The Dreaded 4-Finger Roll

What I’m playing on my new toy—the 1920’s era banjolele! (With thanks to my Sweetie. What can I say? I have a great wife! See The One That Got Away)

Big Bad Bill by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen

When you hear really good ukulele players, you will often hear a rapid da-da-da-DUM strum before certain measures of music. This is commonly known as the 4-Finger Roll, where the player flicks his or her right hand fingers in quick succession, making a sound similar to a drum roll. The players of the 1920s, particularly Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, had the 4-Finger Roll down to a science and used it extensively.

It seems to be a stroke that is endemic to the ukulele. Other plectrum instruments—guitar, banjo, mandolin and the like—don’t seem to use it, but you do hear something of the sort from flamenco guitar. Considering that the ukulele is derived from the machete, cavaquinho and rajao, brought to the Hawaiian Islands by the Portuguese, I suppose it makes sense that Latin techniques would become part of the ukulele landscape.

However it made its way to the ukulele, it sounds really neat.

There are 2 ways to do a 4-Finger Roll—forwards and backwards. The forward way is the one Cliff Edwards used with 1-2-3-4, holding back each finger with your thumb. The backwards way—which, I believe, is the more traditional flamenco way, is to do the same, but with 4-3-2-1. Done correctly, you get a nice, even triplet before the beat. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Well, it isn’t.

Most of my attempts result in da-da-THUD, sometimes da-THUD or even just THUD. Like a good musician, I’ve been practicing it slowly:

da——–da——–da——-DUM

Speeding it up…

da—–da—–da—–DUM

da—-da—-da—-DUM

da—da—da—DUM

da–da–da–DUM

da-da-THUD!

I know what you’re thinking.

It’s been 306 words and he hasn’t mentioned the word “Aspergers,” “Aspie” or any other form of autism. Well that’s where you’re wrong. This is Asperger’s Ukulele, after all and I’m not one to disappoint.

You see, within an Aspie’s Special Interest there are little Special Interests contained within! It’s sort of like the finding prize in each specially marked box of Quisp, and it’s every bit as disappointing and irritating as your average cereal box plastic decoder ring (and if you get that reference, you’ve seriously dated yourself).

For me the 4-Finger Roll is my Special Interest within the Special Interest! Not only can’t I quite seem to get the 4-Finger Roll right, but I find myself practicing it on every animate and inanimate object I can get away with. So far, my wife and son have been spared but I don’t know how much longer I can hold out.

My right thigh has been the most repeated, egregious victim of my 4-Finger obsession, as has the steering wheel of my car. I’ve been doing a lot of freelance playing this summer, which has kept me stuck in LA traffic for many, many long hours. How do I keep my self-occupied (in addition to trying not to run into the car in front of me)?

Both hands on the steering wheel at 2:00 and 10:00, and…

da-da-da-DUM!

da-da-da-DUM!

da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM!

6 thoughts on “The Dreaded 4-Finger Roll

  1. Bill is learning to crochet! ROTFLMAO!!!!!!!!! I just can’t get the image of Uncle Bill out of my head right now! XOXO

  2. Nice banjolele. I’ve not even attempted rolls yet!

    And I remember a selection of exciting plastic cereal box toys (we also had ones where you drew a secret picture – maybe someone should make one with a uke on it…).

  3. Thank you for your blog. I have not yet talked my wife into letting me get a banjolele yet. Can you share the chords to Big Bad Bill, please?

    • The banjolele is really fun to play!

      Here’s Big Bad Bill:

      Verse

      [F] In the town of [A7] Louisville,
      [Dm] They’ve got a man called [D7] Big Bad Bill
      [G7] I want to tell you [C7] he sure was tough [Bb dim]
      [C7] Brother [C7] he was rough.
      [F]He had folks half [B dim]scared to death
      [C] When he walked by they [D7] held their breath,
      [C] He was a [B dim] fightin’ [G7] man, sure enough [C][C7]
      Bill [Gm] took himself a wife
      [A7] Now he [Dm] leads a [G7] diff’rent life [C Aug]

      Chorus

      [F] Big Bad Bill is [C7] sweet [C aug]William now [F][C7]
      [F] Married life has changed him some [Gm] how
      He’s the [Gm7] man they all used to fear [Gm7(b5)]
      Now the [F] people call him [D7] Willie Dear
      He was [G7] stronger than Samson, I declare
      Till a [C7] brown skinned Delilah bobbed his hair [C aug]
      [F] Big Bad Bill don’t [C aug] fight any [F] more [C7]
      [F] Washes dishes and he [A7] mops the [Dm] floor [F7]
      He used to [Gm7] spend his evenings looking [Gm7 (b5)] for a fight
      Now he’s [F] got to see his mama [D7] every night
      ‘Cause [G7] Big Bad Bill is [C7] sweet William now

      Verse

      I must say it’s mighty strange
      To see the way that man did change
      That roarin’ lion now is a lamb; shut up like a clam
      He don’t smoke or drink or chew
      Or cuss the way he used to do
      He always answers “yes” or “no ma’am”
      And I’ve heard the neighbors say
      Bill is learning to crochet

      Alt Chorus Ending

      He’s that red-hot papa that you’ve heard about
      An asbestos mama put his fire out
      ‘Cause Big Bad Bill is sweet William now!

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