The banjo’s association with traditional, country, bluegrass, and rockabilly music is strong, and these are the musical styles where you’ll hear it being played most.
In this guide, though, you’ll find a mix of traditional and modern songs featuring the banjo. Yes, the banjo can work quite well in pop and rock contexts too. Best of all, most if not all of the following songs are easy to play.
So, let’s look at easy banjo songs for beginners.
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“Cripple Creek” by Traditional
Song year: Mid-19th century
“Cripple Creek” is a banjo classic. You could even call it a banjo essential. At some point, every banjo player should consider learning it.
At its core, it’s a three-chord wonder – G, C, and D. It’s not too hard a song to learn overall, but a complete beginner might not want to start their journey off with this tune (unless you only plan to work on the chords). There’s some string skipping, double stops, and even slides and pull-offs.
I don’t want to scare anyone off. These types of arrangements are very typical of the banjo. And ultimately, the song is made up of a lot of single notes. Even then, I do think it would be wise to build up your comfort level with your instrument before challenging “Cripple Creek.”
No doubt you will come face to face with the creek at some point, though, so once you’ve got some of the basics under your fingers, do give this one a go.
“Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show
Song year: 2004
“Wagon Wheel” is a quintessential banjo tune. The song is in the key of A. The only problem? The key of G is a much better key for banjo. Fortunately, all you need to do to solve this problem is slap a capo on the second fret, and it’s practically a done deal.
The main chords in the song are A, E, F#, and D. Very typical of pop songs, basically the I, iv, v, and vi chords.
As a banjoist, you will have your work cut out for you, though. The good news is that this song will introduce you to many essential picking patterns, and it is mostly single notes too. Like I always say – you can learn anything one note at a time!
Since you are using a capo for this tune, you are effectively playing G, C, D, and Em chords, which are chords you should strive to become very familiar with as you’re picking up the banjo. They will show up many times over in the songs that follow in this guide.
“I Will Wait” by Mumford and Sons
Song year: 2012
The nostalgic faux indie folk of Mumford and Sons feels more ironic than genuine… but that’s just me. I don’t judge anyone for liking them though. They did base their writing on some great roots music.
“I Will Wait” features some essential banjo-picking techniques, as well as some strumming. The song is kind of in an awkward key, but that’s only because of the capo. The chording is probably what will take the most work on this one.
You can speed up your learning by working on songs you love. And if you enjoy “I Will Wait” you may be more determined to learn it and it may not be as bad as you think!
“Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver
Song year: 1971
You don’t have to be from West Virginia to enjoy singer-songwriter John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” This still stands out as one of Denver’s most recognizable hits.
Denver, of course, played it on the guitar. But you can bet that it works very nicely on the banjo as well.
To play along with the original, you’ll want to slap that capo onto the second fret. The picking is quite relentless with this tune, but fortunately, you can get away with playing just open notes for the intro and even the first two bars of the verse.
The chording doesn’t get a whole lot more complicated until the chorus, although it’s not too bad if you know what you’re doing.
“Take Me Home, Country Roads” could be a good place to start for beginner banjo players if they take it in strides.
“Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Song year: 1969
Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes are essential learning for every beginner banjoist. Their songs are very straightforward and feature rhythmic patterns that translate well to an array of genres, styles, and songs.
Every banjo player should strive to take what they’ve learned in one song and apply it to other aspects of their playing. That’s a valuable lesson all its own!
Anyway, “Bad Moon Rising” is like the template for all vaguely country, rockabilly, or folk-rock tunes. Some musicians use it as their foundation, others try to avoid it like the plague. But as any good teacher will tell you, it’s well worth learning the rules (or clichés) before you break them.
So far as three-chord wonders go, this is a fun one to learn.
“Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty
Song year: 1989
There are many ways to approach simple three-chord wonders like “Free Fallin’.” The original features multiple layers of guitars, playing the same chords in different positions, sometimes adding color notes for added flavor. That’s one of the things that makes the song so great.
These qualities make it a great jam tune as well!
“Free Fallin’” can sound amazing on the banjo too, as Clawhammer Banjo demonstrates in the video. I love how he puts his spin on it. As you can probably see from his playing, though, it’s not that hard a song to play, even if you do include some of the color notes.
“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
Song year: 1974
“Sweet Home Alabama” on the banjo?! Sure, why not? It is country rock after all, and the song is primarily based on just three chords. Beginners should probably focus on learning the chords before worrying about adding all the extra fills, riffs, and licks the Skynyrd was known for anyway.
If you do want to learn all those little flourishes, though, it’s nice to know you can pick them up in the video tutorial seen above.
“Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash
Song year: 1963
Throughout his career, and especially during his early days, Johnny Cash would pave the way for many artists to follow – not just in country music, but in an array of different genres.
At its core, “Ring of Fire” is a three-chord wonder. It uses those three chords very effectively, yes, but its arrangement makes it easy enough for a beginner to pick up.
The video tutorial shows you all the flare you can add to the song if you wish. Those just starting on the banjo, though, should focus on mastering the chords first.
“Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison
Song year: 1967
Here’s a song that hardly needs an introduction. And, it sounds surprisingly great on the banjo. Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” is already a simple four-chord song at heart, but it’s also one of those songs with layers of flourish on top.
The video tutorial focuses primarily on the chords, but it also contains the opening riff and several other fills. Well worth your time!
“You Are My Sunshine” by Jimmie Davis & Charles Mitchell
Song year: 1940
“You Are My Sunshine” is a country classic, and the perfect three-chord song to turn to when you’re not sure what else to play! It makes for a great jam tune as well. Over 350 artists have recorded their versions.
It’s amazing to think about because if you listen closely to the lyrics, you realize the song isn’t exactly the happiest in the world. But for obvious reasons, it’s well-recognized, even to this day. Better put in the effort and add it to your repertoire.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan
Song year: 1963
We’ve come this far without touching on master songsmith Bob Dylan (although, technically he co-wrote “Wagon Wheel”), but frankly, it was inevitable that he’d pop up in this guide.
Dylan is first and foremost a songwriter and a great one at that. He’s not bad as a singer, guitar player, or instrumentalist in general, but his strength is really in weaving together brilliant lyrics.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” is one of his simpler tunes, both lyrically and musically. Dylan himself said there wasn’t a whole lot he could say about the song except for the fact that you can’t find answers to life in books, discussion groups, TV, etc.
It was, however, one of the first songs of his that was more widely and generally applicable than more specifically applicable.
The original was made up of just three chords.
“I’ll Fly Away” by Albert E. Brumley
Song year: 1932
Continuing down the list of songs my grandparents loved (there are a lot in this guide), we have “I’ll Fly Away,” a hymn originally composed by Albert E. Brumley. No wonder it makes for a great banjo song.
The song can easily be played with three to four chords. You can get about as sophisticated as you want with it, and in the video above, Clawhammer Banjo demonstrates how you can combine the chord with the melody.
Although it sounds great, this technique is a little more advanced, and as with most things, the best thing for a beginner is to stick with the chords before they worry about getting all fancy with it.
“Oh! Susanna” by Stephen Foster
Song year: 1848
Here’s another song with a long tradition (to put it mildly). “Oh! Susanna” is considered one of the most popular American songs of all time. With lyrics like “a banjo on my knee,” it’s almost as if this song was tailor-made for the instrument. Does that leave you with any other option than to learn it?
And wouldn’t you know it, this minstrel song is a three-chord wonder. You will usually find it in the key of A, which is easy to play on the banjo if you have a capo and slap it on the second fret. But you can play it in G too, there are no rules against it.
“Take It Easy” by Eagles
Song year: 1972
Name a band who nailed the country rock genre better than the Eagles did. You can’t because it doesn’t exist. Some bands came close, but none with the staying power or prolificacy of the Eagles.
“Take It Easy” is just one of many hits. It’s a little more intricate than your average pop song, with five chords rather than the standard three or four. One of the best things about the song, though, was surely its vocal harmonies, which became emblematic of the band.
The tutorial above will show you the picking pattern.
“Stuck in Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel
Song year: 1973
Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” is one of those songs that only seems to get better with age. This country-rock / folk-rock tune is perfect for the banjo too.
You only need to be able to play four chords to be able to pick up this tune, and the video tutorial above will show you some of the nuances and licks too.
If you’re just getting started, you may not want to start with this tune, but it’s easy enough for beginners with limited experience.
“Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Song year: 1971
For all you CCR fans out there, we’ve got another tune for you to work on, none other than “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”
In the video tutorial, MunsonCovers plays it as a ballad rather than as a roots rock or country rock tune as it was originally intended. That’s not a bad thing for beginners, though, because it means you should be able to pick it up with relative ease.
You can play the entire song with just four chords, but there are some slash chords in there in case you want to tackle them.
“Imagine” by John Lennon
Song year: 1971
For those who might want to try something other than traditional, country, folk, or country rock, there’s John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Sure, it might seem like an odd pick for banjo, but what it demonstrates is that you can play just about whatever song you want on the instrument.
In the video above, MunsonCovers shows us how to play a ballad on the banjo, and it sounds almost as evocative as the original.
“Heart of Gold” by Neil Young
Song year: 1972
If you’ve followed other MunsonCovers tutorials to this point, then learning to play Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” should be a shoo-in for you. Same basic picking pattern, mostly the same chords you’ve already learned too.
Fun fact – the backing vocals on the original were provided by Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. Now there’s a supergroup if there ever was one – Young, Taylor & Ronstadt. No? Oh well, I guess Crosby, Stills, Nash & sometimes Young will have to do.
Another fun fact – to Bob Dylan, “Heart of Gold” sounded like one of his songs. And he ended up kicking himself because Neil Young beat him to the punch!
“Viva La Vida” by Coldplay
Song year: 2008
Now for something completely different. MunsonCovers has got a wicked banjo arrangement for Coldplay’s late 2000s baroque pop of “Viva La Vida,” so we thought we’d include it here. Sometimes Munson is a little off, usually, he’s solid, but this time he’s at his creative and inspired best.
For those looking to test their strumming ability, this is a great song to try. Aside from that, you’ll be using familiar picking patterns and chords. Easy, right?
“Sweet City Woman” by Stampeders
Song year: 1971
The Stampeders’ “Sweet City Woman” prominently features the banjo as the primary rhythm instrument.
I’ve included it here as a bonus because it’s probably not the easiest song for a beginner to pick up. You can play most of the song with four chords, but there are some extra flourishes and embellishments that make it sound as great as it does. The strumming pattern is also one of a kind.
If you love the banjo, though, this is a song you should attempt at some point. And having completed the previous 20 or so tunes, maybe you can wrap your fingers around this one too.
Best Banjo Songs For Beginners, Final Thoughts
There are several popular ways of playing the banjo. None of them are wrong or right. Beginners, however, should stick to simpler arrangements so they can continue to get a better feel for their instruments.
By the time you’ve mastered a few songs, muscle memory will kick in and you’ll start to feel a lot more comfortable on your instrument. So, if you find it tough at first, hang in there. Good things are coming.