So you’ve got your new instrument and you want to know where to start. That is a hard question to answer, because there is such a wealth of excellent bluegrass music waiting to be played.
However, some good old songs have formed the core repertoire of countless artists since bluegrass began. You can’t go wrong with these tunes.
We have whittled down the selection to ten of our favorites, the songs that we think every bluegrass musician, amateur or otherwise, should know.
10. “Arkansas Traveler”
From old-fashioned dance music to state historical song of Arkansas, this fiddle tune has been through quite a bit, sometimes played as an instrumental and sometimes as a vocal arrangement. The original lyrics, regarding a traveler’s attempt to ask directions from a less-than-helpful fiddler, were probably narrated rather than sung. No one really knows who wrote this version, but credit typically goes to a wealthy Arkansas planter named Colonel Sanford Faulkner, who may have based the story on his own experience with the local backwoodsmen sometime around 1840.
9. “Old Joe Clark”
This is an old fiddle tune that every beginning bluegrass musician learns. As a result, some people hate it. A talented instrumentalist can make it sound worthwhile, though, so be creative.
8. “Cripple Creek”
Nearly all beginning bluegrass musicians are introduced to “Cripple Creek” pretty early on, usually as an instrumental. It’s an old fiddle tune; some suggest that Cripple Creek is the stream by the same name in Colorado, but there’s a good possibility that the song has its roots near the Cripple Creek of Virginia.
7. “Blackberry Blossom”
One of the more involved tunes, but a fun and rewarding piece to master. This one is a real favorite with guitarists. The relatively unusual chord progression gives it more depth than many of the other standards. More than one version has been played in the South over time.
6. “Sailor’s Hornpipe”
If you’re new to bluegrass, you might be a little surprised to see this song on the list. Yes, it was a traditional dance tune for sailors; but it also introduced a whole new style of banjo playing to the bluegrass world. Bill Keith, one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, earned this song a solid place on the list of standards when he used it to showcase his flowing “melodic style,” which became the foundation for the work of such innovators as Béla Fleck.
5. “I Saw the Light”
Originally a country gospel song written by Hank Williams, this classic has earned a well-merited place in bluegrass music, too. The melody and chord progression are very simple. It’s an excellent song for beginners to practice on, but the message makes it valuable for all levels of experience.
4. “John Henry”
A familiar African-American ballad about a man who died with his hammer in his hand rather than be beat by a steam drill while working on a railroad tunnel. This is quite possibly a true story of work on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway.
3. “I’ll Fly Away”
Written by Albert E. Brumley in 1929 while picking cotton, this standard has been recorded many times since. If you’re looking for a fast, upbeat gospel song to learn, this is a good choice.
2. “Wildwood Flower”
Although usually associated with the Carter family, “Wildwood Flower” actually goes all the way back to 1860, when it was first published. It’s a beautiful song, and a favorite with flatpickers. Take your time—this tune responds well to finesse.
1. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”
Earl Scruggs wrote this instrumental, and it was first released in 1949. Since then, it has been the song that just about every new banjo player aspires to learn. Hard? Definitely—at the speed that Scruggs played it; few players since then have been able to match his pace without sacrificing his brilliant tone and clarity. Start slowly and take it step by step. You’ll find it much easier that way.
50 Tunes for Guitar
50 Tunes for Mandolin
50 Tunes for Banjo
50 Tunes for Fiddle
50 Tunes for Bass
While we don’t recommend limiting yourself to the songs that you can learn from tablature, the excellent arrangements on the online audio that comes with this series make it a worthwhile tool for beginners. Includes “Arkansas Traveler,” “Old Joe Clark,” “Cripple Creek,” “Blackberry Blossom,” and “Sailor’s Hornpipe.”
“I Saw the Light”
From a gospel album by Bill Monroe.
Live version featuring Earl Scruggs’s banjo picking and Hylo Brown’s characteristic singing.
“I’ll Fly Away”
This song is performed by Ralph Stanley.
Beautiful instrumental arrangement performed by David Grisman and Tony Rice on instruments from 1936.
“Foggy Mountain Breakdown”
And who else would we recommend for this classic besides Flatt and Scruggs?