The banjo licks you’ll hear in the solo “Hot Banjo Rolls” involve a technique that’s highly sought after. People are always asking me about them. They’re played by several top country pickers: Albert Lee, Jerry Reed, Ray Flacke, James Burton, and Chet Atkins, just to mention a few. It can be hard trying to figure out these kinds of licks off a record because they’re usually going by so fast, and they’re played so fast that they’re over before you figure out more than a couple of notes. So we’re going to slow them down and analyze them. We’re going to take each one and break it down to its nuts and bolts. Then we’re going to put them together, play a standard country progression, and create a solo using just these banjo rolls. The technique requires a lot of practice and patience before it can be worked up to a tempo at which it sounds good.

The Proper Tone
When I recorded this solo with the band, I used the stock treble pickup on my ‘61 Strat, through a pedalboard into a Peavey Special 130. For the main portion of the tune, the melody, I played through a compressor and a Boss digital delay pedal.

Right-Hand Technique
As in bluegrass banjo, most of the work is done with the right hand. I don’t use a thumbpick. I’ve developed a style using a standard pick and the middle and ring fingers of my right hand to create the three-pick sound you hear in bluegrass banjo. With bluegrass banjo, most of the guys use a thumbpick and two metal fingerpicks. I’ve found that I can’t do that on guitar because I couldn’t play the fast lines that I needed to play without switching picking styles. So I’ve developed this style.

When you hear guys such as Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed do this, they’re using a thumbpick and the index and middle fingers of their right hand. When you hear guys such as Ray Flacke, Albert Lee, and myself use this kind of technique, we’re using a pick, middle, and ring fingers of the right hand.

A basic problem when using a pick and two fingers is that if you have no fingernails on the middle and ring fingers of your right hand, they don’t have that crisp attack on the strings that the pick has. So when you play three consecutive notes using your pick, middle, and ring fingers, the pick is going to have a sharp attack on your strings, and then your two fingers are just going to sound like two thumbs. The idea is to grow your fingernails just slightly—I would say a sixteenth of an inch, just slightly longer than you would normally keep them if you didn’t need them to play guitar. I keep mine about a sixteenth of an inch long, and I put some clear nail hardener on them. I learned that from Albert Lee. That keeps them from wearing down. Metal strings will wear down your fingernails in no time, because the string is just plain harder than the fingernail. This clear polish seems to work.

Looking at my right hand, if I place my fingers on the strings of my guitar, I’m going to play at a slight angle. Normally, I would keep my wrist straight, but when I play this banjo-roll style I’m going to tilt my wrist slightly down. I place the pick fl at on the string, let’s say the sixth string, then I start to turn it down at an angle, like I’m turning a key in a lock, until it falls off the string. That’s the angle I want it to be at—tilted. When I have my pick tilted like that, my middle and ring fingers will be in a position to pull straight up against the strings, rather than pulling back on them as if I had the pick flat against the strings. So this forces me to angle my wrist down a little bit. That’s the correct hand position for these banjo rolls.

Download Example Audio
Download Backing Track

This lesson comes from:

Country Solos for Guitar