon enough to allow them to start another tune. The second attempt always goes more quickly, and as I promise the campers, by the tenth time you are doing this it tends to take minutes, not days, to get a passable arrangement.

In time, your fingers learn the "language" of Scruggs style, as I call it, and analogous to the way your lips and tongue work to produce words, you become unconscious of the processes at work, and just "think" the language as your hands carry it out. Getting to this level is a very meaningful goal for any fledgling player. It typically takes a couple of years to reach this stage if the effort is focused and not off on distractions, such as learning lots of tabs by rote. There is little value at this stage in memorized learning of what other people have figured out. It's easier to do, and the results are more predictable, but learning to "recite" someone else's ideas is *not* the same as "learning to speak in Scruggs style". You have to learn to write your own paragraph, is the way I put it.

Now I've outlined the journey, and it's up to you to do the work or not. It's not easy, but if you stick it out, you will get there, and it sure is a blast once you're "there" and you get to take breaks at jam sessions on songs you don't even know that well.

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