The banjo is such an iconic part of modern bluegrass/country and there have been many incredible players that have defined new groundbreaking techniques into the music scene. This guide aims to give credit to some of the innovative banjo players that have provided some of the best music in their genres.
While the banjo itself dates back to the 17th century by enslaved people from West Africa, it has now developed as an integral part of modern-day bluegrass and is considered to be one of the most important sounds in modern country music.
Some of the banjo players listed in this guide are classic players that crafted new techniques and some of the banjo players are new on the scene and are pushing the boundaries of what we know as bluegrass music. Each artist will feature a video of one of their top hits in addition to links to their music online so you can listen to each musician and find your favorite banjo players yourself.
Ranging from jazz, blues, to bluegrass, here are the best banjo players of all time.
Bela Fleck (1958 – Present)
Bela Fleck is perhaps one of the most versatile and talented banjo players to ever walk the earth. If you are already familiar with the bluegrass scene, you have probably already heard the name as he has broken down the boundaries of traditional bluegrass with hints of jazz, blues, classical, bebop, and other styles in his banjo playing.
Taking lessons from iconic player Tony Trischka, he began learning classic bluegrass banjo at an early age in his band New Grass Revival, featuring Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson, Ebo Walker, Curtis Burch, Butch Robins, John Cowan, and Pat Flynn.
They were one of the first “jamgrass” bands on the scene, putting a spin on traditional bluegrass with their long hair, hippie clothing, and unique style.
In 1988, he then created Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, which was a groundbreaking band in the world of contemporary jazz fusion.
Modern-day, Bela Fleck is most often touring with his wife, Abigail Washburn, playing a duo of bluegrass banjo styles with clawhammer banjo.
Regardless of if you are a lover of bluegrass, jazz, or classical music, Bela Fleck has created albums that range across all styles of music and has amazing licks that have never been heard before by any artist.
If you are interested in diving into his bluegrass albums, we recommend checking out his Drive album and for those looking for the most advanced banjo jazz licks, we recommend starting with his self-titled album Bela Fleck & the Flecktones.
While Bela Fleck is without a doubt one of the best players of all time, huge credit goes to one of the founders of bluegrass banjo, and the one that founded the “Scruggs 3-finger style” banjo.
Earl Scruggs (1924 – 2012)
Earl Scruggs created the iconic “Scruggs style” banjo playing which is the standard for traditional and modern bluegrass music. At the age of 21, he was brought on to play with Bill Monroe in the band, “Blue Grass Boys”. He later went on to create his own group with Lester Flatt called the Foggy Mountain Boys in the 1940s which would be later known as one of the most iconic groups in traditional bluegrass.
What truly brought on the success of Flatt and Scruggs into the mainstream music scene was their country hit “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”, which was the theme song to the popular television sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies.
Flatt and Scruggs went on the create over 50 albums over the course of 20 years and hold some of the most popular traditional bluegrass songs known today.
To get started with some of the most important songs in traditional bluegrass music, we recommend The Essential Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs album.
Sonny Osborne (1937 – 2021)
Sonny Osborne is another iconic American bluegrass picker from Kentucky that is famous for his cutting-edge banjo playing on famous traditional songs like “Cripple Creek” and “Rocky Top”.
After time in the military overseas, he joined his brother Bobby and Jimmy Martin to create the Osborne Brothers. This is when he laid down groundbreaking banjo licks and some of the most complex vocal trio arrangements in bluegrass history.
He was the first to bring fame to the double banjos and 6-string banjo and some of his licks can still be found in all modern bluegrass. Recognized as a pioneer of bluegrass music, Sonny (also nicknamed “Chief), continued to hold the traditional bluegrass music through the 1990s when many of the traditional artists stopped playing.
We chose some of our top favorites of Sonny Osborne and the Osborne Brothers for your listening pleasure.
Tony Trischka (1949 – Present)
While we have so far uncovered two of the traditional fathers of bluegrass, it is time to give praise to one known to many as the father of modern bluegrass – Tony Trischka.
Tony is more than just a banjo extraordinaire; he is a songwriter, educator, and Broadway composer. He grew up in a New York house filled with classical and Broadway music – which eventually led him to first learn the Ninth Symphony on the banjo. Soon enough, he fell in love with the instrument and joined a like-minded community of people inspired by the American folk and bluegrass scene.
His first solo album, Bluegrass Light, debuted in 1974 and featured some of the most well-renowned names in newgrass including guitarist Tony Rice, mandolinist David Grisman, and violinist Darol Anger. This album introduced a mixed variety of musical styles including bluegrass, jazz, psychedelic pop, and jazz-rock fusion.
In the most recent years, he has become one of the most iconic banjo players involved with the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and is continuously educating as the main banjo player on the online teaching platform, ArtistWorks. It is only fitting for him to be one of the lead banjo educators considering he was once the teacher to the protege Bela Fleck.
His continuous work in the field of music education and his groundbreaking playing in Scruggs-style and melodic style banjo makes him one of the best banjo players in the world today.
Check out his first album here:
Noam Pikelny (1981 – Present)
Noam Pikelny is an outstanding banjo player and is that goofy uncle that you wish you had. He often uses comedic stances in his skits and banter and then proceeds to blow minds when playing banjo breaks. He is one of those players that has stepped way outside the realms of traditional bluegrass and created a unique style of his own that had yet been seen in these musical genres.
He picked up the banjo at the age of 8 and then went on to study with Chicago musician Greg Cahill of The Special Consensus.
Through the years, he joined the ranks of Leftover Salmon and the John Cowan Band until eventually, he became one of the founding members of The Punch Brothers.
You can catch him touring around the country with the Punch Brothers as they play bluegrass music mixed with modern classical and spontaneous musical tones and modes. The band is composed of many fine and well-known names on the bluegrass scene including mandolinist Chris Thile, violinist Gabe Witcher, bassist Paul Kowert, and guitarist Chris Eldridge.
If you are looking for some of the most unique tones on the newgrass scene, then give a listen to Noam Pikelny in the Punch Brothers.
Ralph Stanley (1927 – 2016)
Ralph Stanley is another one of the founding fathers of the bluegrass banjo and was part of the first generation of banjo pickers to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor.
He first began his career in music with the formation of the classic Stanley Brothers, which was composed of himself and his older brother, Carter Stanley. He was also a main player with The Clinch Mountain Boys. Both bands drew a large influence from early recordings of Bill Monroe and the musical traditions of rural Southwest Virginia. They incorporated the unique singing harmonies and styles of the Carter Family and the Primitive Baptist Universalist church.
While his brother sadly passed away in 1966 due to complications of cirrhosis, he continued to play and eventually revive The Clinch Mountain Boys – which he then continued to pass on the musical legacy to his son, Ralph Stanley II.
No traditional bluegrass collection would be complete without the works of Ralph Stanley and the Stanley Brothers. Although he may not have had the same international recognition of Earl Scruggs, his bluegrass style with traditional southern singing makes him one of the most iconic banjo players of his generation.
Don Reno (1926 – 1984)
A well-known American bluegrass musician, Don Reno is most famous for introducing the “single string” banjo style, where he would alternate between his index and thumb to pluck a single string to create melodies. This single-string technique pioneered the way banjo was played is common among almost all modern bluegrass musicians.
Don Reno was also an accomplished guitar player with strong skills in Flatpicking, which is one of the main reasons why he is so iconic with his single-string banjo playing.
He became a member of the Blue Grass Boys in 1948 and later joined with Red Smiley, creating one of the most popular duos in bluegrass and country music – Reno and Smiley.
After his death in 1984, he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor and is now recognized as one of the founding fathers of bluegrass banjo with his “single string” unique banjo style.
Bill Keith (1939 – 2015)
Bill Keith is another spectacular banjo player who redefined how the banjo was played with his introduction of the “melodic-style” banjo playing. Earl Scruggs crafted the “Scruggs-style” banjo, Don Reno introduced the “single-string” technique, and Bill Keith created the “melodic-style” playing that is an integral part of bluegrass today.
The melodic-style banjo playing is an interesting method that takes unconventional banjo rolls and creates a melody that does not use a single string or standard banjo breaks.
Bill Keith was also a member of the Blue Grass Boys with Bill Monroe and was also eventually inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. He played with many different projects and musicians over the years but is most well-known for his outstanding contributions to the “melodic-style” banjo playing.
Alison Brown (1962 – Present)
Alison Brown is a Harvard-educated MBA and another modern staple in bluegrass banjo with her unique style of playing – mixing notes of jazz, classical, folk, blues, and rock into traditional bluegrass picking. A winner of multiple Grammy awards, she is also known as a guitarist, composer, and producer.
Brown started to become more widely recognized on the bluegrass scene when she joined Alison Krauss’ Union Station. After three years with Union Station, she went on to become one of the founder members of Michelle Shocked – which is where her influence of folk, Celtic, Latin, and jazz start to make a presence in her playing style.
She, along with her husband and bassist Garry West, created their own record label, Small World Music. It eventually formed into Compass Records and is now an internationally recognized label.
Alison Brown’s playing brings some of the most unique sounds from the banjo and she is considered one of the best pickers in modern music.
Rob McCoury (1971 – Present)
With all the changes in genres and the unconventional playing of many bluegrass players in modern-day America, is there still a place for traditional bluegrass?
There is when the torch is currently being held by the Del McCoury Band and the Travelin’ McCourys.
Rob McCoury is the son of Del McCoury and is joined in a family band with Del, brother Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Alan Bartman on the bass, and Jason Carter on the fiddle.
Their band sticks to the traditional bluegrass playing and singing with incredible vocal harmonies and strict bluegrass picking as they continue to create new songs that are worthy of approval from the “bluegrass old timers”.
Rob (Robbie) McCoury and his band have been nominated for five Grammy awards between 2009-2014 and they still continue to push life back into traditional bluegrass playing today.
John Hartford (1937 – 2001)
The master of Mississippi folklore, John Hartford has influenced many different musicians with his mastery of the banjo and fiddle along with his unique antics and lyrics. While his style is more folk rather than bluegrass, he is considered one of the best banjo players providing a new style that had not been seen by any other banjo players.
The winner of multiple Grammy awards spanning several decades, Hartford has produced and released over 30 albums.
While the banjo-picking style from Hartford is not as complex as the virtuoso in innovative styles of other banjo players, his uniqueness and rarity are what make him so special – making him of the most iconic banjo pickers of all time.
J.D. Crowe (1937 – 2021)
This banjo legend is also often known as one of the founding fathers of bluegrass music with his involvement in backing up Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys in the 1950s.
He received a Bluegrass Star Award – which is reserved for exceptional players who are responsible for pushing forward the styles of traditional bluegrass music.
Steve Martin (1945 – present)
Steve Martin is a comedy genius and has been incorporating his banjo skills within his comedy and music since he first began making a name for himself.
His unique use of the banjo within his comedy routines is exceptional and worth a listen for anyone who enjoys the instrument.
His third release was labeled “Comedy is Not Pretty!” and featured many songs that incorporate banjo solos in the background.
While he may be known more for his comedy, his incredible banjo picking is not to be overlooked as he made some solo recordings as well as joined projects with the bluegrass band, Steep Canyon Rangers.
Other Honorable Mentions
There are so many incredible banjo players that it is challenging to come up with 10 of the best. We wanted to choose a good mix of classic players that changed the world of bluegrass along with new players that are pushing innovation and style with the banjo.
Here are some other honorable mentions:
We do plan on expanding this list in the future but if you feel like we are missing one of the most iconic banjo players of all time, let us know in the comments!