WHAT TO LISTEN FOR?
As you listen to the banjo players on this list, decide the players and styles that appeal to you the most. The list is heavily weighted towards the bluegrass and modern styles; however, I’ve included a few pre-bluegrass classic/parlor players as well. I think these are important because it exposes the banjo student to the proper history of techniques.
I’ve included a few links as I think they provide a good example of each players styles.
(Please note that this list is not meant to be exhaustive, everyone can’t be included, and it’s not up for amendments or revisions)
The modern banjoist is faced with a HUGE library of music to listen to. I’ve made this list to give listeners new names they may not be familiar with; however, it is also contains some of the most famous banjo players of all time.
In some cases, parts of our banjo history are in danger of being forgotten.
1) EARL SCRUGGS
Earl Scruggs is most famous banjo player of all-time, some argue, the best banjo player ever. He is one of the founding father’s of Bluegrass Music. He, of course, played banjo in Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, and later on formed the duo Flatt & Scruggs. No banjo player interested in the bluegrass style should overlook Earl. Here is Earl Scruggs in black n’ white playing the bluegrass favorite “Groundspeed.”
Some of my must listen to Earl Scruggs songs includes; “Down the Road”, “Earl’s Breakdown”, and “Shucking the Corn.”
2) DON RENO
One of the Big Three banjoists, Don Reno is by far one of the best banjo players to ever live.
Don had a duo called Reno & Smiley, and later on played with Bill Harrell. His playing features lots of “single-string” playing, as well as thumb strokes and in my opinion, a richer chordal vocabulary than Scruggs. Here is a really good audio of his playing:
Other must listen to Don Reno songs include “I Know you’re married”, “Talk of the Town”, and “I’m using my Bible for a Roadmap.”
3) JD CROWE
JD Crowe was heavily influenced by Scruggs, Specific Albums include Live in Japan, Old Home Place, and Live at McCabe’s. It’s interesting to hear how he took what Scruggs did and built on it by adding blues notes, bends, and more. If you want to start at the beginning, be sure to grab the Jimmy Martin recordings that JD Crowe played on. His break for “Honey You Don’t Know my Mind” is one of the classic breaks. I also recommend “Theme Time”, “Blackjack”, and “The Old Home Place.”
4) SONNY OSBORNE
Sonny Osborne was once again, another player heavily Influenced by Scruggs. However, he broadened his musical vocabulary, taking from steel guitar players, piano players, and more. Sonny created his own unique sound; I especially love his playing on slow songs. Be sure to check out Dandelion and America the Beautiful.
Here is his stellar break on “Sunny Side of the Mountain.”
5) ALLEN SHELTON
Allen Shelton was a mixture of Scruggs, Reno, with jazzier chords and repertoire. My favorite albums include: Jim&Jesse “In the Tradition” and “Shelton Special.” By the way, Allen Shelton is my particular FAVORITE BANJO PLAYER!
Favorite songs by him include “Crazy Arms”, “Bully of the Town”, “Banjo Bounce”, and “Under the Double Eagle.”
6) FRED VAN EPS
Fred Van Eps was one of the most known banjo players in the pre-bluegrass, Classic Era. For those only interested in bluegrass, Fred Van Eps is a new name. However, before Earl Scruggs there was Fred Van Eps.
7) VESS OSSMAN
Vess Ossman is another Classic Era, pre-bluegrass player. Sometimes music is worth a thousand words, so here you go:
8) PARKE HUNTER
A forgotten player, Parke Hunter is another player out of the CLASSIC BANJO era. Here is a recording, a true virtuoso.
9) BILL KEITH
One of the founding father’s of “melodic style”, One of my favorite banjo breaks of all time is “Bluegrass Breakdown” that he did with Bill Monroe.
10) BELA FLECK
Bela Fleck is probably the most famous banjo player of our time, taking the banjo in too new & uncharted territory. First playing with Newgrass Revival, then his group Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and now with his wife and other instrumental virtuosos. Recommended Albums-“Whitewater” and “Tales of the Acoustic Planet”
That rounds out the TOP TEN, here are the other 17 great players:
11)Noam Pikelny-One of the best players of our time. He tours both solo and performs in The Punch Brothers with Chris Thile.
12)Bill Emerson-Traditional. Album-“Home of the Red Fox”, lots of original songwriter
13)Alan Munde-great mix of melodics and Traditional sound
14)Carroll Best-one of the father’s of “melodic style”
15)Jens Kruger-Modern, Classical-Influenced. If you like Bela Fleck, you might want to give him a listen.
16)Pat Cloud-Jazz Banjo, “melodic” approach, jazz/bebop
17)Joe Mullins-Modern Traditional Player, Reno/Osborne influenced. Albums:Traditional Grass-“The Blues are Still the Blues”
18)Gene Parker-Traditional Player, Unique/Bluesy style
19)Vic Jordan-Great “melodic player”. Album-“Pickaway”
20)Raymond Fairchild-Reno influenced. The song he is best know for is “Whoah Mule”
I really enjoy his playing on slow songs and waltzes.
21)Ralph Stanley-Traditional Early Founding Father, Check out “Clinch Mountain Backstep”, “Hardtimes” and all the stuff the Stanley Brothers did. Here he is doing Pretty Polly that I think showcases his forward roll style so well.
22)Ron Block-Modern Player who uses lots of bends. Plays with Alison Krauss
23)Tony Furtado-Modern Blues, “melodic” styles
24)John Hickman-I really like his versions of Dixie Breakdown and Banjo Signal
25)Jim Mills-Modern Traditional. Album-“Bound to Ride”
26)Alison Brown-Modern Player that used to play with Alison Kraus. Has played jazz and original music.
27)Bobby Thompson-one of the founding fathers of melodic style, played on Hee-Haw
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Who are some of my personal FAVORITE banjo players? See this blog for that answer. My top 7 favorite banjo players: