5 Times Banjo Has Completely Transformed A Song

by Jamie Latty

There is a reason we all love the banjo. It has a unique tonal quality unlike any other instrument in the world and is instantly recognizable, regardless of its setting.

In the big scheme of things, banjo is and has always been a rare sound outside of its traditional roots. But as these songs demonstrate, rock n roll greats have used the banjo to completely transform a song. Take a listen. Then try and imagine them without the banjo parts.

Not quite the same, right?

1. The Who - Squeeze Box


The Who's own Pete Townshend learned to play accordion and banjo for this track from their 1975 album "The Who By Numbers". It turns out that Townshend was no stranger to banjo. He and school friend John Entwistle formed a short-lived traditional jazz group, the Confederates, featuring Townshend on banjo and Entwistle on horns.

2. Led Zeppelin - Gallows Pole

Gallows Pole, a Zeppelin infused version of an early Leadbelly song was released in 1970 on Led Zeppelin III. The banjo is played by Jimmy Page, who had never played banjo prior to this recording, but borrowed one from band mate John-Paul Jones to add that unmistakable drive towards the end of the track. This is a rare song for Zeppelin in as much as it speeds up towards the end of the track, a technique that Page also used on Stairway to Heaven - what better instrument to use for that setting than a banjo?

3. Neil Young - Old Man

In his "Live at Massey Hall" performance of 1971, Neil Young introduces Old Man as a new song he had written about the caretaker of the Broken Arrow Ranch in Northern California that he had recently purchased. When the song was finally recorded for Young's 1972 album Harvest Moon, James Taylor used a 6 string banjo to record those iconic banjo parts. Yes, it is still a banjo. Just ask Johnny StCyr!

4. The Eagles - Take It Easy

Original Eagles member, Bernie Leadon is responsible for the distinctive banjo parts on this classic Eagles track. Producer Glyn Johns remembers "On 'Take It Easy' I got Bernie to play double-time banjo; they all thought it was a bonkers idea but it worked. It was already a great song, but that one little thing made it different."

5. Buffalo Springfield - Bluebird


Charlie Chin is responsible for the banjo part on what many Springfield fans regard as the peak of thier carreer. The original recording didnt feature the banjo, but instead took listeners on a very long drawn out guitar solo. Rumor has it that the part came about because Stephon Stills felt it was too noisy. The album version appeared with Chins banjo (sounding very clawhammer-esque) part to lead out the song.

BONUS TRACK

6. Porcupine Tree - Trains


I am adding this simply because of my love for this British progressive rock band. Trains featured on the 2002 album In Absentia and is certainly one of the bands mellower tracks. The banjo didn't necessarily transform the song, but it remains a glorious, albeit relatively unknown example of modern acts thinking outside of the box. To incorporate a banjo into a band whose music is overwhelmingly distorted guitars, electronic synths and altered time signatures is no easy feat but it fits this track perfectly.

What do you think of our picks? There are definitely some other songs out there. What would you have featured? Tell us in the comments below!

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