The banjo is one of the most iconic instruments in American music. It’s been around for centuries and even though it is not traditionally a folk instrument, there are many famous players that have made their mark on the music world. From Earl Scruggs to Béla Fleck, these musicians deserve recognition for their contributions to this fun-to-play stringed instrument.
In this article, we’ve compiled a list of 15 of the greatest and most famous banjo players in history. Let’s get started.
1. Earl Scruggs
One of the most famous banjo players has to be Early Scruggs who was born in North Carolina in 1924 and was a modern pioneer of the instrument.
Beginning his career at the age of 21, he was part of a few groups throughout his lifetime including “Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys”, “Foggy Mountain Boys”, “Flatt and Scruggs”, and “Earl Scruggs Revue”.
Scruggs’ music became extremely successful for the genre when he released “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” which became the theme song for The Beverly Hilbillies and went on to be a No. 1 hit single and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was a popular hit well-known for its appearance in the film Bonnie and Clyde.
He played the banjo using a rather unconventional three-finger style however, it caught on with his success and became known as “Scruggs Style.”
He earned numerous awards in his lifetime including Grammy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Scruggs died of natural causes in 2012 at age 88.
2. Steve Martin
Steve Martin is a multi-talented man that has been making waves in the entertainment industry since the 1960s.
A Texas native born in 1945, Martin has made his mark as a writer, actor, comedian, and musician.
Martin was self-taught through the early years then learned to play banjo with the help of John McEuen.
From there, he made the banjo an integral part of his stand-up routine.
Martin released multiple comedy albums including Banjo Is Not Pretty! and The Steve Martin Brothers.
He went on a two-decade hiatus from playing banjo professionally before releasing a cover of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
In the next few years, he released his first music-only album, and shortly after, he created the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass before going on another musical hiatus.
The suspected reason for the repeated hiatuses is Martin’s tinnitus – a ringing in the ears.
3. Roy Clark
Roy Clark was born in Virginia in 1933 to humble beginnings with his first instrument being a four-string cigar box with a ukulele neck.
As well as being known as a Banjo plater he was a TV host for Hee Haw and sometimes guest-hosted on The Tonight Show.
He performed as both a banjo player and singer across multiple genres with a concentration in country music.
Clark released dozens of albums throughout the decades and many of them rose to the top 10 country albums at the time.
Various of his singles did really well, some of them topping the country music charts in the US and Canada.
Some of these popular hits include “Come Live With Me,” “Honeymoon Feelin’,” and “Yesterday When I Was Young.”
During his active years, Clark received multiple ACM awards, many CMAs, a Grammy Award.
Roy Clark contracted pneumonia in 2018 and was never able to recover.
He passed away surrounded by his wife and children a few months after turning 85.
4. Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger spent his life in NYC beginning in 1919 and was a banjo player, folk singer, songwriter, and social activist.
The musician was known for his songwriting for both himself and others, solo work, and as a member of a few groups including The Weavers and Almanac Singers.
Seeger used his music to convey his progressive messages with lots of his songs containing politically charged lyrics to try to spark changes.
One of his biggest successes as both an activist and musician was popularizing Joan Baez’s “We Shall Overcome” which went on to become an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.
In addition to these successes, Seeger was also known for being one of the original supporters of Bob Dylan although there is some controversy around one of his first gigs.
Seeger lived a long life that ended somewhat recently in 2014 when he passed in New York Presbyterian Hospital at the age of 94 years old.
5. Ralph Stanley
Next, we have Ralph Stanley who was born in Virginia in 1927 and learned to play banjo as a teenager and was taught by his mother.
It remained a family endeavor as he worked with his brother Carter and they began the group The Stanley Brothers although, he is more widely known for leading The Clinch Mountain Boys.
For most of his life, Stanley was known for his bluegrass music however, he crossed into country territory when he released “O Death” in the early 2000s and his popularity quickly skyrocketed.
Most of his well-known and highly influential music was released during these later years of Stanley’s life.
He lived to the ripe old age of 89 and died of skin cancer which took his life in mid-2016.
6. Grandpa Jones
Louis Marshall Jones was a 20th-century banjo player from Kentucky who came from a large musical family in which his mother was a ballad singer and his father played the fiddle.
Though he started as a guitarist, Jones later learned to play the banjo from Cousin Emmy and it quickly became his instrument of choice.
Jones was a singer and yodeler in addition to a banjo player, became better known by his stage name of Grandpa Jones in his professional life.
Unlike most banjo players, Grandpa Jones typically worked as a solo act with his most popular songs include “Mountain Dew,” “T For Texas,” and “The All-American Boy.”
He was well-known for his contributions to both country and gospel music and his influence got him inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the 1970s.
Jones remained a performer all the up until his 1998 death when he had two back-to-back strokes following a performance.
He never recovered and passed away a few weeks later at the age of 84.
7. John Hartford
John Hartford was born in New York City in 1937 however, he spent most of his formative years in Missouri.
The musician was known for playing the banjo, mandolin, guitar, and fiddle as well as being a singer known for his unique vocal style and lyrics.
Hartford performed solo as well as a part of various ensembles with “Gentle On My Mind” was by far his biggest hit and it was ranked as one of the Top 100 Songs of the Century by BMI.
He won various Grammy Awards for his contributions to the music industry, particularly in country music where he was renowned for being a rather efficient one-man band.
In the 1980s, Hartford was diagnosed with lymphoma although he fought the disease for a couple of decades and continued to perform until the end.
Hartford lost his battle with lymphoma in 2001 at the age of 63.
8. George Formby
George Formby, born, in 1904, was a bit of a jack of all trades when it comes to performing being an actor, comedian, singer, banjolele player, ukulele player, songwriter, and banjo player.
Just months after his father’s passing in 1921, Formby began his performance career and spent most of his career singing comical songs while playing the ukulele or banjolele.
He considered himself to be a comedian but music was always a big part of his act writing songs that fit into his routine with a lighthearted feel.
He is one of only dozens of individuals to ever be inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame.
In the 1950s, Formby’s health began to decline and he had numerous heart attacks, high blood pressure, heart problems, suffered a car crash, contracted gastroenteritis.
One of the heart attacks took his life after years of ailing health in 1961 when Formby was 56.
9. Abigail Washburn
Abigail Washburn is a modern-day banjo player and singer born in 1977.
Washburn has primarily performed as a soloist throughout her career however she has also worked with Uncle Earl, Sparrow Quartet, The Wu Force, and performed as a duo with her husband.
She is well-known for her songwriting abilities since she was discovered in a songwriting competition for MerleFest.
In her early adult years, she learned to speak fluent Mandarin and has even recorded a few songs in the language.
She was even able to perform at the Beijing Olympics with Sparrow Quartet.
Washburn remains active in music to this day where she primarily performs with her husband and they bring their son on the road with them to keep the family together.
10. John McEuen
Born in 1945, John McEuen is a folk singer and multi-instrumentalist playing various instruments including banjo, mandolin, guitar, piano, fiddle, bass, and accordion!
McEuen started out his career as a soloist but later went on to be a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
He’s been an influential musician contributing to the country, folk, and bluegrass genres.
“Blue Days Black Nights,” “An American Dream,” “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream),” and “Fishin’ In The Dark” are some of the most famous songs that he’s worked on to date.
So far, McEuen has won various awards including Grammy Awards, an Independent Music Award, and an IBMA and has also been inducted into The American Banjo Museum Hall of Fame.
11. Alison Brown
Alison Brown is a banjo prodigy who was born in 1962. In addition to banjo, Brown is a music producer, songwriter, guitarist, and composer.
She’s known for contributing to a diverse collection of genres including jazz, blues, bluegrass, and rock.
Brown has performed as a member of bands on numerous occasions though these times are usually limited to a few years at most as she has primarily worked as a solo act.
The accomplished banjo player has won multiple Grammy Awards and managed to create an internationally recognized record label in cooperation with her husband.
Brown continues to create music to this day and one of her main goals is creating different fusions of styles and adding her own unique flair in the process.
12. Doug Dillard
Doug Dillard was a banjo player born in 1937 who began his career as a musician in the 1950s.
Dillard primarily played in groups including The Dillards (who were also inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame), Dillard and Clark, and Ozark Mountain Boys however, he did do some solo work as well.
He’s most famous for providing the music for Bonnie and Clyde.
Dillard did release some successful albums as well with the most prominent being the Grammy Award-winning Heartbreak Hotel.
He remained active in the music industry until his passing in 2012 after a lung infection and collapsed lung took his life when he was 75 years old.
13. Noam Pikelny
The youngest player on our list is Noam Pikelny who was born in 1981 and began learning the banjo just 8 years later.
As well as playing the Banjo, he sings and plays the guitar as well.
Pikelny was previously a member of Leftover Salmon and is now doing solo work and creating music with the group Punch Brothers.
Almost all of Pikelny’s recordings both as a solo artist and with Punch Brothers have charted well.
All except for his first solo album charted in the top 5 on Billboard’s bluegrass charts in the US.
He’s also seen success in folk and rock with some appearances on the Billboard 200 as well.
Pikelny won a Grammy with Punch Brothers for their 2019 album All Aboard.
He was also named banjo player of the year a couple of times by the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Pikelny remains an active member in bluegrass music now in his 40s.
With no signs of slowing down any time soon, he is still currently releasing solo music and working with Punch Brothers.
14. Raymond Fairchild
Born in 1939 in North CarolinaRaymond Fairchild was a banjo player renowned for his speed, intricate picking, and ability to produce a variety of sounds.
He showed an early interest in music and learned banjo as a child from his mother.
Fairchild did solo work as well as working with his group which was originally called Frosty Mountain Boys but later renamed themselves to Maggie Vally Boys.
He was a rather accomplished banjo player with multiple awards denoting his skill.
Throughout his career, Fairchild managed to land 2 gold records and he also had his own line of banjos that he sold.
Fairchild passed away at age 80 after he suffered a heart attack from which he did not recover in 2019.
15. Béla Fleck
Béla Fleck is a banjo virtuoso who was born in 1958 and is world-renowned and arguably the greatest of all time.
Fleck is credited with giving the banjo a more versatile reputation as he brought the instrument beyond bluegrass and into various other genres including jazz and rock.
He’s performed with groups New Grass Revival and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and now does a lot of work with his wife Abigail Washburn and they bring their young child on the road with them.
Fleck has won over a dozen Grammy Awards throughout his career and been inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.
Fleck is still highly active in music as of 2021 and was recently nominated for yet another Grammy Award for his recent solo album Throw Down Your Heart: The Complete Africa Sessions.
Summing up the Greatest Banjo Players
As you can see, the Banjo is an amazingly versatile instrument that spans multiple genres, styles, and cultures.
We hope you enjoyed learning about some of the best banjo players and have discovered some that you didn’t know about.
Have we missed off someone that you think should be on the list? Let us know and we’ll add them!