Recommended books for banjo repertoire?
February 13, 2020 12:38 AM   Subscribe

As the old saying goes: the definition of a gentleman is a someone who can play banjo but doesn't, however I have no aspirations to being a gentleman. I do have aspirations to learn more songs for banjo, so what's a good book to buy for nice arrangements of the standards?

I'm learning 3 finger style, not clawhammer. I already have a technique manual that's working for me (Nickerson's Banjo Encyclopedia). I'm music literate, so tab or regular notation is fine (assuming there's accurate fingering information in the score).

When I search I'm finding a lot of beginner's manuals, but not much in the way of charts/arrangements. Maybe it's an instrument/genre thing and there's more of a culture of working by ear - I'm used to playing jazz and pop stuff on guitar where there's charts for everything. If there's a bluegrass banjo equivalent of The New Real Book that'd be awesome.

Thanks in advance for your help!
posted by threecheesetrees to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I mostly play clawhammer, so can’t help directly, but I’d recommend searching and/or asking over at Here’s a thread from there to start from.
posted by doctord at 5:37 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

"Earl Scruggs and the 5-string banjo" (presuming you don't already have it.) Has both tab and traditional notation. Been a long time since I did much with banjo but I remember liking "Up the Neck" by Janet Davis, although I think it was more about licks so might not be what you're looking for.
posted by smcameron at 7:12 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]

The Banjo Player's Songbook by Tim Jumper is great. It is largely arranged for clawhammer, but part of what is so great about banjo AND these old fiddle tunes and minstrel tunes is that you can just learn the melody and fill in with boom-chick-a (or bing-ding-a-ling-ding, for Scruggsers) around those notes.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 7:32 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Dix Bruce is a prolific music book author. His Parking Lot Picker's Songbook (also available for guitar, dobro, fiddle, bass) has one sheet per song with the basic melody, and downloadable tracks for each song.

Bill Evans is a longtime banjo instructor, with several highly regarded books and DVDs.

Although Steve Kaufman is known as a guitar teacher, he has several banjo books available, some cowritten. Search for "banjo" from his front page.
posted by blob at 11:00 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

You might also consider online lessons. ArtistWorks and Peghead Nation are both well regarded.
posted by blob at 11:03 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone, some great suggestions here, and banjohangout looks like the right place to dig deeper. Much obliged.
posted by threecheesetrees at 4:55 AM on February 16

You may or may not be interested in the style, but your familiarity with standard notation puts you at a significant advantage when it comes to older banjo music - the so-called classic style* that was very popular for five string banjo from the 1880s until around 1910-1920 until it got eclipsed by jazz. It's a three-finger style, but played with bare fingers on nylon (originally gut) strings, and it's really a lot of fun. A lot of pieces have 2nd banjo parts and/or piano accompaniment available too. A lot of the old notation also provides fingering/position hints and indicates open fifth string notes with a stem-up sixteenth note.

And there's a ton of free banjo music available, because most of it's in the public domain. has a good library, and members of the American Banjo Fraternity (dues are something like $20 for two years) get access to an extensive library as well. Joel Hooks also scans and posts a ton of early banjo-related materials on his account. If you want to dabble, there are some nice little pieces in Turner's 60 Breakdowns Jigs & Hornpipes - if you'll pardon the self-link, Melon Jig is a relatively easy one.

* It is NOT "classical style" even though people at banjohangout and elsewhere insist on calling it that and even arguing about it. It's not classical music in any sense. "classic style" was the unfortunate term chosen by the ABF in the 1940s to differentiate their older music from newer country/bluegrass styles that were becoming all the rage.
posted by usonian at 6:07 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]

I forgot to mention that, if you do decide to fool around with any of that old stuff, tuning is gCGBD unless otherwise noted. (Which is why standard 4-string plectrum banjo tuning is CGBD; when jazz became a thing five-string players just dropped the fifth string and started strumming) Some of the earliest classic style music may be written in the keys of A and E as opposed to C and G, which has to do with conventions of banjo music from the even earlier minstrel era, when banjos were pitched lower, eAEG#B . The string intervals remain the same, so if you learn to read for that lower tuning, the banjo just becomes a transposing instrument.
posted by usonian at 6:39 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

Thanks usonian! I'll need to pace myself but that classic banjo stuff looks super interesting. Couple of rabbit holes to fall down now :)
posted by threecheesetrees at 4:46 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]

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