5 Best Banjo Players in the World: Past and Present

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Wondering who the best banjo players in the world are? Can’t get enough of that twangy banjo sound?

The banjo is one of the most unique-sounding instruments out there. It also has an interesting history as an instrument that takes its roots in African traditions. These days, however, the banjo is one of the most characteristic instruments of the bluegrass sound and of American folk music.

Throughout its history, there have also been plenty of great players who have brought the banjo to new heights, developed trendsetting playing styles, and impressed audiences with their technique. Whether you’ve bought a great beginner instrument and have started learning the banjo yourself or you’re simply an avid listener, you need to familiarize yourself with the banjo greats.

Below we’ll give you our list of the very best banjo players in the world – both past and present.

1. Earl Scruggs (1924-2012)

Earl Scruggs - Best Banjo Player in the World
Source: Eric Frommer via Flickr

Earl Scruggs is perhaps the most well-known banjo player of all time. Scruggs is an American musician and banjo player that was a pioneer of the bluegrass genre and he is well-known for playing in several famous bluegrass bands. Most notably, these include Flatt & Scruggs, The Foggy Mountain Boys, and Bill Monroe’s bluegrass band.

Earl Scruggs single-handedly popularized a unique three-finger style of banjo picking which is now known as “Scruggs style” banjo. His style was quite a departure from traditional banjo playing.

This unique three-finger style has been emulated by many musicians since and is still a part of the distinctive bluegrass sound today. Earl Scruggs was truly one of the best banjo players of all time, and his presence in the genre still runs pretty deep, even in modern times.

2. Tony Trischka (1949-)

Online banjo lessons tony trischka

While Earl Scruggs is a pioneer of traditional bluegrass music, Tony Trischka is a world-renown musician and songwriter that many know as the father of modern bluegrass. As a banjo player and performer, Tony Trischka has received Grammy nominations as well as several IBMA awards.

Tony Trischka made his debut on the bluegrass scene all the way back in 1971, and he has been a part of many recordings and collaborated with many artists since. Trischka even produced Rare Bird Alert, a grammy-nominated album by banjoist and actor Steve Martin.

If you’re trying to learn the banjo, it’s worth noting that Tony Trischka now teaches through ArtistWorks. Click the link above to learn how you can get access to Tony Trischka’s lessons and get personalized feedback from the man himself.

3. Bela Fleck (1958-)

Bela Fleck Playing Banjo - Best Banjo Players of All Time
Source: Kyle T. via Flickr

Bela Fleck is a unique banjo player who has reimagined its sound and gone to new heights with the instrument. He has won 15 Grammy awards and has gained much praise for his technical prowess and proficiency at the banjo.

Known best as the leader of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones as well as for playing with New Grass Revival, Bela Fleck has built a name for himself as an elite banjoist. He goes beyond the roots of the instrument to explore contemporary jazz sounds and his music is incredibly popular with fans of modern jazz fusion.

While Bela Fleck can do a fine job with standard bluegrass as well, Bela Fleck gives many banjo listeners a new pathway into listening to the instrument in a variety of jazz and contemporary settings.

4. Bill Keith (1939-2015)

Bill Keith Plays Melodic Banjo - Best in the World
Source: Tony 1212 via Wikimedia Commons

Bill Keith is one of the best-known 5-string banjo players of all time, and like Earl Scruggs, he has even created a style of his own that many have tried to emulate since.

A good while after Scruggs revolutionized banjo playing, Keith developed his own stylistic variation of the style in the 1960s. This has since become known as Keith-style banjo or the melodic style.

Bill Keith had a long and interesting career and performed with many of the greats of bluegrass music. This includes musicians such as Tony Trischka, David Grisman, and Clarence White.

5. Noam Pikelny (1981-)

Punch Brothers With Noam Pikelny
Source: Julianne G. Macie via Wikimedia Commons

Noam Pikelny is an American banjo player who is known as a contributing member to bands such as Leftover Salmon, the John Cowan Band, and Punch Brothers.

Starting the instrument when he was only 8, Noam Pikelny has gone on to build quite a reputation for himself. He is one of the very top banjoists and bluegrass musicians of modern times and was even named banjo player of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association in both 2014 and 2017.

Like Tony Trischka, Noam Pikelny is also featured on the ArtistWorks platform. Be sure to click here if you’re interested in accessing his video lessons and getting personalized feedback from Noam Pikelny while learning the banjo.

Best Banjo Players of All Time: Honorable Mention

While we love the banjo players listed above, this list wasn’t an easy one to make. There are a lot of great banjo players out there that have popularized the instrument and brought it to new heights.

Here are a few that we couldn’t do without mentioning:

  • Ralph Stanley
  • Jens Kruger
  • Alison Brown
  • Abigail Washburn
  • Steve Martin
  • Pete Seeger
  • Alan Munde
  • David Akeman
  • George Formby
  • Wade Ward
  • Don Reno
  • Barney McKenna
  • Charlie Poole
  • Eddie Peabody

If you want to dig a little deeper into the sound of the banjo, be sure you check out some of these legendary banjo players and musicians as well.

Final Thoughts

If you appreciate the sound of the banjo or if you’re trying to learn the instrument yourself with an amazing beginner book, you need to start listening to some of the banjo players listed above. The people on the list above are truly some of the best banjo players in the world. You’re sure to be amazed by what you hear.

Do you want to learn more about the banjo and its role in bluegrass music? Be sure to click here to see our post comparing bluegrass and country music.

COVER IMAGE: David Berry via Flickr