If you are thinking about learning banjo or you already own a banjo, here are some of the most popular banjo songs of all-time. The more of these you know, the better off you’ll be when the requests start coming in! You’ll notice that a lot of these songs became popular through movies. I think the banjo needs another hit movie!
Top Banjo Songs
- Dueling Banjos
- Foggy Mountain Breakdown
- Fox on the Run
- Rocky Top
- Man of Constant Sorrow
- Will the Circle Be Unbroken
- Ballad of Jed Clampett
- You are my Sunshine
Dueling Banjos is without a doubt, the most popular banjo song of all-time.
Dueling Banjos was written by Arthur Smith in 1954. It was originally called “Feuding banjos.” It involved a 5-string banjo and a 4-string. This is why people are often puzzled when their only exposure to the tune is the movie Deliverance. In the movie, it’s a guitar and banjo, so how can it be dueling banjos when there is only ONE BANJO! The movie Deliverance came out in 1972 and of course features Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty.
Lastly, Arthur Smith did in fact sue over the movie because his song was used without his permission and successfully won.
You can watch Dueling Banjos from Deliverance here.
Foggy Mountain Breakdown
I think the second most popular banjo song of all-time is Foggy Mountain Breakdown. However, unlike Dueling banjos, people have often heard it and don’t know the name of it. Those that aren’t in bluegrass or banjos.
Foggy Mountain breakdown was originally recorded in 1949 by Flatt & Scruggs. Earl Scruggs is of course the most well-known banjo player of all-time.
Later on, it was featured in the movie Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. That’s right, almost twenty years later it made a big come back!
Many people don’t know this, but it is related to the song, “Bluegrass Breakdown” recorded by Bill Monroe in 1947. Earl Scruggs helped write “Bluegrass Breakdown” as well. The difference- in the A section, instead of going to the Eminor chord, Bluegrass Breakdown went to an F major chord. Bluegrass Breakdown also features a B section unlike Foggy mountain breakdown.
One last factoid about Foggy mountain Breakdown-If you listen close, you’ll hear some of the musicians playing different chords at different times than the other. Famously, Lester Flatt played an E major chord over the top of Earl Scruggs’ E minor chord. It seems there is also some discrepancy about when that E minor chord occurs as well if you listen to the rhythm section.
Fox on the Run
Fox on the run isn’t a banjo tune per say; however, it is one of the most requested songs. It was originally done by the group Manfred Mann in 1968. The most popular bluegrass version is by the group Country Gentleman; they recorded in only a few years later-1971.
You can hear their version of Fox On The Run here.
Fox on the Run has a really unique intro and some interesting chord changes. I wouldn’t characterize it as a beginner tune. You’ll need to know your minor chords to play this one.
No popular banjo song list is complete with ROCKY TOP! Tennessee football fans of course love this song. While not a banjo “tune”, I’d say it is the second most requested song at events for me where I’m playing the banjo. The most popular bluegrass version of Rocky Top is by the Osborne Brothers. It features Sonny Osborne’s wonderful banjo playing and Bobby Osborne’s high tenor voice.
One thing that’s always amused me about this song is people often think of it as a simple/dumb down country song. However, the chords get a bit complex on the second section. You have a nice E minor chord to start with. Later on you get a bit of F major (That brings in a G mixolydian flavor). The form is also a bit longer, so it isn’t what I call a beginner song, at least if you want to play both sections. It reminds me a lot of Country Roads by John Denver as far as the chord changes go.
Man of Constant Sorrow
The song “Man of Constant Sorrow” has been around a long-time. Done by Old time artists and Ralph Stanley. However, it was the Movie O Brother Where Art Thou that propelled this song back into the top bluegrass category. Another vocal tune, but you need to be able to play this one even as an instrument. Fortunately, it is quite an easy song. I even have a Man of Constant Sorrow TAB in my store.
Listen to the O Brother Where Art Thou version.
Will the Circle Be unbroken
“Will the Circle be unbroken” is another vocal song that features that has a nice banjo part. I guess the Nitty Gritty Dirt band album did it’s job, because no matter where you are, people will request this old favorite. I call it a sing-a-long tune.
A lot of people don’t know this, but this song goes back before the Carter family. It’s been traced back to around 1907, a version composed by Ada Habershon. The Carter family version was done in 1935 and is a modification of the original hymn.
This tune isn’t a difficult one, easily tackled by beginners. It contains only three chords and most of the melody can be played with a forward roll.
Dooley was a good old man, he lived below the mill….What a great song! Dooley by the Dillards was made famous on the Andy Griffith Show. First recorded in 1963. On the Andy Griffith show, the Dillards were known as the Darlings. Doug Dillard is the banjo player, and what an incredible one he was.
Ballad of Jed Clampett
Another song made famous by Flatt & Scruggs. It was featured in the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies. Sometimes people will call this The Beverly Hillbillies theme.
I’ve always liked this old tune. The chords and harmony are a bit more adventurous than some of the typical Flatt & Scruggs vocal tunes. It features a chromatic walk up C-C#-D (In the key of G). It also has a nice ii minor (Aminor) in the 3rd measure of the song.
You are my Sunshine
You are my Sunshine was written by Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell in 1940. Jimmie Davis was the governor of Louisiana; he even came to some local bluegrass festivals here in Georgia when I was a kid. This song has been recorded by everyone, including large orchestras.
I ALWAYS get requests for this one wherever I go. It’s the type of song you can play for folks that don’t like bluegrass or country music and still win them over. It is in my setlist on a regular basis.
I have a simple beginner version of You are my Sunshine in my TAB store.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this popular banjo song list. There are others, but these are the ones I felt were the most requested wherever I perform. You can visit my other list of songs to get jam ready for more ideas.
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