Easy Banjo Songs

By Wayne Erbsen

If you’re total novice on the banjo, but want to learn to play, you’ve come to the right place.  I’m going to show you how to be up and playing the banjo in no time flat.

First, you want to get your banjo tuned in what is called G Tuning. Check out my article, How to Tune a Banjo.

Now, set your banjo on your lap in playing position. The short string is the 5th string. The string closest to your feet is the 1st string. Pluck the 1st and 5th strings together at the same time using your thumb and middle finger. That is called “The Pinch.” Now you’re going to do what’s called the “Thumb-Pinch.” Play the 2nd string followed by a pinch. They try the 3rd string followed by a pinch. Finally, play the 4th string followed by a pinch. The rhythm of the Thumb-Pinch should sound like “Tick Tock.” Keep a steady Tick Tock while your thumb randomly moves from playing the 2nd string, the 3rd string and the 4th string.

Now you’re ready to start playing songs. The following list of almost 100 songs have only two chord changes, G and D. What is a chord? It’s a group of notes that sound good together. If you are tuned in G tuning (gDGBD), all the “open” or unfretted strings are part of a G chord.

Each verse of a song nearly always starts and ends on a G chord. Somewhere in the middle or end of each verse, the song will change to a D chord. For simplicity’s sake, you don’t even need to bother to play a D chord. When you think the song changes to a D chord, merely play the 4th string followed by a pinch. (The 4th string is tuned to a D note, so playing that string will suffice for a D chord).

How do you know when to change chords?

The melody of any song can be accompanied by chords that harmonize, or sound good, with the melody. If the melody clashes or sounds bad with the chord, then change to the other chord.

To play your banjo with any of the following songs, you’ll need to sing, hum or whistle the melody. First, strum all your strings once or twice to get your voice in the same range as your banjo. The first note of the song you’ll be singing is nearly always either the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd string on the banjo.

So you’ll be going Thumb-Pinch, Thumb-Pinch, etc, while you’re singing the song. NOTE: If a song is in 3/4 or waltz time, like “Down in the Valley,” instead of playing Thumb-Pinch, you’ll be going Thumb-Pinch-Pinch.”

Not familiar with these songs? In that case, you can certainly find film clips of most of them on YouTube.

Good luck, and have fun!

Here is a list of songs that only have TWO CHORDS:

(if you see a green hyperlink, that means that you can buy the MP3 from us for only 99 cents!)

A Distant Land to Roam
Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down
Bonapart’s Retreat
Bring Me a Little Water Silvie
Buffalo Gals
Cotton-Eyed Joe
Country Blues
Dark Road’s A Hard Road To Travel
Darling Corey
Did You Ever See the Devil Uncle Joe?
Dig a Hole in the Meadow
Dixie Darling
Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan?
Don’t Go Out Tonight
Down in the Valley
Driving Nails In My Coffin
Get On Your Knees and Pray
Go Tell Aunt Rhody
Handsome Molly
Hold To God’s Unchanging Hand
Home Among the Hills
Hop High Ladies
Hot Corn, Cold Corn
Hush Little Baby
I Just Think I’ll Go Away
I Am The Man, Thomas
I Dreamed I Searched Heaven for You
I’ll Go Stepping Too
I’m Working On A Building
I’ve Always Been a Rambler
It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More
Jimmy Brown the Newsboy
John Henry
Johnson Boys
Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho
Katy Hill
Leather Britches
Letter From My Darling
Little Moses
Lonely Tombs
Lonesome Wind Blues
Lost John
My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains
Oh Death
Old Gospel Ship
Old Blue
Old Joe Clark
Old Time Religion
Peg and Awl
Pick a Bale of Cotton
Poison Love
Poor Old Dirt Farmer
Pretty Polly
Raleigh And Spencer
Reuben’s Train
Sally Goodin
Sally Johnson
Shady Grove
Sharecropper’s Son
Shortnin’ Bread
Simple Gifts
Single Girl
Somehow Tonight
Standing in the Need of Prayer
Take Me Back to Tulsa
These Men Of God
Tom Dooley
Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down
Train 45
Twilight is Falling
Uncle Joe
Walking in My Sleep
Waltz Across Texas
Wayworn Traveler, The
What Would You Give in Exchange?
Where the Soul Never Dies
Will You Be Satisfied That Way?
Will You Be Lonesome Too


Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin.

1 thought on “Easy Banjo Songs

  1. I’m searching for a banjo lesswon or tabs for Raleigh and Spencer. thank you in advance

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *