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Top 10 easy songs for banjo beginners (with tutorials)

Taking the plunge into the world of banjo playing can be a daunting task. For many, knowing where to start is by far the hardest hurdle to overcome, especially for beginners.

I know how overwhelming it can be at first, so that’s why I’ve created a list of easy banjo songs to get you started.

About me

Brandon Schock, writer at Higher Hz

I am a multi-instrumentalist with a penchant for strings, the banjo being one of my favorites in particular.

While I’m most often found playing guitar or bass, the banjo’s unique timbre and position in musical culture are not easy to overlook.

From the rustic charm of Appalachian folk tunes to bluegrass, I’ve spent years exploring the history and style of banjo playing, not to mention the technique.

Hopefully, some of my knowledge and enthusiasm can help some aspiring players find their footing.

How I chose the songs for this list

As I went out to select songs for this article, I considered a few important things to ensure the educational experience would be as useful as enjoyable.

I looked for tunes with relatively simple melodies and chord changes, making sure they were accessible.

I also prioritized songs that showcased foundational banjo techniques (rolls, slides, different picking styles) so that beginners could quickly build up essential skills from the start.

Lastly, making sure each selection had some amount of cultural or historical significance and relevance I thought to be paramount. This way, new players could find a deeper appreciation of the instrument’s roots.

Here’s a quick list:

  1. Clinch Mountain Backstep – Ralph Stanley
  2. Cripple Creek
  3. You Are My Sunshine – Jimmie Davis
  4. The Ballad of Jed Clampett – Earl Scruggs
  5. Ground Speed – Earl Scruggs
  6. Hot Corn, Cold Corn
  7. I’ll Fly Away – Albert E. Brumley
  8. Nine Pound Hammer
  9. Salt Creek – Bill Monroe
  10. Dueling Banjos – Arthur Smith

Clinch Mountain Backstep – Ralph Stanley

This classic tune was written by Ralph Stanley and released in 1972. The song begins with an energetic melody on the first string and goes on to mix in some bluesy note bends.

While most of the song is relatively simple, the B section may be harder to master once the “Backstep” comes in – giving the song its title.

A “Backstep,” for those who don’t know, is an extra beat or half measure commonly found in old-timey tunes from the early 20th century. Songs that feature this compositional technique are often referred to by bluegrass veterans as “crooked.”

The key when learning these so-called “crooked” tunes is to focus on keeping your timing as steady as possible.

If you don’t have one already, I recommend new players consider buying themselves a metronome. You can quickly find one at Guitar Center or Sweetwater, and there are countless iOS metronome apps available to download right on your mobile device.

They’re a handy tool to have around when you practice, especially if you’re learning a song with tricky time signature changes such as this one.

It can take some time to get used to at first but don’t worry. Keep practicing and remember that patience and consistency are beginner’s best friends.

Here’s a tutorial to get you started:

Cripple Creek

“Cripple Creek” has a reputation for being something of a rite of passage in the banjo-playing world, and it’s such an iconic song that I’d be remiss not to include it on this list.

The history of the song itself is a bit of a mystery, but it’s thought to either be about Cripple Creek, Virginia, or Cripple Creek, Colorado during the gold rush.

Most of the main melody utilizes a slide on the first string, so it’s pretty simple to learn. If you find yourself talking to any veteran banjo player they’ll tell you that “Cripple Creek” is a must-know, and demands a spot in your repertoire.

Here’s a useful video tutorial:

You Are My Sunshine – Jimmie Davis

“You Are My Sunshine” might be one of the most well-known folk songs of all time. You most likely know some version of it or another, so learning it should be easy if you just follow your ears.

Originally popularized in 1939 by Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell, it has since become absorbed into the mainstream of American popular culture.

Hundreds of countless artists have performed their versions of this tune, and it’s so easy to learn that there’s no reason not to give it a shot.

Here’s a handy video tutorial:

The Ballad of Jed Clampett – Earl Scruggs

Here’s another song that many may recognize, and it’s fairly easy to play.

“The Ballad of Jed Clampett” actually helped bring bluegrass music to the forefront of mainstream popularity, featuring as the theme song to one of television’s best-known sitcoms from the golden age, The Beverly Hillbillies.

Although the song was written by American producer and screenwriter Paul Henning, the version that made its way to the show’s debut was performed by none other than the famous Earl Scruggs.

It was such a hit that the song soon went on to be the first Scruggs recording to climb at number one on the Billboard Hot 100.

Here’s a nice tutorial:

Ground Speed – Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs makes yet another appearance on my list with this “barn-burner” of a tune.

While beginners may want to try to play it as fast as the recording, it’s best to start slow until you have the picking pattern ingrained in your hands.

It may not be the easiest song on this list, but it’s a great song to study for strengthening your fingers’ independence from one another.

Practice this tune for a bit and soon you’ll be tearing through it without even breaking a sweat.

Watch this video tutorial:

Hot Corn, Cold Corn

“Hot Corn, Cold Corn” is a nonsense song that’s had more than its fair share of lyric and title changes.

Sometimes referred to as “Hot Corn” or “Green Corn,” this song has been sung and performed by many, including renditions from blues legend Lead Belly and the famous bluegrass duo, Flatt and Scruggs.

However you choose to refer to it, this song’s straightforward structure and easy-to-play chords make it incredibly beginner-friendly and simple to learn!

Here’s a video tutorial:

I’ll Fly Away – Albert E. Brumley

The melody of this tune may be familiar to some. It has been listed as one of the most recorded gospel songs of all time and is often played in worship services by Baptists, Pentecostals, as well as several other Christian denominations.

The chords to this song are uncomplicated, and the melody is infectious, to say the least.

If you can, I recommend getting together with some of your friends and playing through this one.

Watch this video tutorial:

Nine Pound Hammer

Yet another old folk song to add to the list is “Nine Pound Hammer.”

The song has gone through many different iterations throughout the years, and was subsequently repopularized by Merle Travis’ 1946 recomposition called “Nine Pound Hammer Is Too Heavy.”

It’s had a significant impact on many folk and country singers and has been performed by a myriad of notable artists such as Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash, and even the Beatles.

Here’s a nice tutorial:

Salt Creek – Bill Monroe

“Salt Creek” is often recommended to new banjo players because of how easy it is to learn for complete beginners. The song isn’t particularly challenging but is incredibly fun to play.

For most of you, it will be your first dive into what are commonly referred to as fiddle tunes (i.e., music that was specifically written to be played on the fiddle), something bluegrass veterans will be well-acquainted with.

There’s a lot of convoluted information behind the history of this tune, but it’s often thought to be loosely related to the song “Salt River” of Irish origin.

Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys recorded their version of it in 1964, changing the original title from “Salt River” to “Salt Creek,” in honor of the creek where Monroe would hold his annual Bean Blossom Festival in Indiana.

The tune lays itself nicely along the fretboard and has a lot of open strings throughout the composition. Just as “Cripple Creek” and “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” the B section of this song is mainly played on the first string.

Its simplicity is the main reason why banjoists of all levels love to play this song, and as you start getting the hang of things, it’ll begin to lend itself to a lot of fun and interesting improvisational ideas.

Watch this cool tutorial:

Dueling Banjos – Arthur Smith

If you play the banjo in any capacity, chances are that you’ll be requested to play this song ad nauseam until the end of time.

It’s one of the most popular banjo songs, and its association with the instrument is so deeply woven within our cultural fabric that not knowing how to play it is virtually taboo.

Luckily enough, it’s not a difficult song to play – so whenever your friends ask to hear it, jokingly or not, you can at once appease their hungry ears with this quintessential tune.

“Dueling Banjos” (or “Feudin’ Banjos” as it was originally titled) was written in 1954 by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. The song saw its first wide-scale airing on an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, a widely popular sitcom from the 1960s.

However, its fame was immortalized nearly 10 years later in a famous scene from the movie Deliverance, in 1972.

Here’s a video tutorial for you:

Final thoughts

As you venture further into your banjo journey, it will become easier and easier to find new songs to play. Whether by great artists like John Denver or Earl Scruggs, or classic folk songs like “Amazing Grace” or “House of the Rising Sun.”

So, while this is by no means a definitive list, the songs listed here will provide you with a great foundation as you continue to practice.