The banjo is usually associated with folk and country music, but the instrument’s versatility has led it to be featured in nearly every genre in the world, from jazz and rock to techno.
In this list, we’ll be going over the top 10 most popular banjo songs for beginners and experts alike.
1. Dueling Banjos
by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith
“Dueling Banjos” is possibly the most popular banjo song of all time. The song was originally written in 1954 by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, and recorded by Eric Weissburg and Steve Mandel on banjo and guitar, respectively.
It was later made famous in a scene from the 1972 movie, Deliverance, in which Ronny Cox bonds with a banjo-playing mountain boy through playing music.
Since the release of the film, “Dueling Banjos” has become the authentic ideal of what it means to play the banjo – if only through pure association.
Its legacy as the number one banjo song remains untouched, and will most likely stay that way until the end of time.
2. Gallows Pole
by Led Zeppelin
If you’ve ever sat in a car with the radio on, you’ve probably heard “Stairway To Heaven” at some point or another.
That classic song by Led Zeppelin has been beaten down by so many countless hours of air-play that most people have simply written the band off as just another one of those long-haired, heavy metal bands whose music isn’t worth diving into. How wrong those people would be.
First of all, Led Zeppelin is a fantastic band – and don’t let anybody fool you into thinking otherwise.
While most people will be familiar with the bluesy hard rock that first made the band popular, a more thorough investigation through their discography will quickly herald in an abundance of healthy realizations.
A prime instance would be the band’s third album, Led Zeppelin III. It would be their first release to defy all expectations that their audience had previously of them. They were no longer a heavy metal band – they were playing bluegrass and folk.
It was the first time that the banjo would make an appearance in their music as well, on the song “Gallows Pole”, which has since become a fan favorite.
3. Old Man
by Neil Young
What would our list be without mentioning this classic song by Neil Young? “Old Man” is a fantastic ballad that features themes pondering on age, sex, and mortality.
Neil wrote the song sometime in 1970 after purchasing a ranch in Northern California for about $350,000 (which is a little less than $2,500,000 in today’s money).
It was there where he met the groundskeeper, Louis, who went on to take him for a ride around the ranch in a blue Jeep.
They continued driving until they reached a spot that overlooked the lake which fed all the pastures, and Louis asked how it was that Neil could ever purchase such an expensive plot of land despite being only 25 years old. Neil’s only response was to say that he was “Lucky, Louis, just really lucky.”
4. Casimir Pulaski Day
by Sufjan Stevens
On his 2005 album, Illinois, Sufjan Stevens conquered the world of indie with his wildly inventive compositions and conceptual lyricism. Amid all the horns, glockenspiels, and vocal harmonies, Sufjan often places the banjo in the forefront of his arrangements.
A favorite among many banjo players from this album is the song “Casimir Pulaski Day”. The song showcases Sufjan’s talent to transform plain and simple chords into something that’s far more transcendental.
Sufjan uses the holiday to remember his friend who battled bone cancer. Throughout the song, he praises “all the glory that the Lord has made,” until he begins to question why his friend had to die at such a young age.
It’s an intensely beautiful song, and it’s not hard to understand why it’s become such a popular tune for banjoists and songwriters alike.
5. Foggy Mountain Breakdown
by Earl Scruggs
For his 1967 film, “Bonnie and Clyde”, Warren Beatty was faced with the task to find the perfect music to soundtrack the movie’s many car chase scenes. It was then that he discovered the frenetic energy of Earl Scruggs’ classic song, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, and the tune proved to be a perfect fit.
“Bonnie and Clyde” was initially met with poor reception for how graphic and controversial it was at the time. However, it’s since been regarded as a landmark film. It broke several taboos in the world of cinema and was called a “rallying cry” for many members of the 1960’s counterculture.
6. The Hammer Song (If I Had A Hammer)
by Pete Seeger
While Pete Seeger wrote and performed many popular songs throughout his life, “The Hammer Song” may very well be his most iconic.
Seeger and Lee Hays wrote the song in support of the Communist Party of the United States, who had just been convicted for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. Seeger later performed the song at a concert just north of Peekskill, New York. The show went on to act as the catalyst for a massive riot.
Peter, Paul, and Mary performed their own rendition of it in 1962, making its way to the top 10 on the Billboard charts. The group also performed it alongside Martin Luther King Jr at the March on Washington. The song has since become the anthem to end all anthems of protest songs.
7. Squeeze Box
by The Who
This classic radio hit features the Who’s lead guitarist, Pete Townshend, playing both the accordion and banjo. Apparently, Townshend had quite a bit of experience with the banjo from years prior.
Before joining the group, he and fellow bandmate John Entwhistle played in a jazz group named the Confederates, in which Entwhistle played horns and Townshend played the banjo.
The added instrumentation helped to set this tune apart from what was popular then, and it’s proved to stand the test of time.
by Buffalo Springfield
Die-hard fans of Buffalo Springfield would regard this song as the culmination of everything the band had done up until this point.
Interestingly enough, the original version of the song didn’t have a banjo on it all. Rather, the song ended with a long and drawn-out solo on the electric guitar.
Stephon Stills felt that the song’s ending was too noisy, leaving the band to decide that something more rustic was in order.
9. Doggy Salt
by Tony Trischka
Tony Trischka is a legend among banjo players, not only for his performative prowess but for the breadth and width of stylistic variation he has been able to achieve with the instrument.
“Doggy Salt” is one of his signature tunes, and banjo players far and wide have claimed it to be one of the quintessential songs to learn. Although many may not be able to immediately perform it as well as Trischka did, the rewards of facing the challenge will not go unfelt.
If you’re searching for a song that will force you to grow as a player, look no further than this tune right here.
10. Cotton-Eyed Joe
Our list simply wouldn’t be complete without this old classic. It saw a resurgence in the mid-90s when the Swedish Eurodance group, Rednex, released their poppy, electronic version of it.
However, it may be surprising for some to know that the song was first written well before the American Civil War broke out in the 1860s. The song has since been performed by various artists, from the Chieftains to Burl Ives.
Its popularity remains strong across the world still, and there’s no doubt that it will stay that way for years to come.
Popular Banjo Songs
Well, there you have it – our top picks for the most popular songs to learn on the banjo.
This is far from a complete list, but we tried to focus on songs that most people know and love. There are so many to choose from that it would be impossible to include every one of them on our list.
These songs may be the most popular, but the banjo world is rich with a unique history and sound all of its own.
That being said, we encourage you to go out and find new favorites of your own – whether they’re popular or not.