The banjo is a fascinating musical instrument, and the people who play it are just as peculiar.
Its distinctive metallic sound is often associated with folk, country, and bluegrass music. However, what many might now know is that the banjo can be a very versatile instrument.
There are plenty of great banjo tunes featured throughout musical history, from traditional jams to contemporary arrangements alike.
Besides having a catchy tune, some of these songs have a fascinating story behind them, which gives the song more life and makes it that much more significant.
1. Dueling Banjos by Eric Weissberg And Steve Mandell
The Dueling Banjos scene in the film ‘Deliverance’ clearly shows the difference in the sound produced by a banjo and a guitar, and the result is simply beyond words.
This 1972 film might have made the song wildly famous, but this didn’t come without its fair share of controversy.
The great Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith sued the filmmakers for not acknowledging him as the song’s composer. The successful lawsuit saw him receive songwriting credit and a substantial settlement in royalties.
When Smith wrote the song in 1955, it was initially titled “Feudin’ Banjos”. However, “Dueling Banjos” – the version that’s used in the film was by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell.
This latter version is what became a verifiable hit, so much that it was even nominated for the 30th Golden Globe Awards in the category of ‘Best Original Song’.
2. Forca by Nelly Furtado
Released in June 2004, Forca was such a sensation that it was the official anthem of the European Football Championships in Portugal in that same year.
Forca is Portuguese for “strength” and while it is sung mainly in English, the chorus is entirely in Portuguese.
This pop-folk song talks about the power once can get due to their country’s impact in one’s life, so how befitting is it that it got to be an official football song?
We have Bela Fleck playing on the banjo, and his contribution to the song is impressive.
Fleck has always brought the banjo to new levels, with his innovative plucking technique and unmatched prowess.
3. Rocky Top by The Osborne Brothers
Although the Osborne brothers did not write Rocky Top, they sure made it famous when they recorded it in 1967.
The song is such a sensation that it is one of Tennessee’s 10 official state songs.
Also, since the brothers first recorded it, the song has since been recorded by dozens of artists from multiple musical genres worldwide.
In the late 1960s, the song was a staple for the Osborne Brothers’ concerts, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that it achieved mass popularity.
That’s not to mean the song wasn’t well known before then. Upon its release in 1967, Rocky Top sold a shocking 85,000 copies in just 2 weeks!
It’s partly because of this song that the Osborne brothers got to become the first bluegrass group to perform at the White House in 1973.
4. Listen to The Music by The Doobie Brothers
Released in 1972, Listen to the music was the Doobie Brothers’ first hit, bringing about their breakthrough success.
In 2004, the Doobie Brothers were inducted in the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, and towards the end of 2020, they will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Patrick Simmons played the banjo bit on this song, which comes in at the end.
The chorus of this song has been used numerous times for radio jingles, which speaks of how successful it came to be.
5. Cripple Creek by Earl Scruggs & Lester Flatt
This Appalachian-style folk song is one of the first songs beginner banjo players learn.
There are numerous versions of this song, all having slightly different lyrics. Also, the song was frequently recorded by early country musicians in the 1900s.
Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt recorded the particular version shown below.
Regardless of which version you are listening to, it’s no wonder this tune has become a standard among bluegrass musicians.
It’s impossible to listen to Cripple Creek without nodding your head or tapping your foot at least once.
This fun tune is just what you’d expect in a song that authentically bluegrass, and the duo executed it perfectly.
6. Whoa Mule by Raymond Fairchild
Raymond Fairchild was an absolute beast when it came to playing the banjo. This was one of the finest banjo players of all time, having a storied reputation for incredibly powerful picking.
His go-to instrument was a five-string banjo, and not many could claim to have mastered this instrument.
Whoa Mule is a hit single that sold a stellar two million records. Now you have to realize that this is a considerable feat in the music industry, let along in bluegrass!
Then again, you wouldn’t expect anything less from the five-time recipient of the “Banjo of the Year” awardee”, now would you?
Whoa Mule has featured in numerous documentaries and also in television programs.
7. Gallows Pole by Led Zeppelin
Released in October 1970, Gallows Pole is actually based on a traditional English folk song called “The Maid Freed from the Gallows”.
This updated arrangement of the traditional folk song is the only Led Zeppelin song that features a banjo, and I must admit – they nailed it.
Jimmy page actually wrote the song on a banjo he had borrowed from John Paul Jones (the band’s keyboardist).
For someone who had never played the banjo before, Page did great justice to the instrument.
Just to show you how legendary a song Gallows Pole is, Jimmy Page has gone on record stating that this is his favorite song on the Led Zeppelin III album.
8. Banjo Signal by Don Reno
This classic bluegrass tune was penned by Don Reno, who was the first exponent of what has come to be known as ‘single string’ style.
Banjo Signal is always a crowd favorite, appealing to banjo players and bluegrass music enthusiasts alike.
There are about six versions of Banjo Signal recreated by various artists over the years. Reno’s version, which was the first, was recorded in 1954, but it wasn’t until 1958 when the song was released.
In this instrumental, Reno’s improvisational flair and technical skills on the banjo come out beautifully, reminding us why he is such a revered force in American bluegrass history.
9. Foggy Mountain Breakdown by Earl Scruggs
In case you find this tune to be a little familiar, then maybe you are thinking of Bonnie and Clyde? Foggy Mountain Breakdown featured in this 1967 film and especially in the car chase scenes.
Many banjo pickers who play on a five-string banjo consider Foggy Mountain Breakdown to be one of the fastest and most rhythmically challenging pieces that can be played on the instrument.
Only very skilled players can hack this tune to the same speed and beat that Scruggs can.
Being on the same level as Scruggs is quite the feat, though. Considering this is the man many have referred to as the master of the banjo.
Scruggs went on to win a Grammy Award in 2002 for the 2001 recording of this song.
10. Train 45 by J. D. Crowe
Released in 2005, Train 45 is from the album Bluegrass Holiday and was recorded by Crowe and his band, the New South.
The New South was a bluegrass band led by Crowe, and it is widely regarded as one of the most influential bluegrass groups since the 1970s.
Crowe defined and redefined what bluegrass music should be through his banjo playing and his ability to hone performances.
He even holds a Bluegrass Star Award that was bestowed upon him in 2011. This award is given to exceptional bluegrass artists who do a stellar job at advancing traditional bluegrass music and introducing it to new audiences.
Train 45 is an example of just that, with its impressive 185 beats per minute.
11. Clinch Mountain Backstep by Ralph Stanley
Stanley was part of the first-generation bluegrass musicians who got inducted into both the Grand Ole Opry and the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.
Now, anyone who understands music will know that being inducted of either of the two is a grand honor – being inducted in both? Well, that’s just legendary.
Clinch Mountain Backstep is a beloved Appalachian fiddle and dance tune that’s become a standard repertoire in the world of bluegrass.
Most famously recreated by the Stanley Brothers (Ralph and his guitar-playing brother – Carter), it is hard not to fall in love with this distinctive upbeat song.
It has a delightful ‘backstep’ which is essentially an extra beat that accompanies the unique traditional dance.
12. The Cuckoo by Clarence Ashley
The cuckoo, The Coo Coo, The Coo Coo Bird, – this song goes by either name, so don’t be confused and think I’m talking about another tune.
Numerous musicians in several different styles have covered this traditional English folk song.
The most notable recorded version of the song, however, was performed by Clarence Ashley – an Appalachian folk musician known for his unique banjo tuning.
Interestingly, Ashley learned this tune from his mother, and isn’t that just the true mark of verifiable folk music?
Recorded by Ashley in 1929, this beautiful rendition made the tune widely popular, and many banjo enthusiasts have attempted to play it as he does.
I’ll tell you this – not many have done so successfully.
13. Rye Whiskey by Punch Brothers
If you’ve been wondering what modern bluegrass music might sound like, then this is probably it.
American Songwriter magazine once called the Punch Brothers a “A 21st-century version of the Bluegrass Boys”.
Comprising five members, this band has a unique style that’s beautifully combines bluegrass instrumental and modern classical.
Rye Whiskey is from their album Antifogmatic, which was released in 2010 and is the band’s second album.
This tune is a solid toe-tapping jam that lingers in your mind long after hearing the song. It a fast-tempo, down-home bluegrass tune, and yet it’s hardly vintage.
The sing is downright progressive bluegrass that can still appeal to the diehard fans who prefer vintage bluegrass.
14. Genius in France by “Weird Al” Yankovic
Genius in France emulates the style parody of Frank Zappa, and the song is actually a tribute to the legend. You even have his son Dweezil Zappa playing the opening guitar solo.
Lyrically, the meaning behind the song is quite simple – it describes a person who, although rejected in his home country, finds acceptance in France.
Herb Pedersen plays the banjo in this song, and he does it quite splendidly.
It’s not surprising, though, seeing as this banjo play has years of experience playing both bluegrass and bluegrass progressive.
Pedersen has also worked with numerous musicians in many different bands, which explains how he ended up collaborating with Weird Al on this piece.
15. The Hide Head Blues by Jim Mills
The Hide Head Blues was played by Jim Mills together with Ricky Skaggs.
This song comes from an album by the same name, and in the album, Jim impressively breezes through 12 songs in a mere 35 minutes.
For beginner players who are just getting started on their first tune on the banjo, this song will give plenty of pinky finger workout.
At the same time, though, the tune beautifully showcases the beautiful range of the banjo, and you don’t even have to be a picker to appreciate this song.
The album was recorded in a mere three days, which goes to show just how much heart and soul was poured into the album.
16. Thunderstruck Cover by Steve’ N’ Seagulls
Steve’ n’ Seagulls is a Finnish country band, known for playing bluegrass versions of well-known hard rock and metal songs.
This band took the AC/DC song – Thunderstruck and made a complete masterpiece of it. This wildly successful cover gave them massive recognition, with the song receiving over 100 million views on YouTube!
AC/DC released the original song in 1990, and the cover by Steve’ n’ Seagulls was done in 2014. So, in case you are wondering whether bluegrass music is still alive in the 21st century, oh yes, it is.
This cover was very befitting, seeing as a traditional folk song from Europe inspired the original song. This inspiration is evident in the background melody, the general rhythm, and certain parts of the lyrics.
17. Big Country by Bela Fleck
Anyone who’s ever found themselves immersed in the world of banjo must definitely have come across Bela Fleck.
Besides winning a number of Grammys, Fleck has also been nominated in more categories than any other musician.
His Grammy Award nominations span from country, pop, jazz, bluegrass, classical, and folk, all the way to spoken word, arranging, and composition.
If that’s not the sheer definition of musical talent, then what is?
Big Country was released in 2007, and this catchy composition comes from the album ‘Left of Cool’ by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
Fleck plays the banjo, and without a doubt, Big Country is one of his most popular songs.
18. Pretty Polly by Dock Boggs
Pretty Polly is a traditional English folk song, and it is actually a murder ballad.
The song tells the story of a young woman who got lured into the forest, where she was murdered and buried in a shallow grave.
Quite chilling, huh?
The Dock Boggs’ version of Pretty Polly was recorded in 1927, and this came at a time when the song was just beginning to gain new life as a banjo tune.
Although he worked primarily as a coal miner for most of his life, Dock Boggs’s legacy is that of an old-time singer, songwriter and banjo player.
His style of banjo playing is considered to be a unique combination of Appalachian folk and African-American blues.
19. Old Man by Neil Young
Old Man was Neil Young’s second-biggest hit as a solo artist, and the inspiration behind the song is quite moving.
See, in 1970, the successful young musician bought a ranch for $350,000.
The caretaker of the ranch at the time – one Louis Avila wondered out loud how a young man like Young could afford such a grand place.
Aged 25 at the time, Young told Louis that it was sheer luck, leaving the caretaker quite bemused.
This encounter led to Young later on writing about the caretaker of this ranch. Essentially, the song compares a young man’s life to an old man’s and shows that the old man was once like the young man.
James Taylor plays the banjo on this song, which is more or less a “guitar-banjo” owing to the fact that the instrument was a banjo tuned like a guitar.
Bob Dylan frequently covered this song during his 2002 tour.
20. Sweet City Woman by The Stampeders
This song won the award for the Best Single at the Juno Awards in 1972.
The band’s guitarist, Rich Dodson, is the one playing the distinctive banjo, and he’s also the one who wrote this song.
Sweet City Woman was a wild success in Canada where it hit #1 on multiple charts, and all these years later, the song still gets considerable airplay in the US to this day.
The banjo isn’t exactly a popular instrument when it comes to contemporary music.
This is why it’s so striking that Sweet City Woman is among the few regularly-played Top-10 hits to have a banjo as the song’s primary instrument.
FAQs About Best Banjo Songs of All Time
What’s That Famous Banjo Song?
You’re probably thinking of the Dueling Banjos by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell.
The song is so popular that you just might get sick of it.
Who Is the Best Banjo Player of All Time?
It’s tough to say, but gun to my head, I’d go with Earl Scruggs.
After all, the man has repeatedly been referred to as the Beethoven of the banjo!
What Songs Can You Play on A Banjo?
The banjo can play music from a vast range of genres, including classical, blues, jazz, rock, Broadway show tunes, indie, and pop music.
The most popular banjo styles, however, are Bluegrass and Old-Time.
The world has had many trendsetter banjoists, each bringing a unique aspect to whichever composition they are working on.
You could listen to the same song covered by different banjo pickers, and the banjo in the song would sound different every single time!
Perhaps that is the greatest aspect of music, though.
As old-fashioned as the banjo may seem, I can guarantee that we haven’t heard the last of this unassuming instrument.