Many people think that playing the banjo is a lot harder than learning the guitar. While it isn’t the easiest instrument to learn, this statement isn’t necessarily true. With any instrument, you have to have a certain amount of commitment and dedication to learn the basic foundations of playing it properly. The same can be said for anyone wanting to learn the banjo.
One of the biggest benefits of banjos is that they have open tuning. They differ from guitars in that they have five strings and you will mainly use a two-finger fingerpicking style. This is referred to as the clawhammer technique.
If you are a fan of folk, bluegrass and country music then the banjo will be the ideal instrument for you to learn. These instruments can add some great harmonies into songs as well. We’ve put together a list of some of the easier banjo songs that are ideal for beginners which we’re sure you’ll have fun trying out.
1. Cripple Creek
Ask any seasoned banjo player and they will tell you that the most crucial song for anyone aspiring to be a banjoist would be this one. Cripple Creek is a folk song that people say refers to a place in Virginia. This has been discredited by others saying that the song originated from the gold rush and is about the place in Colorado. Wherever its origins came from, nothing can stop this song from being classed as a bluegrass staple. If bluegrass style music is what you want to play on your banjo then this is the song you will need to learn. The original version was originally played on the violin or fiddle but it easily translates into an easy banjo song.
When you first listen to the song it can be very overwhelming for a beginner to take in. The fast tempo is daunting. Watching a banjo player use their clawhammer technique can be mesmerizing but also intimidating to a learner. The great thing is that the piece only has three short and easy pieces of music that are repeated. You can learn each of these three segments one at a time and then combine them together to make the complete song.
We’ve featured this song first in our list because it’s a great piece for nailing some of the basic skills you need to play the banjo. It uses melodies on both the high and low sides of the scales which will help build up your finger strength. You will also use sliding and switching techniques as well as an alternating thumb roll. Some of these skills may be familiar to you if you have played guitar. Make sure to take as much time as you need to learn the piece and eventually you will see that it’s much easier than it seems.
2. Dueling Banjos
To be a true banjo player you have to be able to master the power of the dueling banjos. In a typical banjo duel you will pit yourself against a guitar player. The guitar can keep up with the banjo easily but the intention here is to show off the naturally beautiful sound of the banjo. Even better, you can get two banjos playing against each other and you have a really awesome song on your hands.
Back in 1954 Arthur Smith created Dueling Banjos which became a bluegrass classic. He used a four-string banjo to create his signature riffs. To get the effect you hear of both banjos dueling against each other, Arthur asked fellow banjo player Don Reno to play riffs on his five-string banjo. After the song was released the idea was picked up by several other musicians and they created their own versions of the piece. Eric Weissberg was credited as having the most popular version which was recorded in 1972 and reached number two in the Hot 100 list.
It’s best to start with the first few sections of the song because they use mostly strumming and are relatively easy. You then add in some fingerpicking on an open chord. The piece is definitely a good strength workout for your fingers and it can help with your music theory too. It uses pretty much every different note the banjo has to offer so it’s worth mastering and knowing by heart because of all the techniques utilized.
3. Hush Little Baby
A lullaby can be the perfect way to really nail the bluegrass style of playing. The easiest lullaby that suits the banjo perfectly is Hush Little Baby. This was originally a folk song and nobody knows when it was created or even who composed it. What is known that it has come from the Southernmost parts of America. Even without an artist behind it, the song went on to be adapted into modern and contemporary songs like Mockingbird.
The song has a really slow BPM at 80 so the tempo and rhythm shouldn’t be anything that causes you an issue. It’s pretty much the standard heart rate of a human being. Having a slower BPM means that the chord progression is a lot more predictable and makes it ideal for a beginner. You can decide to play it with a normal strumming technique or to jazz it up as well.
We’ve included this lullaby because it’s ideal for mastering the banjo clawhammer technique. With a slower tempo, your fingers can easily move without having to pause to find the right string. Because you’ll be plucking away note by note it produces a more piano-like sound.
4. Cotton-Eyed Joe
Cotton-Eyed Joe is a really memorable tune that will have people dancing along to it. It’s instantly recognizable but again, it’s a song that doesn’t have very clear origins. While no musicologist can be sure of the exact beginnings of the song, many have put it down to something sung by plantation workers as they worked in the fields.
Harper and Brothers published the music for the song in 1882 which meant that the song breezed into the 20th century. It was most famously used as the national anthem in Southern Texas throughout the 19th century. Once it was used as an anthem it then went out to become a popular dance song at hoedowns. There are various artists who have covered it all the way up until 2017.
Cotton-Eyed Joe is a really easy banjo song compared to others on our list. You only use two of your fingers to pluck at the strings. What you will need to master is switching between the frets. As a beginner to the banjo, this is the harder part of the song. As long as you can be patient and learn the basics this song shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
5. Ring of Fire
Ring of Fire originally features the fiddle but this is the part that translates onto the banjo. The melody this creates is rich and a few different instruments come in to make the song sound fuller. There could be an array of different instruments used in the mix for this song. The banjo is definitely featured because you can hear its distinct sound and bright strings.
There are a few ways of playing this song on your instrument. As a beginner, you will want to focus more heavily on the split strumming which is a technique used throughout the piece. Having this skill will help you develop the clawhammer technique as well. The chords don’t have to be worried about as much because you mainly use an open G chord throughout. The chords change in the chorus by using C major and D major but again, these are very simple for a novice to execute.
6. Man of Constant Sorrow
This song was a major hit from the 2000 Clooney movie title O Brother, Where Art Thou? The collaboration used in the film went on to earn a Grammy in 2002. What many people don’t realize is that this isn’t a modern song. It actually has origins that date back before World War I. It was then recorded in 1927 and went on to inspire many different artists and cover bands. Bob Dylan famously recreated the piece in the 60s.
Much like Cripple Creek, this easy banjo song doesn’t sound so simple, to begin with. The use of all five strings can be intimidating and seem overcomplicated at first. It’s important as a beginner to banjo songs to know not to take on the chord progressions straight away. It’s much more crucial for you to get the correct tones for the open strings initially. Once you have practiced and become accustomed to the sound of every string on that instrument, playing the banjo becomes easy to do.
Our best advice for Man of Constant Sorrow is to take your time. It’s a great piece that is well worth the effort because of the different techniques you will learn.
7. House of the Rising Sun
Blue-collar workers were the first to coin the song House of the Rising Sun before The Animals took it and did a recording in 1964. The original version of the piece was effortlessly laid back and gave you that relaxed feeling after toiling all day at work. Research has shown that this song can be dated back to when folk ballads originated in the 17th century.
The is probably the best entry in our banjo songs list because of how amazing the fingerwork is throughout the piece. Seasoned players will take the fingerstyling to a whole new level and it’s fascinating to watch them play so quickly. You may think that as a beginner who needs easier banjo songs that this is unattainable but this is not the case. Once again, the piece is a lot easier than it seems on the surface.
The only way you will ever nail this song is by going through and practicing the rhythm of it first. Next, you will want to pick out each note on the strings so you can figure out the different tunes used throughout. Then take on the chords. When you first begin to play the song as a whole it’s not going to sound amazing but don’t worry about that. Eventually the techniques will come to you a lot more easily than they did to begin with. We’re sure it will become one of your more favorite banjo songs.
8. Johnny B. Goode
The banjo is a really great instrument for playing rock songs because it translates easily over from the guitar. Rock and roll can easily be defined by the high pitched notes used on the guitar’s strings. The banjo can reach these high pitches easily so it makes the perfect stringed instrument for playing those classic guitar riffs. One such riff we’re looking at here is Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry.
Johnny B. Goode is an absolute hit and has been for many years. On the banjo you can play the intro note by note and it still sounds just as good as the original guitar version. It almost has a percussion like sound because of how high pitched the notes are.
There are a few different solos used throughout the piece which can be incorporated onto the banjo as well. Learn the segments separately and then go on to embellish them in your own way. Begin learning the song by mastering those fingerstyle techniques. The important part here is that you manage to have strong flexibility in your fingers.
9. Wake Me Up
This is a real surprise entry on our list and you may be thinking huh? However, if you listen to the original recording done by Avicii you will find that the banjo is actually the perfect instrument to use for the piece. The banjo is naturally high-pitched so it can easily mimic those electronic sounds that the original uses. When you play this as a banjo song you will notice that it gets more of a rockabilly feel while still having folk influences.
If you want to sound exactly like the original does then the part you want to focus on is switching between the chords seamlessly. There is also a sliding technique which uses your fingers to slide across the fretboard when you are switching those chords. This will take some practice before you can get it right.
The part of the song that will be great for any beginner to try out is the synth line. This is where the banjos uniqueness comes into play. It mimics the sound of an electric guitar that doesn’t have their delay effects ramped up to the maximum setting. You can get that twangy sounds on the notes that will last a few seconds without having to use external pedals to make these effects artificially. The synth line will also put your fingers to the test.
10. You Are My Sunshine
This song really needs no introductions because of how infamous it is. It’s a piece that can be played on a lot of different instruments and, of course, the banjo is one of them. There have been so many popular artists over the years to cover the song such as Johnny Cash and Aretha Franklin.
You Are My Sunshine has a varied history with many people claiming it came from different areas of America. No matter where it came from it’s simply a really fun song to play. The warm glow it gives off reminds us of summer and it has a vibrant feeling that makes you feel happy. However, if you give the lyrics a really good listen to then you will notice that the lyrics are more sad than happy. It still remains to be a lovely song to play on your banjo with uses all five of your strings.
11. Amazing Grace
Amazing Grace is a gospel standard that is probably the most recognizable songs in American history. The song was originally done without any musical accompaniment and relied solely on a choir to provide the musicality for the piece. The first recording of the song was also done a capella style.
There are so many renditions of the song that gives musicians plenty of opportunities to play it with any instrument and in any style that you want to. You can play it as the solemn gospel piece it was intended to be, or as a more vibrant and upbeat song. What you will need to keep in mind is that you need the clawhammer technique whatever style you choose. There are also some switches and slides that you need for your fretting fingers. It’s a really versatile song that can be translated into a lot of different styles and genres to suit your taste.
12. She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain
This song has been used to teach children instruments for many years. It’s a versatile song that can be changed to suit different playing styles and abilities and you can even change the lyrics. The base melody of the song has also been used in songs to dance to and sing along to over the years. Add in the banjo and you get a really lively song that fills you full of happiness.
As a song, this is a really enjoyable one to watch banjoists play. There is a classic bluegrass piece which adds in guitar chords. You may even want to add in a mandolin and chop up some bass notes to add more harmonies to the song. The elements added together can be difficult at first but with enough practice you can get the hang of it. The end result is a song that explodes with brightness when you play it on your instrument.
Let’s finish our list with a more modern hit that you can translate onto your banjo. It’s a rock song that can use the banjos classic high pitch to match the sound that a steel stringed electric guitar could make. The amazing thing about the banjo as well is that the notes are loud enough without needing to use any sort of accessories or amps to boost your sound.
Californication doesn’t involve any strumming. You need to pick out the right strings to recreate that memorable riff. The intro is easy and involves playing in this way. At the end of each verse you will use the clawhammer technique. Mixing up styles like this can seem like a real struggle but as long as you focus on your fingering then everything will fall into place.
The hardest part of the song comes in the pre-chorus. The rhythm really picks up so fingerpicking becomes more difficult. The easiest part is in the chorus because you will be strumming chords with all five strings. The solo can help you master slides and switches which can then translate into other songs from this list.
That wraps up our list of easy banjo songs which are ideal for beginners. Remember to leave any questions or comments below and enjoy all of the banjo songs mentioned here.