Crank out rapid-fire licks by taking inspiration from the banjo.
• Learn how to increase your speed with hybrid picking.
• Understand how pedal tones work.
• Develop lines that combine chromaticism, string skipping, and diatonic triads.
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If you’re a player who moves between using a flatpick, hybrid picking, or just plain fingerstyle, the concept of finger rolls might not be all that new. It’s a simple idea, but can be stretched to work in many different styles. In this lesson, I’ll walk you through some basic exercises and then demonstrate how to incorporate finger rolls into your own playing.
To kick things off, let’s explore some exercises. I suggest using a hybrid-picking approach for these, although a thumbpick or no pick at all would be fine too. Two things to keep in mind: Make each example sound smooth and start slow before working up to speed. It’s important to avoid creating tension in the picking hand, so don’t play any faster than you can without straining. In Ex. 1, I’m doing a pattern I call “down, up, up,” which basically means I’ll use a downstroke first and then alternate between my middle (m) and ring (a) fingers using upstrokes.
To work this technique up to speed, you’ll want to keep things simple. Ex. 2 expands the technique to descend through a series of triads starting with A.
In Ex. 3, we move from the chordal to something more melodic. The example also features a very bluesy F (b7), which would make this lick sound great over a G7 chord. Don’t forget: When a phrase doesn’t have any open strings, try moving it around to different keys—it’s good practice.
I often use finger rolls in my soloing because it makes basic arpeggios sound hip, plus the technique can add flash to more up-tempo tunes. Ex. 4 is one of my favorite phrases.
Ex. 5 weaves some string-skipping elements into the mix, which is built on strings 5, 3, and 2. Notice how the bass line moves around chromatically before resolving to A.
Great bluegrass banjo players are undoubtedly the single biggest inspiration behind the finger roll technique. In Ex. 6, you can see how I took a stock banjo phrase and simplified it to make it work on guitar. I finished the phrase with a flourish in the style of flatpicking giants Tony Rice and Clarence White.
Danny Gatton—one of my favorite players—definitely stretched the limits of what you can do with banjo-style finger rolls. He discovered several ways to take the concepts belonging to that instrument and apply them to the Telecaster. You can see an example of something Gatton might play in Ex. 7.
To finish this lesson, I’ll leave you with a lick I think you’ll dig. Ex. 8 incorporates rolls, chromaticism, implied harmonies, and a series of descending triads. There are a couple of transition points to keep in mind when working this up to speed: Make sure you fret that G in the beginning of the second measure with your fourth finger. Also, try to fret the A at the end of the second measure with your first finger. This will set you up nicely for the rest of the lick.