Since 1950, Roger Sprung has taught more than 3,000 students how to play the banjo. These students have included Erik Darling of "The Weavers," John Stewart of "The Kingston Trio," and Chad Mitchell of the "Chad Mitchell Trio."
Roger's method of teaching three-finger bluegrass-style banjo is unique. He uses no tablature or written music. He doesn't demonstrate the songs for you so you can copy his finger movements. Rather, Roger teaches you to teach yourself entirely by ear.
The core of Roger's method is, first, learning about chords and chord progressions - so you can recognize the chords of a song - and, second, learning how to play 20 different rolls (six of which are 16-count rolls, covering twice the musical space) over a standard chord progression.
When you start to play songs using Roger's method, Roger uses "songs that the students already know how to sing by heart." Initially, you strum the chords and sing the words (to learn where in the song the chords change). Then you apply a roll to that chord progression, gradually adding melody notes until you are playing the exact tune.
Roger calls this: "putting the songs to the rolls, not the rolls to the songs." You use only one roll at a time, playing the entire song with that roll. Then you repeat the process using a second roll, then a third. You thereby learn what each roll can (and cannot) accomplish and, ultimately, which rolls work best in which situations. You're ready to mix rolls and improvise on your own.
Another of Roger's unique concepts is that of "getting near the tune." It's a middle step between simply rolling the chords and playing the exact tune. To "get near the tune," you adjust the strings you play, but continue to hold the full chord. You don't have to adjust your left-hand fingering to catch non-chord melody notes. As Roger says, "The reason I don't teach the exact tune right away is because if someone accidentally hits the wrong string, they panic. If students can get near the tune, as long as they have the right chord and the right tempo, they can play along with anybody."
Roger's special teaching contributions also include his "incomplete forward roll" - Roger's introductory roll for all his students - and "pairing," Roger's way of teaching you how to play with "bluegrass bounce." Roger's "incomplete forward roll" is an instructional masterstroke, because it allows you to play the melody almost entirely with one finger - the index finger on the 3 "inside" strings - while the thumb just plays the 5th string and the middle finger only plays the 1st string. Roger calls it your "way in" to a song.
Here is a clip from Roger's famous instructional CD, "Roger Sprung's Play Along Instruction Record for the 5 String Banjo ... Bluegrass Style," in which Roger demonstrates his "incomplete forward roll." When Roger calls out the numbers 1, 2, and 3, he is referring to the thumb (1), the index finger (2), and the middle finger (3).
look at Roger's illustration of the "incomplete forward roll".
Roger's instructional CD also teaches two other rolls that are central to Roger's teaching method, including one of his 16-count rolls. No other bluegrass banjo instruction method teaches students how to play songs on the banjo by ear using these three rolls: the "incomplete forward roll," "rolling (or running) through the beat," and the "thumb in-and-out forward roll." Each has its distinctive sound and its unique way of incorporating melody notes.
Roger also demonstrates "putting the songs to the rolls" with six different songs - playing each one three times through, one time for each of the three rolls Roger teaches here. Listen to a sample of Roger putting "This Land Is Your Land" to his "incomplete forward roll," playing the entire song, including the melody, with this one roll.
For a copy of "Roger Sprung's Play Along Instruction Record for the 5 String Banjo ... Bluegrass Style" CD please contact us either by phone or email.
For lessons from Roger himself, contact us. Remember that Roger doesn't only teach three-finger bluegrass banjo, he also teaches clawhammer banjo (sometimes called "frailing" or "drop thumb"), Pete Seeger-style picking, and classical banjo (using nylon strings). Roger teaches students both at his studio in Newtown, Connecticut and on West 88th Street in Manhattan.
Roger Sprung Folk Music Studio
7 Papoose Hill Rd., Newtown, CT 06470