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Top 12 Best Banjo Songs of All Time

The banjo is a strange instrument, and many people view it as such. It lives in the shadow of the guitar, but occasionally it pops up to say hello. It isn’t just a folk or country instrument either, although that is where its main association is. The banjo can arrive in a variety of genres. Sometimes included and played by the most unlikely of musicians.

So, I decided to look at the best banjo songs of all time. And that may not be what you think it will be. I am certainly not going to compose the same list as everyone else. 

I am going to look for some songs where the banjo made a big difference in the song in whatever genre, where it gave the song a lift somehow. Where the song would have been worse off without it, but, of course, there will be some all-time banjo classics in this list as well.

A Strange Instrument?

I said that earlier for a reason. It is one of the only instruments we have that just cannot be anything but happy-sounding. No matter what you do with it, it still sounds happy and full of fun. 

I remember many years ago accomplished banjo player and comedian Steve Martin on “Saturday Night Live.” He said the same thing and then took a well-known banjo song and sang the words “oh murder and death and grief and sorrow.” It was still happy sounding. He proved his point.

British comedian Billy Connolly played in a band with Gerry Rafferty of “Baker Street” fame before he made us all laugh our socks off. Another accomplished banjo player. He says he “plays it when he feels down, and then he is happy again.” What a strange instrument. So, let’s have a look at some of the great things and songs that were created with the banjo.

Foggy Mountain Breakdown by Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs

We will start with this track from legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs. A good place to start because it is a case in point of what I have just been discussing about this remarkable instrument. 

This track is well-known in country and folk circles but not so much out of those genres. That is, until 1967, which is when it was used as a soundtrack to the car chases in the movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”

“Oh murder and death and grief and sorrow”

That’s how Steve Martin demonstrated the happy tones of the banjo, and it is no more apparent here. Despite all the mayhem and people getting shot everywhere, the banjo music relieved all the mayhem during the car chases. Instead of getting caught up in the misery of the visuals, it was foot-tapping time. That is what the banjo can do.

It was Warren Beaty who suggested the track might be suitable. He was exactly right. It turned out to be one of the great highlights of the film, gaining Earl Scruggs an Oscar.

Dueling Banjos – Roy Clark

Born in 1933, Roy Clark was probably best known for the national TV Country music show “Hee-Haw.” However, he was more than just that. Besides his banjo skills, he was also an accomplished guitarist and fiddler.

In addition to his input to American country music, he also was adept with Latin American and Classical music. He had a major influence on generations of growing banjo players in the Country and Bluegrass genres.

This track sees him demonstrate his formidable skills on the banjo. It is a well-known song, and this has to be one of the best versions. Roy Clark is one of the best banjo players of his or any other generation.

Cripple Creek – Flatt and Scruggs

Cripple Creek

For the moment, we are staying with the more “traditional” banjo theme and style. Back we go to Earl Scruggs again, this time with Lester Flatt on guitar.

No one is exactly sure who wrote this song or precisely when. It appeared in the 1920s and was originally played on the violin but later became popular on the banjo. There are even some discussions about which place the song is written about. Some say it is Colorado at the time of the Goldrush; others say it is Virginia. There is a place called Cripple Creek in both locations.

Whoever, wherever, and whenever doesn’t matter; it has become a classic for banjo players of all ages and abilities. It is often one of the first songs that new banjo players learn. This particular version became a Bluegrass standard. It was first released in 1961 and is still played today.

Clinch Mountain Backstep – Ralph Stanley

Staying with the traditionalists, we move on to another big name in the banjo world, Ralph Stanley. Maybe to the average listener not as well-known as some of the others, Stanley produced some great work on the banjo, this piece being one of them. 

One of his own compositions, this is probably one of his most well-known tunes. It is a good example of the crooked tunes style of writing and playing the banjo is renowned for.

Crooked Tunes

For those that may not be familiar with the term, this is a very basic description. It means a piece of music that deviates away from what is thought of as the traditional number of beats for its style. You will notice that the tune either drops or adds extra notes, which may disrupt the usual rhythm. It is usually found in Irish, Canadian, or American music.

In this particular piece, the crooked tune is not easy to pick out because it sits so comfortably in the song. It is a unique song and one of the very best songs to learn on the banjo.

Okay, let’s leave the traditionalists for a while to look at some other great ways the banjo has been used.

TV and Film

Let’s take a short timeout to celebrate the great songs the banjo has made in other ways. Whilst the greatest banjo players have brought attention to the instrument, it has earned its place in other ways. How about on TV?

The Ballad of Jed Clampett – Flatt and Scruggs

This is from a TV show, The Beverly Hillbillies, that some may remember. It was sent over to the UK, although exactly why, I never understood, and ran from 1962-1971. It was quite entertaining in its day, given the British TV programs were not much better, if at all. But it was noted for Buddy Ebsen, who played Jed Clampett. And, of course, for this theme song.

Played by those two, Flatt and Scruggs again, I can remember as a very small boy thinking, “what is that sound?” It was the banjo, of course, which, when you listen to the song, is the key component. I am sure that this song and its banjo plonking away was a new experience for others, not just me.

Eastbound and Down (Smokey and the Bandit) – Jerry Reed

In its day, a fun film with Burt Reynolds. For me, the inclusion of Jerry Reed was the reason it was good. A great musician and songwriter, he co-wrote this track for the movie. He sings it well, and it pops along nicely, but one thing gets “the old feet a-tapping.” Yes, you’ve guessed it, the banjo. 

It starts with it and goes right through the song, almost creating the rhythm of it. Another song that laid down the importance of the banjo in our psyche and, of course, in our music.

Let’s leave the TV and movie theater and move on to some of the best banjo songs of all time that you might not expect.

Country Rock – What’s That?

We were all about to find out courtesy of a British producer with an American band in London.

Take it Easy – Eagles

Moving up a bit more to the modern now with this lot. In all my years of watching bands, I have never seen another band who could recreate the sounds of their records so precisely. And that is including the stunning harmony vocals. Some don’t like that, of course, but perfection speaks. 

This is one of their best-known and still features in their stage shows. Or it was when I last saw them in London in 2000 on the “farewell tour” that wasn’t. 

Written by Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne, it was recorded in London, at Olympic Studios, with master craftsman Glyn Johns twiddling the knobs.

Can A Banjo Explode?

Some might say no. But whatever it does, Glyn Johns knew the track needed something to lift the last minute or so. Cue Bernie Leadon and his banjo, and a great ending to a song. It explodes onto the track late and does what the banjo does best. Makes it a happy-sounding ending sitting underneath great harmonies.

If anyone ever wants evidence of what a difference a simple tune on a banjo can do to a song, then get them to listen to this. It suddenly appears, and away the song goes to its finish.

“Country Rock”… never heard of it, people said in 1972. They have now.

Twenty-One – The Eagles

Staying with the Eagles. In 1973, they crossed the short distance from Olympic Studios in Hammersmith to Island Studios in Notting Hill in London. They were back to record the Desperado album. Glyn Johns once again at the mixing desk. 

The song refers to the age that Emmett Dalton of the Doolin/Dalton gang was when he was gunned down. I am not going to wax lyrical about them again. Been there. But just listen once again to the Bernie Leadon banjo part. 

Some might say… 

He was not the greatest banjo player ever. And they would probably be right. They might even say it doesn’t deserve to be in the company of some of the others. In my view, they would be wrong. 

We are looking at the greatest banjo songs of all time. But can’t that include the greatest impact the banjo had on a given song as well? Of course, it can, which is why this track is included.

Can It Rock?

You might be thinking it couldn’t get any more diverse. Oh yes, it can. When possibly the two greatest rock bands of all time include banjo, then you know something is going down. The Banjo has got something to contribute.

Squeeze Box – The Who

You are playing with The Who. Standing on the stage with bits of guitar and drums flying all around you as you sing “My Generation.” You would rightly think there isn’t much use for a banjo up here. If Pete Townshend had found one, he would probably have smashed that up as well.

But, here we are on the stage playing their song “Squeeze Box,” and what do we have but a banjo plonking away. Glyn Johns once again was twiddling the knobs of the mixing console, and a banjo suddenly appeared in a Who track. He must like them.

It certainly had a slight country feel… 

…with Townshend demonstrating that he could do a bit of finger-picking himself. The banjo is rattling away, and it is what it is. It was a brave decision to include it. But, the song wouldn’t have worked so well without it. 

Well done to the Banjo. And just to show his appreciation, Pete never smashed it up. The song was later covered by American country music artists Freddie Fender and Laura Branigan.

Gallows Pole – Led Zeppelin

No, surely not, I hear you ask. But, yes, is my reply. One of the loudest rock bands ever used a banjo on this track from Led Zep 3. It is the first time that Jimmy Page ever played the banjo. 

The purists are going to say… sounds like it. It was owned by John Paul Jones, who could play it, in the same way, that he can play just about anything that is put in front of him. Not the traditional way of playing the banjo, I would agree, but it brought a lot of attention to the banjo, and that can only be a good thing. 

What it does do is show an alternate way of using the instrument. This is a song that was “borrowed” by Zeppelin from an old Blues song. John Paul Jones added a bit of mandolin. Now, let’s get back to some basic good old-fashioned banjo licks.

Rocky Top – The Osborne Brothers

To say this is one of the best banjo songs of all time is an understatement. When it was released in 1967, it caused a mild sensation. It is now recognized as one of Tennessee’s state songs.

They didn’t write the song, but they are the ones who have made it their own. Its popularity extends beyond America’s country music belt and has also been recorded by a variety of artists worldwide. Other country covers have included Dolly Parton, The Everley Brothers, and Chet Atkins.

Although the Osborne brothers did not write “Rocky Top,” they made it famous when they recorded it in 1967. Because of this track, they became the first Bluegrass band to play at the White House.

Banjo Signal – Don Reno

Let’s close this look at some great banjo tracks with this one written by Don Reno. This is what you might call a classic bluegrass banjo song. It is one of those songs that will appeal to a wide range of genres, but it is especially at home in the bluegrass environment.

This was released in 1958 but was recorded four years earlier, in 1954. This banjo tune demonstrates the extreme skills of Reno. He shows great technical skills and blends that with improvisational skills that make this a standout track. 

It is not surprising that he is such a revered musician in Country and Bluegrass circles. It is a fitting way to finish.

Interested in the Banjo?

We can help with that. Have a look at our handy articles on Easy Banjo Songs to LearnHow to Tune a BanjoChet Atkins’ Most Memorable SongsLearn the Difference Between Violin and Fiddle, and What is a Mandolin Guitar for more useful musical information.

You may also like our in-depth reviews of the Best Finger Picks, the Best Acoustic Guitar Pickups, the Best Resonator Guitar, the Best Jazz Guitars, the Best Hollow And Semi-Hollow Guitars, the Best Blues Guitars, and the Best Mandolins you can buy in 2023.

Best Banjo Songs of All Time – Final Thoughts

This has not been the usual list of great banjo classics that will be almost the same as every other rundown of classic banjo songs. I said at the outset it wouldn’t be. I have tried to include some of the greats from past years and some that are still popular today. But I have also included some other areas where the banjo has made a big impact.

TV and Film was one, but then there was the inclusion on the Country Rock albums of the 70s and 80s represented by The Eagles. I have included it in the most unlikely of places with The Who and Led Zeppelin. And finally, it has come ‘home’ if you like.

It is a versatile instrument and doesn’t belong to one genre of music. What it brings, as Steve Martin and Billy Connolly said, is joy and happiness in music. No bad thing.

Enjoy these songs, and as always, enjoy your banjo!

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About Joseph L. Hollen

Joseph is a session musician, writer, and filmmaker from south Florida. He has recorded a number of albums and made numerous short films, as well as contributing music to shorts and commercials. 

He doesn't get as much time to practice and play as he used to, but still manages (just about!) to fulfill all his session requests. According to Joseph, it just gets harder as you get older; you rely on what you learned decades ago and can play without thinking. Thankfully that's what most producers still want from him.

He is a devout gear heat and has been collecting musical instruments all his life. As his wife, Jill, keeps on saying, "You're very good at buying nice instruments, but terrible at selling them!".

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