Basics for Building Licks

Hint----There are some links on this page to take you to more detailed explanations. These links sometimes lead down multiple pathways depending on where your interests lie, so it might take awhile before you get back here. So, it might be a good idea to look the entire page over first before you start chasing down the links.

Rolling over chords

This is described in Wil Huckaby's "Cut 'N Paste" method, Wil Huckaby's Cut 'N Paste which is available from Basically it involves playing different rolls in chord positions that fit the chord progression of a song.This makes no attempt to capture the melody, so it might not sound much like the song unless you are playing along with someone else. But it is a GREAT way to approach spur-of- the-moment improvisation in a jam session environment, and can come up with some really interesting back-up licks as well.

You can go pretty far with this idea, using standard roll patterns or some melodic banjo licks. The same Wil Huckaby has another book out that explores melodic licks melodic banjo and how to put those together just like you do with regular Scruggs rolls.

Building on the melody

Just fitting licks together like this usually doesn't result in something that sounds like the melody. If you want it to sound like the song, usually you need to put the melody in there on purpose.

So the best way for me to get the melody into a break is to start with the melody by itself, and add ornamentation to it. The safest thing to do is stick with notes that are in the underlying chord (using chord shapes), but you can get away from just the chord notes (getting out of the chords) if you are a little bit careful and clever about it.

For me, this means:

Keep the melody notes in the break in their proper place as much as possible.

Use ornamentation notes around the melody that are in the key the song is in.

When an ornamentation note falls on the downbeat, try to choose a note that is in the underlying chord.


There are a gazillion other ways to think about it, but these work easiest and most consistently for me.

Some players who are a lot better than me start first with the right-hand roll patterns and decide on those first, then find melody notes within that roll by moving the left-hand around the neck. This is harder for me. I don't find the licks I make this way to be any better, but you might.

A lot of players who are a lot better than me do this something like I described, but go outside the chord notes a little more and even out of the scale. I do this some, too, to be honest about it, but it's an intuitive, trial-and-error process for me and I usually have to try it out first to see if it works.

One thing I do want to post later is a lick that is built visually, just by using the Fiddlewidget, without having a banjo in my hand at the time. This method is a little strange, and needs some tweaking later, but it lets me get out of my comfort zone a little so I don't just play the same old licks just because they are comfortable and easy to play. You might like this one, too.