Here are 10 beginner banjo songs for the beginning bluegrass banjo player. By getting these tunes under your fingers you will be able to get some basic techniques together and go out to a jam to play with others with a small repertoire that other bluegrass musicians will know.
1. Cripple Creek
Cripple Creek is the first banjo song many a 5 string banjoist learns. It is relatively simple and gets you utilizing a slide on the first string. Check out Earl Scruggs playing this classic tune here:
2. Clinch Mt. Backstep
A classic tune by Ralph Stanley, this tune opens up with the melody on the 1st string as well. This tune also incorporates bending notes to give it a bluesy feel. The biggest trick to this tune comes in the B section where there is the “Backstep”. This is an extra half measure commonly found in old time tunes. People often refer to tunes like this as “Crooked” because of the extra 2 beats (if counting in 4/4 time).
3. Ground Speed
An Earl Scruggs classic. This tune is relatively simple and gets you playing up the neck using diad chord forms.
4. Hot Corn, Cold Corn
A very simple, but yet tricky at the end when there is an extra measure that is played. Other than the extra measure over the “Yes Sir” vocal part at the end, this is a very straight forward tune.
5. You Are My Sunshine
A song that everyone seems to be familiar with. This is a great tune to try and pick out the melody with your ear and incorporate some 3 finger rolls to the melody. Try not using tab on this tune and create your own arrangement.
6. I’ll Fly Away
This brings us to church and is another tune that the majority of people are familiar with the melody.
7. Will the Circle Be Unbroken
Another gospel tune that is very widely known and would be good to pick out the melody using your ear (if you are familiar with it) and then add 3 finger rolls to it.
8. Salt Creek
This will be your first venture into the world of fiddle tunes (tunes that were originally written and played on a fiddle). These type of tunes do not have any words to them and have a very strong melodic line. In the B section of this tune the melody is mostly featured on the 1st string the way Cripple Creek and Clinch Mt. Backstep are. Here you can see banjoist Ryan Cavanaugh take it to another level using a lot of single string technique on his Deering Tenbrooks Legacy banjo.
9. Ballad of Jed Clampett
This is the theme from the Beverly Hillbillies and all of your non banjo playing friends will expect you to know this and will request you to play it for them. Learn it so you can keep them entertained and off your back. This tune also features a secondary dominant chord (the II chord or an A chord if we are in the key of G) which has not been used yet in any of the tunes before this.
10. Foggy Mt. Breakdown
While this definitely shouldn’t be one of your first tunes to learn because of the difficulty, you will be expected to know this one if you are a bluegrass banjo player. It’s really not that hard as long as you take it slowly and build up your speed gradually (as you should be doing with all of your playing).