4 Essential Beginner Banjo Rolls

  1. What are Banjo Rolls?
  2. What are the Essential Rolls?
    1.  Forward Roll
    2. Alternating Thumb Roll
    3. Forward-Reverse Roll
    4. Tag-roll 
  3. Banjo Roll Wrap Up

What Are Banjo Rolls?

Banjo Rolls are right-hand patterns used by banjo players to catch melody notes for songs. These right-hand patterns were used by the banjo greats such as Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, and Don Reno.

At the same time, understand that banjo rolls are a teaching device. Once you master these basic patterns, you can make up your own and eventually create them on the fly.

In one way, banjo rolls don’t really exist. What I mean is that music is one continuous flow. Music isn’t a neat, specific number of notes that’s the same each and every time. However, rolls are super useful for beginners as they help you learn the basic motions your fingers need to move in to play three-finger style banjo.

Basic Banjo Roll Foundation

The first thing to understand about banjo rolls is they are FINGER MOTIONS and not a specific set of strings.  It is the finger motions that you want to master, not the infinite number of string combinations.  I’ll explain below.

What are the essential banjo rolls?

In my school of teaching, I say that there are FOUR BASIC BANJO ROLL patterns.

There are more banjo roll patterns, almost an indefinite number.  However, if you practice and master these four main ones, you’re well on your way to playing good bluegrass banjo.

It doesn’t take dozens of rolls to sound good.  Someone like Ralph Stanley made a career out of playing LOTS of forward rolls.  My banjo hero, Allen Shelton, used tons of forward rolls in his up-the-neck backup.

Don’t get caught up learning hundreds of right-hand patterns.  This takes time away from more useful endeavors.

If you would prefer video instruction of these beginner banjo rolls, please visit my Udemy banjo page for my online beginner banjo course where I cover all of these and more (no TAB is used).

What Is The Forward Roll?

The forward roll is when you use your fingers in the following order:

Thumb – Index – Middle

Some Examples Include: 32132131, 31531531, 3 531531 (where 3 is a quarter note), 41431431.

Hopefully, you can see for each of these right-hand patterns, the primary motion is this T-I-M motion. I call it the TIM pattern :)…This is the most natural motion you can do with your fingers and is a great one to start with.

What Is An Alternating Thumb Roll?

The alternating thumb roll is exactly what it sounds like.  It is when you use your thumb followed by some other finger.  The main pattern is

Thumb – Index – Thumb – Middle

Examples include: 3251 3251, 4251 4251, 4231 5341.

What is different about the alternating thumb pattern is it takes TWO alternating thumb patterns to make up one complete measure.  I call the alternating thumb roll a TWO BEAT roll.  In the first example, notice how you have to repeat 3251 twice to make one complete measure.

This roll is useful for songs like “Cripple Creek.”

What is a Forward-Reverse Roll?

The finger motion involves the forward portion from above (The TIM Roll!).  It is then followed by the reverse, the MIT roll.  I call it the TIM MIT roll!

Captain, we have a problem here.  TIM MIT is six notes.  This doesn’t add up to eight notes, nor four beats like we need.  So, how do we fix this?  We add two other notes.  We follow the forward roll with the fifth string and the reverse portion with the first string.

Some examples: 3215 1231, 4215 1241, 5215 1231

This is one of the most common bluegrass banjo rolls that you’ll run into.  It works GREAT over a C major chord.

What is the TAG Roll?

I don’t know what everyone else calls this, but I call it the TAG ROLL.  Why? Because it tends to come at the end of phrases.  Usually following a non-G chord.  Check out “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” to hear this roll a lot.

It starts off kind of like a forward roll and then reverses direction.

Some examples include:  31531341, 3 531231, and more.

Banjo Roll Wrap-up

Well, there you have it, your four main banjo roll patterns.  Practice these, and you are well on your way to becoming a good banjo player.  Pick a few to do each day as part of your daily warmup.


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What is the most common roll on a banjo?

The forward roll is by far the most used roll on the banjo. It is what gives bluegrass it’s driving-pushing the beat sound.

What is the easiest roll on a banjo?

The alternating thumb is probably the easiest as it is four notes repeated twice. It is a easy to remember numerically, 3251 3251.

mans hand on banjo with the words banjo journey newsletter

Now that you know more about the right-hand, perhaps you need to know more about the left-hand.  Visit my  Ultimate Banjo Chord Guide.

Maybe you want answers to other common beginner banjo questions? Visit my Ultimate Banjo FAQ Guide

Jody Written by:

Professional Musician of 27 years. I've played Banjo and Acoustic Guitar on the stages of Carnegie Hall, The Grand Ole Opry, and The Ryman Auditorium. I've also played in six different countries.