On Rolling Chords
Updated: Jul 28
By Jorge Caballero
Here is a question I often asked my students to train their creative muscle: in how many ways can you roll a 6-string chord, like E minor? After hearing some of the responses, I walk them through all of the options I have come up with. Here is the rundown for you.
1. The classic roll
The classic roll is based on a classic principle (that is, from Tárrega technique) that A, M and I are responsible for plucking treble strings, and all basses are plucked with P. Therefore, when rolling a chord like E minor, you would use P to roll the 6th, 5th and 4th strings, followed by I, M and A rolling the 3rd, 2nd and 1st strings respectively:
However, given our ability to use either nail or flesh with P, the classic roll has 2 versions: with or without nail.
2. The Sor Roll
In his Méthode pour la Guitare, Fernando Sor discouraged the use of A. His argument was that there was no way to align it with M and I. Because of this, a 6-string roll would likely be executed by P rolling from the 6th to the 3rd string, leaving M and I to pluck the 2nd and 1st string respectively:
Sor did not use nails. But in our time, given our ability to use either nail or flesh with P, the classic roll has 2 versions: with or without nail.
3. P + one finger
But if the classic roll uses 3 fingers plus P, and Sor reduces fingers to 2, who is to say we cannot reduce the use of our fingers to just one for a roll, leaving P in charge of rolling from 6th to 2nd string and a finger to play the 1st string? That leaves us with the following options:
Again, we could use nail or flesh for P on any of the above.
4. P rolls
By extension, why couldn’t we just use P to roll all strings? That allows 3 options:
P with flesh
P with nail
P with a hybrid nail/flesh (used mainly in flamenco and some popular styles)
5. Finger rolls
And, if we can use P alone, why couldn’t we use any finger alone to roll a chord? If so, we could roll with I, M or A:
6. Pinky (q) roll
And finally, if you are adventurous enough and have a decent nail on your pinky (q), wouldn’t it be possible to roll with it as well?
IN SUMMARY, if we list all of the options, we now have:
2 Classic rolls
2 Sor rolls
6 P + any finger roll
3 P rolls
3 finger rolls (I, M or A)
1 pinky roll
All on all, the most complete answer to the question I ask my students would be 2+2+6+3+3+1 = 17 different ways to roll an E minor chord. And if we concede the possibility that you could use P + pinky with either flesh or nail (P), then we would in fact have 19. I repeat, 19.
After finding all of the options above, I ask my students to learn at least 5 different options, so as to not overwhelm them. But in fact, I feel that we should know all of them, by which I mean, learn how to play each of them well. Although this discussion on how to roll chords may seem the esoteric musings of an idle mind, you will find that, if you are playing each roll well, each has a different quality of sound, along with precise requirements for their execution. Therefore, when rolling a chord, with at least 17 (or 19) options for producing a sound on command, your interpretive options will also increase by the same number.
© Jorge Caballero, 2021. All rights reserved.