Consordinis articles are written by musicians who independently research, test, and recommend the best instruments and products. We are reader-supported. When you purchase through links in our articles, we may earn an affiliate commission.
In this guide, we’re exploring the 10 most popular and famous banjo songs. If you’ve just started taking banjo lessons and you’re looking for some easy songs to start your journey as a beginner banjoist, you’re in luck. Lots of these songs have tutorials and tabs so you can learn how to play some of the most iconic songs known to humankind, by some of the most iconic banjo players!
The banjo is a fun instrument which has a real association with parts of America. Some of the tracks on this list even have some real cultural significance (there’s a certain movie scene you may already be picturing).
Let’s dive straight into some of those fun and fantastic songs.
1. The Dead South – In Hell I’ll Be In Good Company
We live in the age of the viral hit, and this certainly fits the bill. “In Hell I’ll Be in Good Company” actually has quite an interesting history, as it was released in 2014, but actually didn’t pick up pace in terms of the viral hit until 2017 when it picked up and “went viral” to the tune of 250 million views. This is partially because of the awesome video that you can see above.
This Canadian band is known for being a folk/bluegrass crossover. The instrumentation includes cello and mandolin for that folky feel, and it’s Colton Crawford providing that righteous banjo we can hear.
The Dead South have become known as having a signature sound on the banjo, and they’re great storytellers. This song really gets your feet tapping, and though some sections are challenging to learn how to play, this is the sort of track that every banjo player wants to have a go at at some stage in their journey.
Check out the tutorial below if you want to lean how to play this song yourself:
2. Steve’n’Seagulls – Thunderstruck
Ok, so this is an iconic song full stop. Thunderstruck is originally a track by rockers AC/DC, but it’s been successfully turned into a folk song here, with banjo replacing that iconic electric guitar riff.
The video is super entertaining and actually showcases some really clever musicianship.
Steve’n’Seagulls is another group that has really racked up the views on YouTube. This song alone has over 100 million views. In fact, the bluegrass covers of popular songs such as rock songs and even a Beastie Boys track, Sabotage, have led to this band going viral on multiple occasions.
They hail from Finland, and while they haven’t had a hit recently, we would love it if they return with their unique brand of cover versions, maybe with some more AC/DC!
There’s no tutorial for this one, but if you’re an ambitious player you might be able to work it out from guitar tablature, of which there is plenty for AC/DC songs.
3. Flatt & Scruggs – Cripple Creek
Cripple Creek is one of those songs that has a whole lot of mythology behind it.
There have been many different versions and iterations of the track, with people playing this with different techniques, on 4-string and 5-string banjo, and using fiddle for the iconic bluegrass sound.
It’s an Appalachian style song, and nobody really knows where it came from, as it is one of those songs handed down through the generations in America. “Cripple Creek” is the name of a couple of different places, one in Colorado and one in Virginia, and nobody even knows which it is referring to.
There are even some disputes about which lyrics are authentic for this song, with different musicians playing different versions. It’s taken on a life of its own.
While there isn’t a huge amount of information about the song, we do have multiple versions to choose from when learning to play, and this Flatt & Scruggs version might just be the very best known. The track has been recorded dozens, if not hundreds of times. It sounds best played fast, to be warned that beginner banjoists might struggle to get to those kinds of speeds straight away.
Want to learn it yourself? We’re not surprised. You may already know that Cripple Creek is one of the easiest beginner banjo songs, so you can pick it up even if you’re relatively early in your banjo journey. Check out the tutorial below.
4. The Dead South – Banjo Odyssey
Another hugely popular track by this modern banjo group. Banjo Odyssey is a good description of the group, in fact.
The video is almost as cool as the banjo playing. It was filmed in 2016 when the group toured around Toronto and played eight shows in one day on a flatbed truck. The footage was ultimately used to make this music video and has racked up tens of millions of views on YouTube, something that The Dead South have become very good at doing time after time.
There has been some controversy around this track. Some people made some allegations about the content of the song, which are definitely open to interpretation. The band themselves released a statement about these allegations. “The song is a satirical, tongue-in-cheek reference to the bluegrass genre and tells a story about two cousins who engage in a relationship. We sincerely apologize to anyone who has been hurt or offended by these lyrics, as the last thing we would want to do is offend anyone.”
Like many of The Dead South’s tracks, there is a tutorial for you to follow if you want to learn how to play this at home on your banjo.
5. Mean Mary – Iron Horse
Did you know that Mean Mary got her name from a song she wrote when she was just five years of age? Incredible. It’s fair to say that some people are just natural born musicians.
Mean Mary describes herself as “an americana, bluegrass, blues, folk artist from Nashville” and has toured the world with her unique, but eclectic style of music, visiting Europe, the UK, and all parts of the US.
Iron Horse is a song full of romance and thought-provoking lyrics, proving that banjo songs can be sentimental and beautiful, too!
“We rode the plains as lovers do
We raced beneath the summer sun
My dusky eyes met his so blue
Our soaring spirits breathed as one.
We blazed our love across the sky
Surrendered to its ancient force
Until the day he said goodbye
And climbed aboard the Iron horse”
Poetic. This is a great song for those who want a moving and emotive music piece that is based on the banjo. Unfortunately, we’ve not found a tutorial for this one. Hopefully a Mean Mary fan will put this right in the near future.
6. Arthur Smith – Dueling Banjos
Many banjo players have a mixed relationship with this song. For a lot of people, it is one of the biggest cultural references that has ever been made regarding the banjo. If it’s the instrument you love, you might get sick of people making this reference!
However, there’s no denying the popularity of this track, and having the ability to bust it out at parties can be a real crowd-pleaser.
For people of a certain generation (or just those who love movies) there is a memory from the movie “Deliverance” triggered by this song. The iconic scene sees an autistic boy, Lonnie, playing the banjo part of “Dueling Banjos” while Ronnie Cox plays the guitar opposite. The two riff off each other and use their instruments to communicate.
There are some interesting facts about this scene. Billy Redden, who played the boy in this scene, was not able to play the instrument, so Mike Addis, a local musician, used his hand situated within Redden’s shirt to make the hand movements of the banjo playing to make it look somewhat realistic. It isn’t perfect, but hey, James Bond couldn’t really do all the stunts he does, right? A bit of movie magic license is taken.
Check out this tutorial if you want to learn “Dueling Banjos” yourself.
7. Mumford & Sons – Hopeless Wanderer
Love them or hate them, Mumfod & Sons have done so much for folk music in the modern age, and made it cool to pick up a banjo!
The video for this track is one of the many reasons why this became such a sensation, and amassed nearly 100 million views on YouTube.
The signature upbeat Mumford & Sons style is evident for the song, but the band actually wanted to use the title track from their album “Babel” for this video. The director Sam Jones insisted upon using the Hopeless Wanderer track, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The goofy and amusing video features some huge names from the world of hollywood. Ed Helms, Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte, known as comedy actors first and foremost, do their best impression of a folk band in a very entertaining music video.
Fans of Mumford & Sons who want to learn their songs are in luck. There are lots of dedicated fans and musicians who have created tutorials for you to use all the banjo techniques the group used in becoming one of the biggest names in the world of folk-pop. Check out the tutorial for this below (sorry, it’s not as funny as the main music video).
8. Punch Brothers – Rye Whiskey
You can’t get much more of a fitting name for a banjo song than “Rye Whiskey”.
Punch Brothers are an American group made up of Chris Thile on mandolin, Gabe Witcher (fiddle/violin), Noam Pikelny (the resident banjo player that brings this track to our list), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Paul Kowert (bass).
American Songwriter described the band as a “21st century version of the Bluegrass Boys.”
Punch Brothers have released five albums and are a great watch live, as the video above shows. For a modern folk and bluegrass band who are doing their own thing, this is undeniably one of the coolest groups you’ll find.
Check out a tutorial below if you want to learn this track by Punch Brothers.
9. Earl Scruggs And Friends – Foggy Mountain Breakdown
Foggy Mountain Breakdown is a wonderful instrumental bluegrass track with some spectacular banjo playing including the clawhammer technique. This track follows the famous “breakdown” format of so many other songs in the same sort of style, and dates back to the 1940s. A recording from 1949 has Scruggs playing a five-string banjo.
This is yet another track that has been associated with some of the banjo stereotypes that many people have. For instance, being played over car chase scenes. The 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde” featured the music in the background, specifically on chase scenes. The song was re-recorded for the film and in 1968 the new versions actually made it to the charts in the US!
The track remained relevant in the 21st century, and a 2001 version has the famous comedian Steve Martin playing banjo, as well as a whole host of other musicians including Randy Scruggs, Gary Scruggs, Paul Shaffer, Jerry Douglas, Albert Lee, and Vince Gill. This performance won a Grammy award for the performance.
This instrumental track is iconic, so it can be a very popular track for more advanced banjo players to try and learn. Like loads of other tracks in this day and age, there’s even a tutorial so that you can learn the banjo parts easily (well, relatively easily).
10. Osborne Brothers – Rocky Top
Rocky Top fits the requirement that so many people have for a banjo classic; it celebrates America!
“Rocky Top, you’ll always be
Home sweet home to me
Good ol’ Rocky Top
Rocky Top, Tennessee”
The song was written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant in 1967 and recorded by the Osborne Brothers for release the following year.
The Bryants were supposedly working in Gatlinburg at The Gatlinburg Inn while they wrote the songs, creating tracks for Chet Atkins and Archie Campbell, when they decided to create something more upbeat. The end result was Rocky Top. Legend has it, this song took just 10 minutes to write, but it would go on to have cultural significance for decades to come.
There are so many versions of this song we’ve lost count, and there have even been covers by legends such as Dolly Parton.
In a 2011 episode of NBC’s sitcom Up All Night, actors Christina Applegate and Will Arnett sang the song, bringing a new generation of fans. You’ll also hear the song played at Walt Disney World parks.
Though it has one of the signatures of banjo music (it’s fast) this track isn’t the hardest to learn, and the following tutorial will guide you through the steps.
Summary – 10 Most Popular Banjo Hits
Our list of popular banjo songs consists of a few different eras of music. Banjo songs date back to the 19th century and some of the songs on this list were recorded over 50 years ago. On the other hand, there are some viral hits from recent years that are just as well-known, especially those that have worked their way into mainstream media and movies.
Do you agree with our list of the 10 most popular banjo songs? Hopefully, you’re inspired to go ahead and learn some new songs to add to your repertoire.
A brief History of the Banjo
The Banjo is a widely popular string instrument that has been around since the 13th century. It originated in sub saharan Africa as a simple folk instrument used to create background rhythm for story telling or some religious practices. With time it evolved into an increasingly precise and sophisticated musical instrument.
It arrived in the Americas not as a physical instrument but rather as an idea carried by African slaves, who rebuilt them in the new world, from materials available there, in order to connect to their culture and the land they were forcefully removed from. After the Civil War the Banjo, however, became shunned by black folks due to it’s association with slavery.
Around that time it became a very popular instrument in Victorian white society, as more and more minstrel troupes formed and could be seen across both the Americas and Europe. Joel Sweeney even played it for Queen Victoria herself. By the 1890s it pretty much became the instrument we know today and was being produced in true factories, rather than by single craftsmen.
In the 20th century the Banjo was usually associated with American country music, but it had an undeniable influence on a lot of different genres including Jazz. The history of the Banjo as well as it’s evolution through time is as fascinating as the instrument itself and modern generations are starting to acknowledge that. That’s why in recent years we hear more and more of it’s unique and upbeat tunes in pop and even hard rock music.
What is the most famous banjo song?
Banjo purists and folk musicians everywhere might be frustrated by it, but it is hard to argue with “Dueling Banjos” being the most famous of all the banjo songs. Deliverance is a movie that has lasted the ages, with three Academy Award nominations and five Golden Globe Award nominations. The movie has also been shown on television around the world countless times.
What is the easiest song to learn on banjo?
Out of this list of popular banjo songs, Cripple Creek is the easiest to learn for beginners. It’s not overly complex, and though you may have to do some pretty quick picking, it is something that most players can pick up even without too much experience. Some other songs that aren’t known as banjo songs, including Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and “American Pie” by Don McLean, can be options for newbies.
What is clawhammer banjo?
Clawhammer is a style of playing banjo rather than a specific type of banjo. The thumb and middle or index finger are used for picking, and the finger always picks downward, hitting the string with the back of the nail to make the sound.