BY FRED SOKOLOW | FROM THE SPRING 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
From a right-hand perspective, there are several ways to approach the five-string banjo. Among the most common are strumming, clawhammer, and two- or three-finger picking. Because the banjo and the ukulele share a common high G string, all sound great on the uke!
What banjo players call three-finger picking makes use of two fingers and the thumb. Since the late 1940s, when North Carolina banjo legend Earl Scruggs figured out a super-fast and syncopated way to three-finger pick, the term “Scruggs style” has been synonymous with bluegrass banjo. It’s a rite of passage for any serious student to imitate the rolls and licks that Scruggs popularized in his work with Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys—yes, that’s the inspiration for the “Soggy Bottom Boys” moniker in the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Roll With It
To become a Scruggs-style picker on uke (or banjo), you need to learn a handful of three-finger rolls and their variations. When playing a solo, you’ll pick the melody of a song and use the rolls to fill the gaps between melody notes or embellish them. To see how it’s done, let’s take a look at a well-known fiddle tune, “Bile Them Cabbage Down.”
Accomplished pickers mix up all the rolls while playing a tune, but to get started, you’ll use one roll throughout the eight-bar verse of “Bile Them Cabbage Down,” shown in Example 1. Listen to the video demo above, and then play it.
Once the melody is in your ears, try your first roll, FMB (Example 2), short for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” the famous Scruggs instrumental in which it makes a prominent appearance. Hold down the C chord shape throughout, and when it comes to the picking hand, keep in mind that p stands for thumb, i for index finger, and m for middle. Play this roll over and over and try to match the rhythmic swing you hear on the video.
Once you get comfortable with the roll, plug it into “Bile Them Cabbage Down,” as notated in Example 3. Be sure to hold down each chord shape for as long as possible, and as before, listen to the demo before playing through the music. Notice how in bars 4 and 7, the eighth-note rolls are interrupted with quarter notes. There’s no rule that you have to play nonstop eighths!
Now, using the same process as for Ex. 2, try the in and out roll (Example 4). Some people refer to this roll as double thumbing, because the thumb plays every other note. The thumb usually plays the melody when this roll is used. That’s why the arrangement shown in Example 5 moves the F chord up to the fifth fret, where you can play the melody note with your thumb on the third string. Notice, too, that in the odd measures, the chord name is Cadd9, rather than C, as the melody note is the third-string D (the chord’s ninth).
Example 6 shows the forward roll, a variation on the FMB roll. In fact, if you shifted the first two notes of the FMB to the end of the roll (right after the last open G), it would be the same as the forward roll. As before, practice the roll and then play the arrangement (Example 7). In bar 4, on the G chord, notice that the picking hand’s index finger switches from the second string to the third. That’s because the melody has moved to string 3.
Next up is the forward/backward roll, which starts with the thumb and changes directions midway through the measure, as notated in Example 8. Now try “Bile” with this roll (Example 9). The same F chord you played in Ex. 5 reappears here, once again allowing you to play to the melody note on string 3.
As the name suggests, the tag roll (Example 10) is often used in endings. Similar to Ex. 8, it begins with a forward roll but changes to a backward roll halfway through the pattern. Notice that the index finger moves to the third string in the fourth bar, in order to play the melody note. Now try the roll in “Bile” (Example 11).
Mixing It Up
While each of the previous arrangements uses only one roll, remember that bluegrass players usually mix up the rolls. If you done your homework, then you’re ready to do the same on “Bile,” as shown in Example 12.
This arrangement has some frills as well: The slide on the third string gives you a soulful sound when the blue note (Eb/D#) rubs against the major third (open E string). Keep the first string fretted while playing this slide. When playing the pull-off in bar 7, remember to make sure that the notes sound smoothly connected, with the second-fret D sounding as clearly as the open C.
If you want to get better at three-finger picking, the next time you’re jamming with other people—virtually or otherwise—try playing one or two of the rolls as accompaniment, instead of strumming. You’ll be training yourself to be a Scruggs-style picker!