The Banjo is synonymous with folk and country music wherever it is played. Many people think it is an American instrument, but it goes back farther than that. People have been finding easy Banjo songs to learn for four hundred years, at least.
Where the banjo came from is a question that cannot be answered for certain. There do seem to be two separate versions of the instrument. One version seems to have originated in either West Africa or the Caribbean countries in the mid-1700s. Brought to mainland America courtesy of the slave trade.
The European Version
However, it is more likely it originated in Europe, possibly in the 1600s, and then brought to America by immigrants. Some Native Americans are known to have played the European version. It is this version that we see today.
Its roots lie firmly in the country and folk music of various cultures. And in some places, like Ireland and America, it is still a mainstay instrument. But we also see it throughout Europe, Scotland, England, and Wales.
But it doesn’t limit its playing to those cultural musical movements. It can prove to be quite an asset in a variety of genres. It has been added to a variety of genres. “Midnight Flyer” by the Eagles is an example that comes to mind.
Something to keep in mind is that learning to play the banjo is like any other instrument. It takes time and practice. But just like other instruments, it is nice to be able to play along with some favorites. So, let’s take a look at some Easy Banjo Songs to Learn, starting with…
Very few better places to start when we are talking about well known banjo songs. I have heard this played pretty well by various people, including Steve Martin and even Sir Billy Connolly.
Cripple Creek was the brainchild of Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt. They featured it on their album “Foggy Mountain Jamboree,” which was released way back in 1957.
It wasn’t a recording that was immediately popular. Rather gaining its impetus over the years that followed to become one of the most popular Bluegrass banjo songs. You will hear Scruggs utilizing his famous “three-finger roll” on his five-string banjo.
There are plenty of other instruments hammering away, including some impressive fiddle playing. But, the banjo sound is predominant. Not the easiest piece to play but one that will teach you some technical additions. Plus, you can learn them at a gentle pace and gradually increase your speed.
One of Bob Dylan’s masterpieces. The words focus on the futility of war and the need for peace and harmony. They were very relevant in 1963, and it was considered a “protest against the government” song. Perhaps it is even more relevant now.
Released on his album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” it remains one of his classics that has been covered by many artists.
One such cover was by Peter, Paul, and Mary, also released in 1963. They introduced the banjo to the arrangement. It is played at a very easy pace. There are also not so many chords, so it so represents a very easy song to learn on the banjo.
Just about everyone knows this song. It is a very old traditional song with its roots firmly in Folk music. It was published in its current format in a music book called “Old Plantation Hymns.” How far back before that it goes, no one can be sure. This is a simple kids version, which creates a nice steady tempo.
Not an obvious choice as a banjo piece, but it has some positive reasons for its inclusion. It is a steady pace and is very recognizable. You can play at your own tempo to start with. Likewise, it will also provide a little in the way of chord instruction.
To play it accurately, you will have fun finding and learning the dominant A and D seventh chords. If you are taking your banjo camping, then this is a great song for round the campfire.
Once again, not the first banjo song you might think of. But a classic song you can learn and sing along to. The banjo part is there, a Tenor instrument played by McLean himself, but laid back in the mix. The chords are quite basic and played at a nice steady pace. They are quite repetitive, and so it is easy to learn.
This song was from his second album after his first flopped. But it was the song that brought him fame. The lyrics are a great enigma, rather like “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon. No one knows for sure exactly what they are all about.
Some thought it was about Buddy Holly. However, in later years it was considered to be an observation of how we lost our innocence through corruption and war. Whatever it is, it is still a great song.
Irish Rover – The Clancy Brothers
Let’s travel back across the Atlantic to Ireland. There is still a very strong tradition of banjo playing music, songs, and bands in Ireland that is part of their culture.
It was probably written in the 19th century, although by whom is unknown. That said, judging by the lyrics, the composer’s knowledge of ships and awareness of the seas meant they were probably a sailor.
It has been criticized over the years, and in some quarters, still is, for its, shall we say, explicit lyrics. However, that is not why it is here. It offers an alternative style of folk tradition and the banjo playing that goes with it.
Another Irish Folk song still played in pubs and bars all over Ireland and further afield. It was even featured in an episode of “Frasier” where it was played by Elvis Costello on guitar.
This is what is known as an “Irish Drinking Song.” But, its origins are more likely to be Scottish than Irish. Nevertheless, a great banjo sing along song that is well-known and sung just about everywhere. It has even found its way into the repertoire of vocal English football supporters, albeit with different words.
Simple chords and a nice easy pace. A good banjo song from an alternative Folk music culture for a beginner to learn. And one, you can have a sing-along while you learn it.
Back across the pond for a visit to a Bluegrass classic. For the younger banjo players, your moms and dads and certainly your grandparents will know this. Because it’s the theme from the TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies.” This is a song that brought Bluegrass music to an audience that had previously ignored it.
Written by Paul Henning, the original had Earl Scruggs playing the banjo parts and Lester Flatt singing. It went to number one in the US.
Simple chords, a slow, easy tempo, and plenty of room for improvisation if you want. A great little song for beginners and more experienced banjo players alike.
Another well-known Bluegrass song. This was written by Ralph Stanley, who was one of the original pioneers of Bluegrass music. It is played in G- tuning. This, as you probably know, is called Mountain or Sawmill tuning.
It has a rather sad, minor-key feel to it. Sometimes played with a capo placed at the second fret. I suppose that makes it played in A rather than G. However, a great example of banjo playing.
I have included this as something for the improving player to aim for. This is not what we are supposed to be discussing, really, as it certainly isn’t “easy.” But as an example of high-quality banjo playing, it is a very good example. It is certainly going to test everyone who tries to copy his style and the speed of the notes.
Salt Creek – Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys
This is a song that is recommended to banjo players in the early days of learning the instrument. It isn’t going to test you at all, but it is just one of those songs that is fun to play. It is what is known as a “Fiddle tune” but has a heavy banjo influence and contribution.
Where this song originated is the subject of conjecture. It may well have its roots in an Irish song, “Salt River.” Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys released their version of it in 1964. No doubt prompted by the success of The Beverly Hillbillies on TV.
The simplicity of the song is why many banjo players love it. It has plenty of open strings. As it is simple and easy to play, it may give you your first opportunity for some improvisation around the theme.
Let’s come a bit more up-to-date now. In their very early days, the Eagles had quite a significant Country feel to some of their music. Bernie Leadon was an accomplished banjo player as well as being a good guitarist. And he was right at the front of ‘Take it Easy,’ the band’s first single.
He played parts on several other tracks, but Midnight Flyer sticks out for me. Taken from their album “On The Border,” it was partly produced by Glyn Johns at Olympic Studios in London. It was the point the Eagles became more rock-oriented and left the country sound behind. In many ways, that makes this a nostalgic piece to play and look back on.
It is played at a great tempo for a beginner to get right into it. One of those banjo songs that lights up an audience or party. The perfect banjo song for a beginner.
Let’s finish with another from Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, and one that most banjo players will know. It was first recorded in 1949 and is well-known as being part of the soundtrack to the movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”
It is played at quite a fast pace, but when you are learning, it is possible to slow it down. And once you’ve mastered the style and the techniques, you can build up your speed. A good banjo piece that in many ways encapsulates everything that this instrument is all about.
Resources for Playing the Banjo
Have you been enthused to get out there and learn some more great banjo tunes? If so, here is a book from Earl Scruggs that is full of them called The Earl Scruggs Banjo Songbook.
If you are thinking about taking up the banjo, a decent quality starter is the Mulucky 5 String Banjo – Full-Size. And there are some good instruction books to help you on your way, such as Clawhammer Style Banjo: A Complete Guide For Beginning and Advanced Banjo Players.
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Easy Banjo Songs to Learn – Final Thoughts
There are very few instruments that, whatever you play, still make you smile and feel happy. The Banjo is one of those. You could play Chopin’s “Funeral March,” and it would still sound happy. The banjo is just one of those sounds. It is fun, and it is fast-paced and has that twang. And for that reason, it is a great instrument to learn.
Until next time, let your music play.