One thing I mentioned recently was transcribing and learning other people’s solos by ear. In this blog post, I’m listing 11 Traditional Bluegrass banjo Solos that every banjo player should have on their radar. Each of these cool banjo breaks contains unique banjo licks or is often requested at local jams.
Essential Bluegrass Banjo Solos
1)“Honey You Don’t Know my mind”-J.D Crowe. Pay particular attention to two things-The neat lick played over the D chord and how the breaks and verse have different chord changes. You’ll notice that the banjo solo only holds the C chord for one measure, while the singing/verse holds it for two measures. I use this D lick in lots of songs, not just this one.
2)“Old Home Place”-J.D Crowe. This is what I call one of those “bluegrass national anthem” songs because it’s played so much. One of my favorite things in this solo, is what Crowe plays over the C chord. It’s like a modified tag roll. The solo is also full of vocabulary you’ll hear constantly in bluegrass; especially the G measure connecting you to the D chord. This features an all star band of Tony Rice, Ricky Scaggs, and more. Don’t forget the backup, I stole a lot of backup licks from this tune. Lastly, the recording is in the key of Bb, so you’ll have to bust out the capo.
3)“Sunny Side of the Mountain”-Sonny Osborne. Sonny plays some really awesome stuff over the D chord in his second break. It involves the use of a droning 4th string and what are called sixths (or 3rds, depending on how you look at it). For your own study purposes, I might suggest listening to this and then listening to the Jimmy Martin versions as well, comparing the banjo breaks, picking out things you like in each.
4)“Why Not Confess”-Allen Shelton. One of the only instances of a Maj7th used in a traditional bluegrass solo at that time. This is still one of my favorite banjo breaks of all-time. What a lovely way to play on this song at a reasonable pace. Pitched in the key of E, so you’ll have to spike the 5th string to “B.”
5)“Salty Dog Blues”-Earl Scruggs. What can we say, it’s Earl Scruggs and I couldn’t make a list without mentioning Earl. This solo contains lots of the quintessential Scruggs vocabulary. You’ll want to do both the lower and higher breaks. Pay close attention to what Scruggs plays on the A and D chords. I’m only listing one Scruggs solo because most banjo players are familiar with his material. If you want an easy version to start with, here is a BEGINNER VERSION I made:
6)“I Wish You Knew”-Allen Shelton. What can I say, I’m a huge Allen Shelton fan. The entrance to this solo is one of my favorites, I use it all the time. It’s like saying, “HERE IS THE BANJO SOLO!” There are also some really nice roll patterns used on the C chord as well.
7)“Little Maggie”-Ralph Stanley. No bluegrass solo list would be complete without Ralph Stanley. You’ll get a nice look into his right hand with this classic solo.
8)“Little Dave”-Vic Jordan, it’s on the Pickaway album. This is an underrated album. Much of the album ventures into melodics, but there is also some more traditional roll-based licks too. When I was learning how to play banjo, “Little Dave” was a festival favorite, can’t say I hear it too much these days.
9)“I Know You’re Married”-Don Reno. This is one of Don Reno’s most famous solos. Contains the thumb brush-stroke and some rock-n-roll inspired sounds. One day someone might want you to do a Don Reno impression, and you’ll go far with this one 🙂
10)“Theme Time”-Bill Emerson. The B section contains a run down in 3rds that is ESSENTIAL bluegrass vocabulary. I use these licks in a ton of songs. JD Crowe also did a version of this with Jimmy Martin, be sure to check that out for comparison.
11)“Banjo Signal”-Once again, Don Reno. It’s difficult to choose which Don Reno solos to pick; however, I think this one is relatively accessible. It contains some neat patterns like 6ths that you can put to use often. I know I use this a TON in my own playing. At the same time, you might want to listen to different versions, as Don really put some speed to certain versions of this. John Hickman has a great version as well.
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Yeah, I’m a Jim Mills fan too. Bill Emerson really wrote some awesome songs.