I could try to come up with some cute, snappy intro to this lesson, but in all honesty, it ain’t happening.
Because in the world of guitar techniques, finger rolls are just not as sexy as hammer-ons, pull-offs or string bending.
They’re utilitarian, practical. They get the job done and move on. They don’t put on a show for you.
[IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: The great Julius Erving‘s finger rolls did, however, put on a show, as evidenced by his schooling of Kurt Rambis and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the photo. Some of my students call me “Dr. J”. Coincidence? I think not.]
But like any good craftsman will tell you, there is a correct tool for every job. And some jobs just require the lowly finger roll.
So what exactly is a finger roll and why should I care?
Finger Rolls = Legato
The finger roll is an essential left hand technique. It allows you to play notes that are on adjacent strings at the same fret without a break in the sound.
By rolling your finger correctly, you can link the notes and maintain that connected, legato sound that is so important to a professional single-note line. Without a finger roll, it’s virtually impossible to play those notes without a break in the sound.
Because the only way to get from one note to the other with the same finger is by lifting up the finger and putting it down on the new note.
This will create a small gap of silence between the notes, giving you a choppy, or staccato, sound. This is usually not what we want; most of the time we’re aiming for a legato sound.
You can always try using different fingers to play the two notes that sit side by side, but this can be awkward, and at times, virtually impossible to execute. [The one exception I usually make to this is the concept of “2nd Finger Crossover”, which I’ll make sure to discuss in another post.] Most of the time, finger rolls save the day!
The most popular finger roll is the forward roll. Think of this as the one that rolls away from you. Here’s an example:
1 – Play the note at fret 5/string 3 with finger 1. You should be on your fingertip.
2 – Play the note at fret 5/string 2 with finger 1 by rolling onto the pad of your finger.
This is best accomplished by collapsing your first knuckle until it is straight, and pivoting your wrist so that you roll onto string 2 and off of string 3.
This will also effectively mute string 3, so you’re getting double-duty out of one finger roll. With a little practice, you should be able to play both notes cleanly and eliminate any silence between them.
Just as essential but somewhat trickier is the backward roll. Think of this as the one that rolls back towards you. Check it:
1 – Play the note at fret 5/string 2 with finger 1, but start on the pad of your finger.
2 – Play the note at fret 5/string 3 with finger 1 by rolling onto the fingertip.
This is trickier because the starting position is NOT intuitive to guitarists.
We are taught from the beginning to play on our fingertips, so that is typically our default setup. However, the example above requires some thinking ahead on our part; we must recognize and anticipate that our setup has to be on the pad of the finger.
To be perfectly clear, this is NOT to say that you should treat the backward roll as a barre of the two strings.
Remember that we want to roll onto the second note but also off of the first note. This will effectively mute the first note. If you barre, you’ll get two notes that ring into each other, which is not our intention here.
Once you can anticipate the backward roll setup, you’ll be able to create a perfectly good legato sound with this technique as well.
Roll the Tape
Here’s a fine Dr. J finger roll video which will review and demonstrate all of the above concepts and techniques. I’ve also included links to the sweet little finger roll exercises shown in the video. Enjoy!
QUESTION: Have you incorporated finger rolls into your repertoire? Have they made a significant difference in your legato sound? Leave me a comment below!