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The 7 best and most famous banjo players of all time

Very few instruments possess the vibrant history and cultural weight of the banjo. From its origins in North Africa and the Caribbean to its prominence in contemporary folk and indie rock, the banjo has played a vital role in structuring the soundscape of American music.

Behind this legacy, of course, are the virtuosos and champions of the banjo who pushed the boundaries of the instrument, reimagining what was possible and inspiring future generations.

In this article, I’ll be taking a quick look at the lives and impact of the artists who have made their marks on the history of the banjo, and on music itself.

About me

Brandon Schock, writer at Higher Hz

I’m a singer-songwriter, audio producer and engineer, as well as a multi-instrumentalist with a penchant for strings – the banjo being a unique favorite of mine.

I find the banjo’s unique timbre and place in musical history and culture to be particularly compelling, and it holds a special place in my heart thanks to some of the people mentioned on this list.

How I put this list together

It would be easy to get carried away here, so I wanted to be very careful with who I chose to put on this list.

I was mainly concerned with the historic and cultural significance of the players mentioned, whether that be their position in defining the banjo’s history specifically, or their position in music at large.

I also wanted to choose people who pushed the instrument forward for slightly different reasons, and didn’t want to make a list of only virtuosos.

There are many of those on this list, but I often find the objectivity of such opinions to be highly questionable if not entirely arbitrary.

Either you pushed the instrument to new heights or you didn’t, sometimes all it takes is knowing a few chords.

The last person on the list, most would not consider a “savant” or any such thing, but his impact is undeniable.

Earl Scruggs (1924 – 2012)

Earl Scruggs
Earl Scruggs | Photo: Eric Frommer

Earl Scruggs is a legendary figure in American string band music. While he passed away in 2012 at the age of 88, he left behind a long-lasting legacy of innovation as well as transformation in banjo playing.

He revolutionized the instrument back in the mid 1940s, taking it from its roots in traditional string band music into bluegrass and beyond. His syncopated and rhythmically driving style of playing helped define bluegrass as a distinct genre.

The full range of his style can be found on his classic recordings with Lester Flatt, which showcase energetic tunes like “Down the Road” to the more soulful “Farewell Blues.”

Scruggs’ prowess on the banjo also inadvertently influenced other instruments such as the dobro, through his work with Josh Graves.

Despite the overwhelming acclaim of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” Scruggs’ extensive repertoire includes a huge number of gems that exhibit his unmatched skill and musicality, solidifying his iconic presence in American music history.

I don’t think you’ll ever get enough picking.Earl Scruggs

Béla Fleck (born 1958)

Béla Fleck
Béla Fleck | Photo: CP Thornton

Béla Fleck is renowned as one of the world’s greatest living banjo players, and for good reason. Throughout his career he has reshaped the instrument’s image and sound.

Hailing from New York City, Fleck’s passion with the banjo was sparked by Earl Scruggs’ epochal playing and technique when he was a child.

After his grandfather gave him a banjo in 1973, the instrument became Fleck’s sole focus, leading him to seek lessons from Erik Darling and Tony Trischka.

After graduating high school, Fleck moved to Boston, where he recorded his debut solo album.

Joining New Grass Revival in 1981 helped propel Fleck to the forefront of progressive bluegrass, where his innovative approach would help expand the horizons of the genre.

In 1988, he founded the Flecktones, a groundbreaking ensemble which blended jazz, bluegrass, and world music. The group garnered widespread success both critically and commercially.

Collaborations with Edgar Meyer, Howard Levy, Jerry Garcia, and others helped to further cement his trailblazing reputation.

So far, Fleck has earned 17 Grammy awards and has been nominated in more categories than any other musician in Grammy history.

They think the banjo can only be happy, but that’s not true.Béla Fleck

Tony Trischka (born 1949)

Tony Trischka and Bruce Molsky
Tony Trischka (on the right) and Bruce Molsky | Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel

Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1949, Trischka grew up surrounded by a diverse array of influences, from Broadway musicals to folk music.

After being introduced to the banjo through artists like the Kingston Trio, Trischka found his devotion to the instrument and immersed himself in the 1970’s New York City folk scene.

His debut album, Bluegrass Light, showcased his unique fusion of bluegrass, jazz, and rock – a combination he only continued to pursue as his career progressed.

Pushing the limits of banjo music with albums like A Robot Plane Flies Over Arkansas and World Turning, as well as collaborating with high profile artists such as Steve Martin and Béla Fleck (who he taught) have since elevated his status.

He is a hugely prominent figure in contemporary banjo playing, and has left an indelible mark on bluegrass, jazz, and the avant-garde.

Everybody can write a tune, even if you’re a beginner. Don’t say you can’t do it.Tony Trischka

Alison Brown (born 1962)

Alison Brown
Alison Brown | Photo: Rich Gastwirt

Alison Brown is another trailblazing figure in banjo playing, and has helped to change the instrument’s musical terrain with her distinct voice as both a composer and performer.

She was the first woman to win an International Bluegrass Music Award in an instrumental category, marking a turning point in the industry’s recognition of female musicians.

While inspired by Earl Scruggs (as are most people), Brown’s music transcends traditional bluegrass, and delves into genres like Latin and jazz.

Her latest album, On Banjo, explores a diverse range of styles such as Brazilian choro, chamber music, and more, all while staying true to her roots in bluegrass.

Brown’s compositional prowess has also earned praise from critics and peers alike, and her influence extends far outside the realms of bluegrass as a co-founder of Compass Records.

Her dedication to pushing musical boundaries while simultaneously keeping true to the instrument’s history has helped shape her legacy as one of the world’s premier banjoists.

Because the thing about the banjo is, the first chord is free. That’s what I love: if you get it in tune, the first chord’s free, so if you learn two more chords, you can play 80% of all the music that’s out there. So just strum it. And have fun with it.Alison Brown

Noam Pikelny (born 1981)

Noam Pikelny
Noam Pikelny | Photo: Joshua Timmermans

Since the release of his solo debut album in 2004, Noam Pikelny has earned acclaim and recognition as one of most talented banjo players in modern day due to his striking virtuosity.

Punch Brothers, of which he is a founding member, is also often praised for the ensemble’s imagination and innovative compositions. He is an eleven-time Grammy nominee and won once back in 2019 for the album, All Ashore.

Since then, he has continued to reimagine the world of folk and bluegrass in his solo endeavors as well as with his bands, Punch Brothers and Mighty Poplar.

His unique approach has evolved through paying homage to the masters while adapting non-bluegrass music into his playing.

Drawing inspiration from classical, jazz, and electronic music, Pikelny has been able to redefine the banjo’s role in contemporary music.

The reason to keep making music is to explore new ideas; with each record there are always new processes, new inspirations, and new revelations we haven’t explored before.Noam Pikelny

Abigail Washburn (born 1977)

Abigail Washburn
Abigail Washburn | Photo: Bryan Ledgard

Abigail Washburn is an amazing banjo player and musician who is able to innovate while always keeping true to tradition. She captivates audiences with the intricacy of her approach to clawhammer playing and her soulful vocals.

Her fearlessness showcases itself in her exploration of new territories in sound, blending American folk with global influences flawlessly.

The emotional depth of her storytelling, as well as her versatile and creative playing set her apart from contemporary banjo players and songwriters alike.

Her collaborations with renowned artists such as her husband, Béla Fleck, as well as Wu Fei, have elevated the banjo to unforeseen heights.

Washburn’s dedication and passion for cultural exchange go far beyond her music. She has spent over 20 years working on US-China relationships through TED Talks and several interdisciplinary projects, such as her theatrical work, Post-American Girl.

While she currently spends much of her time caring for her two children at their home in Nashville, Washburn continues to work ardently with her local community and grassroots organizers.

I believe in the old, because it shows us where we come from – where our souls have risen from. And I believe in the new, because it gives us the opportunity to create who we are becoming.Abigail Washburn

Pete Seeger (1919 – 2014)

Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger | Photo: Donna Lou Morgan

What would this list be without the likes of Pete Seeger? From grassroots gatherings to international stages, activism and musical stardom, Pete’s legacy is unyielding.

Championing folk music as a catalyst for change, he used his voice to rally listeners for a better way forward. Never losing sight of the American pulse, Pete was able to use his status to amplify the call for labor rights, civil rights, and environmental activism.

Many of his songs, such as his rendition of “We Shall Overcome” and his original, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” became anthems for justice and peace.

Both as a member of the Weavers and mentor to artists such as Bob Dylan, Seeger laid the foundation for the folk revival of the ’50s and ’60s.

Even when he faced blacklisting and legal troubles during the McCarthy era, Pete Seeger remained committed to his beliefs with tenacity and grit, refraining from commercialism.

He believed that music, while lacking agency, could make a difference by bringing people together. His music continues to do just that, fostering unity and provoking change for whoever listens.

Being generous of spirit is a wonderful way to live.Pete Seeger

Final thoughts

Whether you find yourself drawn to the early songs of Earl Scruggs, or the more contemporary reimaginings of Noam Pikelny, there is so much banjo music left to be discovered.

I hope you choose to dive deeper into the work of these fantastic musicians, and that you may find something new in the process.

Please share your own favorites and recommendations in the comments with me! Beyond everything, isn’t music best when shared and appreciated together?