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6 unlikely banjo songs (indie to EDM) we can’t stop playing

6 unlikely banjo songs (indie to EDM) we can’t stop playing

A badass playing banjo. photo by Matheus Ferrero via canva.

These tunes prove the banjo ain’t just for country music anymore.   

The banjo has been bending genres since its inception. A marriage of African gourd instruments and the European guitar, it was created by enslaved Africans during the 17th century.

Musicologist Laemouahuma Daniel Jatta spent decades studying the banjo’s African origins and connected it to a three-string, long-necked instrument — the akonting — from his native country.

The similarity first struck him while he was watching American football as a college student in South Carolina during the 1970s. "When the football ended, there was this music program from Tennessee, and they called it country music," Jatta once told NPR . "[I] saw the modern banjo being used. And the sound just sounded like my father's akonting."

The banjo’s clearly come a long way, and its evolution ain’t even close to over. Today, clever instrumentalists are plingin’ and plangin’ its tinny strings in almost every imaginable genre. 

Here are six of our favorite tunes with a surprising amount of banjo.

1. “Square Dance” by Eminem

Grammy Award-winning rapper Eminem is known for his sharp lyricism and rapid-fire delivery — not banjo interludes. But on this standout track from the 2002 album, “The Eminem Show,” Marshall Bruce Mathers III manages to sneak a lively lick into the chorus. The instrumentation is barely audible above the beat, but once you hear it, you can’t help but picture the real Slim Shady wearing cowboy boots at your uncle Buck’s fish fry. 

2. “Pursuit of Happiness” by Tray Wellington Band

Tray Wellington playing the banjo isn’t surprising in the least bit. After all, the North Carolina native was named Momentum Instrumentalist of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2019. However, it is surprising to hear Tray’s band cover “Pursuit of Happiness” by hip-hop artist Kid Cudi and the electronic duo Ratatat. Something about the stripped-down vocals and acoustic accompaniment makes the bluegrassy rendition hit even harder than the original.    


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3. “2 Heads” by Coleman Hell

In 2015, Canadian singer-songwriter Coleman Hell burst onto the music scene with his hit single, “2 Heads.” Complete with raspy vocals, punchy electronic beats, and an unmistakable banjo riff, the toe-tappin’ tune is perfect for hillbilly hoedowns, late-night raves, and every shindig in between.  

4. “Bukowski” by Modest Mouse

The indie rock band Modest Mouse is based in the Pacific Northwest — a good 3,000 miles from the nearest hillbilly holler. But that didn’t stop frontman Isaac Brock from adding folksy frailing to the 2004 song “Bukowski.” A commentary on the senselessness of existence, this melancholic melody is a mighty good fit when you’re feeling angsty. 

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5. “Cowboy Boots” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

“Cowboys Boots” by the hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis didn’t smash the Billboard charts quite like some of their other songs, but it’s worth a listen all the same. A feel-good anthem about living it up in your youth, the song opens with a tinny banjo solo that preludes Macklemore’s tight, dynamic lines. Stylistically, it’s pretty different from what the Seattle-based rapper normally serves up, but you won't catch us complaining. 

6. “Sexx Laws” by Beck

The banjo instrumentation in “Sexx Laws” by American singer-songwriter Beck David Hansen doesn’t make much sense. But neither do gender norms, which is kinda the whole point. Released back in 1999, the funky track points out the ridiculousness of gender stereotypes with head-scratching lyrics (“Carnivores in the Kowloon night / Breathing freon by the candlelight”) set to twangy strumming and brassy horns. 

Lauren Stepp is a lifestyle journalist from the mountains of North Carolina. She writes about everything from fifth-generation apple farmers to mixed-media artists, publishing her work in magazines across the Southeast. In her spare time, Lauren mountain bikes, reads gritty southern fiction, and drops her g's.