John Kilbourn writes:

I’m a re-newed beginner and have been using your tape “Beginning Bluegrass Banjo” for the past several weeks. I’ve noticed that with your rolls, when played at a slow speed, you play with uneven spacing between notes, which I think some call bounce. I believe that Paul Hawthorne calls it a “mantra”. I don’t have the necessary equipment to slow down your fast stuff, but if I did, would I find the same uneven spacing between notes? My real question is, as I learn to play the rolls and all songs, should I play with this bounce or with the so call “machine-gun” playing where each note is equally spaced? Thanks for your time.


Dear John,

That’s a perfectly reasonable question, for which I only have a partial answer. My guess is that the “even-spacing” way is what works for most players when playing up-tempo. Also, the uneven spacing that you observe when I play the rolls slowly is not intentional. The learner can play it evenly, which is probably better.

So-called “bounce” is up to the player, and most especially up to the other players whom the banjo player is playing with. If they don’t agree about rhythmic feel, something needs resolving, since the goal is to sound “locked in”.

When I play, I don’t analyze my playing in terms of bounce or “straight time”. I play by feel. I listen closely to the lead singer and other players, and try to fit in. When I play a banjo tune, I expect them to do the same. Good backup is really mostly about listening and asking yourself at all times, “Is this the best I can do to help this group sound its best?” When I play leads, I try to lay down a solid groove and be steady.

Since backup is not your concern right now, I’d just advise to keep the roll even and mostly get it into muscle memory as a comfortable and mostly unconscious set of motions.

Best of luck in learning!

Pete Wernick