Know Your Roll: Recognizing Five Stroke Rolls in Your Written Music

"What kind of roll is this??" Every pipe band drummer has uttered these words at least once during their education. Anyone who has ever taught pipe band drumming hears this question multiple times every lesson. The reason it is so hard for drummers to identify rolls in their scores is because the rolls look different in each style we play. For anyone who has not visited the theory section of, our five styles are: 2/4 March (this includes 3/4, 4/4 and 5/4 marches plus 2/4 hornpipes and reels--swung), Round Reels, Jigs (including slip jigs), 6/8 March and our hybrid style Strathspey. Click on the name of each style if you feel you need a  "theory refresher".

Before attempting to pick out a five stroke roll in a drum score, it is important to know some of its basic characteristics. These characteristics will give you a head start in the identification process:

  • Five stroke rolls start and finish on the same hand.
  • Five stroke rolls always start on a note with a value of a dotted eighth or less. You will NEVER see a five stroke roll that starts on a quarter note, dotted quarter note or half note.
  • A five stroke roll will always have two slashes on its corresponding note stem.


Let's being with the march style. The march is the most commonly used style in the pipe band idiom and the examples below apply to 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 and 5/4 marches. Hornpipes are written in 2/4 time and therefore use the same rhythms as a 2/4 march. I have chosen to include reels (swung) in this section as well because of their close similarity. Reels are written in 2/2 or "cut time" but because of the difference in time signature, one beam is removed from the bottom of each note grouping. For example, 32nd notes in a march become 16th notes in a reel.


The March, Hornpipe and Reel (Swung)


In a march, a five stroke roll is always written on the first or second note of a dot/cut (example #1) or a cut/dot rhythm (example #2). These two rolls sound very different from one another due to the speed at which they are played. Example #1 is more relaxed while example #2 requires the buzzes to be played much closer together.



The same applies for the reel.



In example #3 the cut/dot rhythm is combined with an eighth note to form the "Hay Baybee" rhythm. In example #4, the cut/dot rhythm combined with the eighth note forms the rhythm "Hay Buddy".



In the reel, the 2/2 time signature has turned the first eighth note into a quarter note. However, the rhythm syllable remains "Hay Baybee". The same applies in example #4 with the "Hay Buddy" rhythm.



In example #5, the roll is played on the beat creating the "Baybee Hay" rhythm. In example #6, the roll will (as in examples #2 and #4) need to be played slightly faster creating a slight pause before the eighth note. Example #6 is not nearly as common as #5 but can be very effective at creating some musical space in a score.



Notice again that the eighth notes from example #5 and #6 have changed to quarter notes in the reel style.



In example #7, the five stroke roll is used to bridge the two halves of the beat together. This use of the "fast five stroke" provides a much different musical texture than simple single strokes.



In the reel, the two halves of the beat are readily visible as there are no connecting beams joining them together. Again, the rhythm syllables stay the same for both examples.



And finally, in example #8, the five stroke roll is used to bridge the end of one beat to the beginning of the next.



Same thing for the reel.




The Round Reel

Round reels contain virtually no dots and cuts. Five stroke rolls are played on the first or second notes of an eighth note grouping. Example #1 shows the roll beginning on the first note of the eighth note grouping and example #2 shows the roll beginning on the second note.



Sometimes the five stroke roll is played on the middle two notes of an eighth note grouping as in example #3.



Sometimes the five stroke roll is placed at the end of an eighth note grouping as in example #4.




The Jig


As in the round reel, five stroke rolls in a jig begin only on eighth notes--no exceptions. The most common placement of a five stroke roll in a jig occurs on the first beat of a three note grouping as in example #1. The second most common placement of the roll begins on the second note of the grouping as shown in example #2.



In example #3, the end of the three note grouping is connected by the five stroke roll to the beginning of the next beat.



Although it's uncommon, five stroke rolls are sometimes connected by a single eighth note to a quarter note thereby creating musical space in the score.



Musical space can also be created, albeit with a better musical flow, using the five stroke roll beginning on a single eighth connected to the first note of the next beat.




The 6/8 March


The two most common uses of the five stroke roll in the 6/8 march can be seen in examples #1 and #2. The roll in example #1 is played more relaxed and the roll in example two is played more quickly to fit the "Amsterdam" rhythm.



The five stroke roll in example #3 is less common but can be used to great effect in reinforcing the Amsterdam rhythm which is so often interpreted incorrectly by both pipers and drummers. It can be used with either the "Amsterdam" or "Get 'em To" rhythms but is shown in example #3 using the "Get 'em To" syllables.




The Strathspey


There are eight iterations of the five stroke roll that occur in the strathspey and they are all borrowed from other styles. The five stroke rolls you'll see in a strathspey are borrowed from the reel (swung): examples #2, #4, #6, #7 and #8. Strathspeys also borrow five stroke rolls from the jig: examples #1, #2 and #3. The five stroke rolls in a strathspey look and are played the same way as they are in their original styles. The rhythm syllables used are also identical.

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Hopefully this guide to identifying five stroke rolls in your music proves helpful. As always, if you have any questions, comments or criticism please send me a note. Check back in a week or so as I'll discuss the recognition of seven stoke rolls.

Happy Drumming!




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