Hot Banjo Rolls
By STEvE TRovATo
Country Pickin’ in the Style of Albert Lee, Roy Flacke, James Burton, and Others
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.
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 flat 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.