The banjo has many nifty attributes (including amazing acoustic volume), but sustain is not one of them. To compensate for the instrument’s inherently quick decay, 5-string banjo players developed a picking technique to simulate sustain. Much like the French painter Georges Seurat—who in the 1880s pioneered the technique of using clouds of dots to create seemingly solid objects—banjoists use “rolls,” or quickly recurring picking patterns, to create the illusion of sustaining harmony and melody. Earl Scruggs (who refined the three-fingered banjo roll) and his followers took this technique one step further, using it to plow through chord changes like a runaway locomotive. With a modicum of ingenuity, guitarists can adapt this surging, circular attack to the 6-string, and that’s just what we’ll do in this lesson.
But before we explore our banjo rolls, let’s clarify some fingering nomenclature. In guitar notation, you’ll often encounter the letters p, i, m, and a. These are abbreviations for the Spanish words pulgar (thumb), indicio (index), medio (middle), and anular (ring). To differentiate between picking- and fretting-hand fingers in written music, early classical guitarists developed a two-tiered system: The numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 are reserved for fretting fingers, while p, i, m, and a indicate picking fingers.
We’ll play the following rolls using carefully prescribed patterns of thumb, index, and middle fingers, or p, i, and m. (Flatpickers: You can play rolls using a hybrid picking technique. Simply substitute plectrum, middle, and ring fingers, respectively, for p, i, and m.) To acquire a banjo picker’s speed and rhythmic thrust, you need to internalize these picking patterns by repeating them as written until they sink deep into muscle memory. Once you’ve absorbed the basic moves, they’ll naturally resurface in intros, breaks, turnarounds, and grooves, and you’ll have added sonic pointillism to your bag of tricks.