Checking Out The Best Rock Mandolin Players of All Time

best rock mandolin players of all time

The guitar has made such a huge impact on all the genres. While it’s mostly associated with blues, rock, and especially metal music, it spread far into other territories of the music world.

However, is it also possible to base rock music, for instance, on some other string instruments?

No, we’re not talking about the bass guitar, but of some of the more “unconventional” choices here. The instrument in question is mandolin. And yes, it’s been used in rock music on several occasions.

rock mandolin

As you may already assume, it’s not exactly the first thing that comes to mind if we’re talking about rock music. This fine instrument goes a way back to the 18th century when it was slowly developed in Italy.

While there have been a few versions along the way, what we refer to mandolin now is actually Neapolitan mandolin. In modern music, it’s also referred to as American bluegrass mandolin, since it found a lot of use in bluegrass music.

The standard mandolin has a total of eight strings, four choruses of two strings, meaning that they’re all doubled with another string that’s exactly the same pitch. These choruses are then tuned in perfect fifths.


Its peculiar tone is very fitting in genres like folk, bluegrass, sometimes even country music. But it’s interesting how the mandolin found its place in rock as well.

This is why we decided to go more into this topic and bring you the best mandolin players in this particular genre.

You just need to bear in mind that in almost all the cases these musicians are primarily guitar players and that mandolin was just a thing they decided to do on the side. So let’s dig in and explore it.


Ray Jackson

Lindsay Raymond “Ray” Jackson, mandolin and harmonica player extraordinaire, must make this list, if only for his contributions to Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells A Story, where he plays mandolin on the popular hit, Maggie May, not to mention Mandolins Wind, and Farewell, from the same album.

Oddly enough, his contributions to Every Picture Tells A Story are referenced in the following way: “The mandolin was played by the mandolin player in Lindisfarne. The name slips my mind.” Well, then!

And, there was some contention here, because even though Ray played the Maggie May’s popular hook, which he made up on the spot in the studio, he was only compensated for the session, which was at the time, only £15.

Speaking of Lindisfarne, this was Ray’s folk rock band which he formed in 1970, and left in 1990, which saw him doing co-lead vocals with Alan Hull, where he was nicknamed “Jacka”.

Ray also played mandolin on Jack the Lad’s third album Rough Diamonds, as well as on Chris de Burgh’s debut album Far Beyond These Castle Walls. 

The man is a consummate mandolin player, but the inescapable Maggie May will probably always be what he is best known for, despite the fact that he vamped it on the spot at the time.  Incredible!

tommy shaw mandolin

Tommy Shaw

Next, we take a look at a renowned musician from a classic rock band. Although not the founding member of Styx, Tommy Shaw has been one of the band’s crucial parts since the mid-1970s.

We’ve all heard his great guitar skills, vocals, as well as songwriting talents. However, Shaw is an extremely versatile musician and has played with other bands as well, including Damn Yankees and Shaw Blades.

We also got the chance to hear him do a few solo albums. And he’s also a skilled mandolin player as well.

Although not that often present in their music, Styx implemented this fine instrument in their legendary song “Boat on the River.” This is a true example of how mandolin can work in such settings.

In case you don’t think it fits rock music, just take a listen to the aforementioned hit and how it fits in. You’ll be surprised.

jimmy page mandolin

Jimmy Page

Of course, Jimmy Page is a musician who needs no further introduction.

Starting his career in the 1960s, he honed his craft by playing as a session musician. And this was far from a simple task back in those days, as resources were pretty limited and guitarists were supposed to deliver good stuff right there on the spot.

However, his creative side was not really developing there, so he eventually formed a band with Robert Plant, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones.

Led Zeppelin was not only one of the bands to pioneer heavy metal music, but they also heavily experimented with different elements.

Especially Jimmy Page who loved implementing some unexpected instruments. One of his choices was the mandolin, which he used in a piece like “The Battle of Evermore.”

What’s more, Page continued to express his love for this instrument during his other projects.

He even has a very special triple-neck acoustic guitar, with the top part acting like the mandolin. Now, that’s something different.

john paul jones mandolin

John Paul Jones

Although Jimmy Page is often thought of as the creative mastermind behind Zeppelin’s greatest riff, the massive multi-instrumental talent that is John Paul Jones cannot be ignored or underestimated.

Although Jimmy and Robert and especially John Bonham were clearly into the trappings of the rock star life and all of its side-effects, John Paul Jones was the most “modest” member of the band, casually adding new dimensions to the Zeppelin sound behind the scenes, including his amazing Mellotron and keyboard parts, not to mention mandolin.

He even sometimes played mandolin on The Battle of Evermore and sang Sandy Denny’s part.

Over the years, John Paul Jones guested in numerous bands, playing bass with a variety of artists back in the day, like Madeline Bell, Roy Harper, Wings, and later, Lenny Kravitz, Jars of Clay, and Foo Fighters.

Speaking of Foo Fighters, he played mandolin on two of their tracks from the In Your Honour album, “Miracle”, and “Another Round”.  He’s also played mandolin with Gillian Welch, and Uncle Earl, and all female bluegrass group.

Dave Grohl, also having joined up with John Paul Jones in Them Crooked Vultures, is a huge fan of the man, and attests to his brilliance any chance he gets.

Overall, it is clear that John Paul Jones is a mandolin player of note, and definitely worth putting on this list!

richie blackmore mandolin

Ritchie Blackmore

Surprisingly enough, his “rival” from Deep Purple, Ritchie Blackmore, is also very passionate about the mandolin.

Although a musician that was responsible for shaping heavy metal music, Blackmore too had a fascination with many other music genres.

After exploring his other passion, which is medieval music, he began implementing mandolin in a project like the Blackmore’s Night.

The group’s entire opus combines medieval, folk, and rock music into a very peculiar-sounding whole.

Yes, it does seem a bit weird to see a musician known for blowing up his equipment on stage playing this kind of instrument.

But don’t get fooled – Ritchie is as good on it as he is on guitar. This is exactly one of the best examples of his greatness as a musician and a performer.

peter buck mandolin

Peter Buck

R.E.M. started their career way back in the 1980s. However, it was sometime in the early 1990s when the band really blew up.

And although they’re mostly remembered for their vocalist Michael Stipe, all the other members have their important roles, both in the creative process and their overall sonic output.

Here, we will focus on their guitar player and one of the band’s creative forces, Mr. Peter Buck.

Unlike many other mentions on this list, Peter was way more focused on the mandolin compared to them. In fact, there are whole R.E.M. songs that revolve around this instrument.

The best and the most famous example is probably “Losing My Religion.”

Interestingly enough, the main riff was written by Peter when he was just fooling around on his mandolin.

At that point, this instrument was just a simple way to get him out of the same old routine with guitars.

But it eventually became one thing he’s very well known for, and that’s being a mandolinist in rock music.

mandolin ian anderson

Ian Anderson

It would be an understatement to say that Jethro Tull starter a real revolution in rock music.

The boundaries were pushed, and Ian Anderson led them into some intricate progressive waters, while also retaining some hard rock elements in there.

The band serves as an inspiration to musicians of all styles, even heavy metal. (They even got that unexpected Grammy Award for a metal album, but that’s a whole different story.)

Talking about Ian Anderson, he’s pretty much built his reputation as a flute player. He’s quite often remembered as that one guy who decided to play flute in a rock band.

However, this was not the only unconventional choice in his music career. The famous Scottish musician is a multi-instrumentalist, and one of his choices is a mandolin.

ry cooder with mandolin

Ry Cooder

Although not reaching the megastardom status as some other of his six-string-wielding colleagues, Ry Cooder is still remembered by the biggest guitar lovers out there.

What’s more, he showed his versatility as a musician by delving into so many different genres. What’s more, he’s also scored Wim Wenders’ 1984 film “Paris, Texas.”

But although his guitar skills are unprecedented, we’d like to point out that he’s also fairly experienced with a mandolin.

But his most famous work on this particular instrument comes from the late 1960s. Back then, he was working as a session musician.

And none other than The Rolling Stones invited him to do his parts on the “Let It Bleed” album. To be more precise, he did his parts on “Love in Vain” from the record.

david grisman

David Grisman

David Grisman comes as the only musician on this list that plays the mandolin as his primary instrument.

He’s one of the biggest names in this world, covering many different genres, including bluegrass, jazz, and folk.

However, he also worked with a few rock bands over the years, lending his talents on studio recordings.

One of his earliest bands was Earth Opera, which focused mostly on the psychedelic rock. However, he’s also known for joining in with Grateful Dead and their 1970 album “American Beauty.”

On it, he performed the mandolin for two tracks, “Friend of the Devil” and “Ripple.”

christopher thron of blind melon

Christopher Thorn

Blind Melon is a very unusual band that came out of that whole grunge and alternative rock movement that emerged in the early 1990s.

Although not achieving the same status as some other bands from the era, they still had some pretty great music to offer.

But, of course, our talk here is about the best mandolin players in rock music. In the mid-1990s,

Blind Melon recorded an album called “Soup” which was heavily inspired by traditional Dixieland jazz.

This is why they decided to include some other instruments in there. So their guitar player Christopher Thorn took up the task of playing mandolin and banjo.

And we gotta say, he really nailed it on this record.

jack white and his mandolin

Jack White

Wait, Jack White? Playing mandolin? That’s right.

While we all know Jack White as a guitar player with a very simple and effective approach to music, he’s also experimented with a lot of other styles and instruments over the years.

And he’s especially fond of his Black Gibson F-4 black mandolin that he implemented on occasion.

One of the examples is “Little Ghost” from The White Stripes’ “Get Behind Me Satan” album.

It’s really exciting to hear such a famous rock musician playing mandolin. Really mindblowing when you think of it.

levon helm mandolin

Levon Helm

You don’t often fund a musician that’s as energetic, creative, and innovative as Levon Helm. What’s more, he also became known for his work as an actor.

However, he’s mostly famous for being the drummer of the Canadian-American band cleverly named The Band.

But the thing about Levon, he was an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist. He was proficient on guitar, vocals, harmonica, and mandolin.

Of course, The Band was very innovative, with the members often trying out different instruments and other approaches.

When it comes to Levon, we can hear his great mandolin work on “Rag Mama Rag” from the group’s self-titled second album.


Rory Gallagher

We could go on for days explaining the greatness of Rory Gallagher.

The legendary Irish musician made such a huge impact and has always been cited as the biggest influence, even by the almighty Gary Moore himself.

He was even called up by The Rolling Stones, but just ended up not taking the gig, being confident in his own solo career.

But what people don’t know is that the legendary blues-rock musician was also proficient on the mandolin, as well as a few other instruments.

On occasion, he also played it live, pushing the conventional boundaries of the genre.

A great example of his abilities to implement mandolin as a blues-rock instrument can be heard on “Going To My Hometown.”

Thanks for reading folks!  Did we miss anyone, let us know in the comments!

Also check out:

10 Famous Mandolin Rock Songs

5 Famous Female Mandolin Players

5 Famous Jazz Mandolin Players

10 Famous Mandolin Rock Songs

Today we’re going to talk about the all time classic rock songs featuring mandolin.

But first, here is a song called Come With Me My Giselle that dates back to around 1300 A.D., so you can hear how mandolin originally sounded back then when played by the bards of the day.

In terms of playing, the mandolin is an instrument that requires organic movement with loose wrists.  It is a very moody sounding instrument, whether it plays a happy tune or a sad one.

In the days of yore, there were a number of instruments which people played to pass the time, and sometimes deliver dire news.  It’s amazing that the mandolin has stood the test of time, although not entirely surprising really as it has a very distinct and emotional sound.  Hence, it is still played in many type of music today – particularly it adds something special to rock songs.

john paul jones mandolin

Mandolins In Rock Music?  Yes, Please!

Because of its past, many people don’t expect mandolins to show up in classic and / or modern rock music.  These days, you more often hear mandolin in bluegrass bands.

And yet, once in a while, it does make an appearance in a rock song with either a cool riff or sometimes it is the featured instrument of the entire song. Doubters might question the combination of rock and mandolin.  But not to worry, it usually sounds not just good, but often great!

Popular bands you know and love like Led Zeppelin, R.E.M., and the White Stripes have employed the unique sound of this instrument in some of their best loved songs!

So, here are 10 of the most popular, famous and indeed best mandolin rock songs ever written.  They might even make you want to pick up the instrument and learn to play.  Have fun listening to these great tunes and hearing some of their backstory to boot!

Friend of the Devil – Grateful Dead

This song was released in 1970, a popular era for the use of mandolin.  Acoustic strings were widely used in rock songs of the time.

It is highly popular and to this day is covered by many musicians, for it features G scale notes and acoustic instrumentation. Definitely one of the best rock songs with mandolin out there.

The lyrics describe a man who is on the run, though his crime is never fully explained.

It says, “A friend of the Devil is a friend of mine,” though it is clear through the lyrics that the character is on the run from all the questionable choices he’s made, and the circle will never break.

And here’s a live version of Friend of the Devil, featuring famed mandolin player David Grisman playing along with Jerry Garcia.

For interest’ sake, here are the handwritten lyrics that the ‘Dead wrote themselves.

Battle of Evermore – Led Zeppelin

Released in 1971, this folk duet is about Lord of the Rings, and mandolin would be a natural choice of instrument for this one.  The Battle of Evermore is sometimes lovingly referred to as “the Led Zeppelin song with mandolin”.

Page played the mandolin for this track, although it belonged to Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.  Page once explained the writing of the song, saying “The Battle of Evermore was made up on the spot by Robert and myself. I just picked up John Paul Jones’s mandolin, never having played a mandolin before, and just wrote up the chords and the whole thing in one sitting.”

The mandolin, as you may have noticed, is a rather small instrument and it’s favoured for its portability, as musicians would travel and tell stories using the instrument.  These people were called bards.  This song carries on that legend, using imagery from the popular fantasy series to create a bard-worthy tale.

There isn’t a huge amount of live Led Zeppelin footage, but here’s the band playing The Battle of Evermore back in 1977.  Interesting to see how they pull it off live, with JPJ and his crazy multi-necked guitar and unique vocal additions.

Did you know, Zep’s Going to California also features mandolin?

Maggie May – Rod Stewart

Another song from the early 1970s, this is one of Rod Stewart’s best known tracks. It describes a relationship between a boy and older woman, and is based on his personal experience.

Rod himself said that the song is about his first sexual encounter with a lady at the 1961 Beaulieu Jazz Festival.  So that’s what the song is about, but the name Maggie May was apparently “… an old Liverpudlian song about a prostitute.”  Interesting.

It was a widely regarded song, topping the UK charts not to mention the USA, Canada, and Australia back in 1971.

On the recording, the actual player of the mandolin was Ray Jackson of Lindisfarne.  Rather insultingly, Stewart’s sleevenotes for Every Picture Tells A Story read: “The mandolin was played by the mandolin player in Lindisfarne. The name slips my mind.”

Another great Rod Stewart track featuring mandolin is Mandolin Wind.

Losing My Religion – R.E.M.

This song might be tied with Battle of Evermore for having the most recognizable riff, both played on the mandolin. This is without a doubt R.E.M.’s most popular song to date.

It was released in 1991 as their first single from album Out of Time, which went on to lift the band to new heights of fame and fortune.

The guitarist, Peter Buck, had just purchased a mandolin, was learning how to play it, and recording any riffs he practiced.  He was a little sick of being associated with the guitar at the time.

Essentially this riff for Losing My Religion is what helped him learn mandolin, and ironically is one of the most popular songs the band have written to date – probably THE most popular, actually. Often the most organically formed songs become the best known.

Here’s what Buck told Guitar School in 1991: “I started it on mandolin and came up with the riff and chorus. The verses are the kinds of things R.E.M. uses a lot, going from one minor to another, kind of like those “Driver 8” chords. You can’t really say anything bad about E minor, A minor, D, and G – I mean, they’re just good chords.

“We then worked it up in the studio – it was written with electric bass, drums, and mandolin. So it had a hollow feel to it. There’s absolutely no midrange on it, just low end and high end, because Mike usually stayed pretty low on the bass. This was when we decided we’d get Peter (Holsapple) to record with us, and he played live acoustic guitar on this one. It was really cool: Peter and I would be in our little booth, sweating away, and Bill and Mike would be out there in the other room going at it. It just had a really magical feel.”

As an added bonus, here’s Michael Stipe talking about how the mandolin came to be part of Losing My Religion.

Little Ghost – White Stripes

This song is more recent, released in 2005. The mandolin is not commonly used by this band, but adds a great rhythm to the song and makes use of Jack White’s interest in folk songs.

Prior to this album, The White Stripes typically had a very rocky, raw sound, like garage rock.  But Jack White, ever the experimenter, was not one to shy away from mandolin when the time came.

This album had a very folk and acoustic sound. The mandolin in this song is simple and rhythmic, fast and undeniably catchy.

Here’s a great live version of Little Ghost that shows how this song could essentially have been written centuries ago and been a hit in the late 1800’s.  Jack and Meg just have that old type of soul, I guess.

Love in Vain – Rolling Stones

This song takes the Rolling Stones to the roots of down-home blues, not a sound they are known for unless you’re a dedicated Stones fan, but wonderfully refreshing and heartfelt if you give it a listen.

The acoustic instrument with slide guitar pulls on your heartstrings. The mandolin comes in at the 2-minute mark during an instrumental break to give a full roots/blues feel.

This song was released in 1969, originally written by bluesman Robert Johnson, who used a departing train as a metaphor for loss and unrequited love. On the recording, famed musician Ry Cooder steps in to do mandolin duties on the song.  An awesome piece of work!

It seems to be well known in the mandolin community that Stones’ songs and mandolin go together well.  Here is an epic cover of Paint It Black that helps prove that point, played on an “Uber-rare 1931 Kay Kraft Mandola.”

Copperhead Road – Steve Earle

Released in 1988, this album combines bluegrass with heavy metal. The songs introduce country music’s storytelling to the rhythms and chords of rock music.

The title track Copperhead Road is about a Vietnam War veteran who returns to Tennessee to sell marijuana.

Copperhead Road is a real road, and the song was so popular that the road had to be renamed to Copperhead Hollow Road to stop people stealing the street signs.

It has also been used as theme music for the TV show Moonshiners, and for line dancing.

Here’s a cool video showing how Copperhead Road is played, up close and personal.  Nice!

And here’s Moonshiners!

St. Teresa – Joan Osborne

This song is inspired by a woman who would sell drugs openly on a street corner, with her child in a stroller next to her.

Joan would see this woman from her apartment window. The mandolin is very softly strummed throughout the song but adds a poignant jangle.

St. Teresa of course was the first canonized woman/nun, a figure to whom female Catholics relate and idolize.

Here’s Joan and her band playing the tune on Letterman back in 1996.  Mandolin sounded great that time as well!

Boat on the River – Styx

This is possibly the best example of mandolin use on this list.

The mandolin is accompanied by an accordion, stand-up bass and acoustic guitar, and revives a very traditional mandolin sound with minor chords, solo picking and tremolo strumming during the instrumental bits.

Boat On The River sounds just like a medieval folk song, and it comes from their album Cornerstone.  The band themselves are probably best remembered for Mr. Roboto, a very un-folksy sounding song if you know it (who doesn’t?)

If you’re interested in learning this awesome song, here’s a great tutorial.

Rag Mama Rag – The Band

Another example of honky-tonk train blues, this song sounds just like one you’d hear a band playing when you walked into a western saloon.

It sounds like a fun loose song, but all the playing is right on point and will get you grooving.

It is one of their most famous songs: fans loved it for its toe-tapping fun. It’s so lively it could be in an old cartoon.

Hey, thanks for checking out our list, but we’re not quite done.

Here are a few more mandolin-based songs that you might know featuring Chris Cornell, the Goo Goo Dolls, and the Lumineers.  We just couldn’t leave these gems off the list.

Now we want to show you some cool mandolin covers of rock songs we came across that you might enjoy listening to.

Cool Mandolin Covers of Rock Songs

Also, if you can’t get enough mandolin in rock, check this out!

Checking Out The Best Rock Mandolin Players of All Time

Is Banjo Easier or Harder than Guitar?

If you’ve never even touched a banjo or guitar, it’s likely both are going to seem rather hard to play, at first, but that’s to be expected.  Unless, you’re a phenom, and we all know true phenoms are rare.


First off, you need to realize that everyone has different shapes / sizes of hands, and different amounts of strength in our hands, wrists, and fingers.

Also, each of us has a different level of coordination, and dexterity when it comes to their hands and finger movements.

Not only that, we all have different capabilities for figuring out the music itself.  We all hear music differently, and it’s harder to play something where we can’t understand the sounds we’re making related to pitch, tone, and volume.

Some people just hold a guitar or banjo for the first time, and it’s like a duck in a pond.  Almost like they’ve played the instrument before in a past life.

Here’s a picture of a young Jimi Hendrix, holding a guitar when he was in the army.  Although most people know how good Jimi eventually got at guitar in his lifetime, there’s no telling how he felt about guitar when he first picked one up.  For all we know, maybe it took him a while to get the hang of it.

Or what about legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs.  Here he is as a kid, holding a banjo, and looking oddly at ease holding it for such a young child.

Banjo Vs. Guitar – Which Is Easier?

Ok, so obviously your genetics are going to play a part.  Aside from that, we have to examine the instruments themselves.


Let’s start with the banjo.  The type of banjo you pick up will make a difference in the ease of learning.  While a guitar typically has 6 strings, a banjo might have 4, 5, or 6 strings, depending on the style of music you want to learn.

Suddenly, you’re faced with three options, rather than one.  This raises the question: “What style of banjo do I want to buy if I’m just starting out?”  I’ll assume you’re looking for the easiest one to play on as well.

Well, overall, your choice of banjo does depend on the type of music you’re interested in learning, whether it be old time banjo music played in a clawhammer style, or three-finger picked banjo style found in bluegrass music.

Separating Style from Instrument, and Instrument From Song

Keep in mind, the style of playing is a separate matter from the type of banjo, and the songs you’ll be wanting to learn.

For instance, you could be learning an easy song, on a banjo that’s harder to play (for reasons I’ll get into), and in a style that’s very hard for you to play.

Or, conversely, you could be playing a difficult song on a very easy playing banjo, in a chosen style that’s easier for you.

All that might sound confusing, but the point is, some banjos are just easier to play.  To know why, we first must look at the different kinds of banjos you can get.

Here’s a video by banjo player Jim Pankey, that can help you decide what type of banjo you might want to get, as a beginner player or someone who’s never played before.

Resonator Vs. Open Back Banjo

Now, if you happened to watch the above video, you would have heard Jim talking about two types of banjos – resonator banjos and open-back banjos.

He talks about the fact not only do both banjos look different, but they feel different to play and they also sound different when heard.

In the end, Jim recommends a resonator banjo due to its overall versatility as a good first banjo to buy.  Yes, it does look good, and it sounds good, but you’re probably still wondering: is it easier to play than the open back style of banjo?

On top of that, are either of them easier to play than your average guitar?

If you ask me, the style of banjo isn’t going to determine how easy it is to play as much as the playing style you’re going to have to learn.

I’m not here to give you a lesson in how to play the banjo, but I will at least point out that there were two main styles of playing banjo, both of which Jim played in the video, and they are the clawhammer style, and the 3-pick style.

Clawhammer Vs. Three Pick Style of Playing Banjo

Between clawhammer technique and 3-pick style, you might imagine one is easier than the other, but it’s hard to say without a doubt that one style is easier than the other.  Again, it depends on you, the size of your hands, how much dexterity you have, etc.

This all comes back to what I mentioned earlier about everyone having different coordination, and hand strength and sizes.  For some, wearing the finger picks to play the banjo will not only sound better, but be more logical and simpler to execute.

On the other hand, some might argue that clawhammer style is easier because you’re more free to play how you want, without having picks attached to your fingers.

Basically, you’re either going to enjoy playing with the picks on your fingers, or not enjoy it.

When it comes to these two playing styles, only YOU know which one you like better and perhaps find easier.  You’ll just have to try both playing techniques, and see what you think.  Same goes for the type of banjo you choose.  Go to the store, try a few out, and see what feels most comfortable.

Now, you might say, “Sir, you’re avoiding the question.  Which type of banjo is the easiest to play?  Stop claiming it’s only subjective and talking in circles.”

To that I say, “I am feeling the pressure here, and I will do my best to provide more information”.

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Banjo Neck Width

Banjos, depending on the type and number of strings, all have slightly different sized necks, in terms of length and width.  But it’s width I’m more concerned about here, because that generally determines how much space there is between each string.

For those who don’t know, the “neck” of a banjo (or guitar) is the long skinny part that the strings run along that connects the top of the instrument (the head) to the bottom (the body).

Generally, the more strings the banjo has, the wider the neck, although, at the same time, that’s not necessarily true in every case.

Sometimes the neck can be quite narrow on a banjo, and, although there might be more strings present, they can be pushed much closer together.

For me, personally, I find that if the neck is narrower on a banjo (or guitar), on one hand it’s easier to play chords (ie. hold down strings across the whole width of the neck), because the strings are closer together.

Here is a video from Guitar Compass with a teacher playing easy chords on a banjo with a fairly narrow neck.

As you can see, it’s easy for his hand to reach across the neck of the banjo, whereas guitars typically have much wider necks than banjos and are therefore harder to reach across to make a chord, especially a barre chord.

Check out this chart below showing chords on a 4-string banjo.

Now check out this chart showing chords on a guitar.

As you may notice, the guitar chords are done across 6 strings, whereas on the 4-string banjo, it looks (and is, if you ask me) a lot easier.  Not only is it physically easier, in my opinion, but it’s also mentally easier to remember because there are less strings.

Even on a 6-string banjo, the neck is going to be skinnier than your average acoustic guitar, and I think that makes it a little easier to play.

Banjo Tuning

Banjos score another point in this section for ease of use, because your standard 5-stringer banjo is tuned to open G. That means when you strum down the strings without holding anything, you’re playing the G chord.

With a few minor finger adjustments, you can learn two more chords to start playing many familiar tunes within minutes.

Here’s Tony Trischka from ArtistWorks strumming a banjo in open G (bluegrass tuning), and also showing some other simple chords (C, D7) you can play almost right away.

With guitars, if you play the strings all open, you get an E minor 11th, which is some crazy jazz chord that no one uses, but is still pretty cool.

Banjo Action

If you don’t know the term “action”, as it relates to stringed instruments, we’ll let Deering Banjos, a well-known banjo company, explain the concept to you:

“Action is the distance/clearance between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret. Action height can be a matter of personal preference to some degree.  At Deering, we set the action at 1/8” at the 22nd fret; any lower and you might get buzzing/vibrating of the string against the fret as you play. Many professional players prefer their action at ¼” clearance. If you pick hard, this action height might work best for you to provide enough space for string vibrations. Hammer-ons and pull offs are clearer with higher action. The coordinator rod on the inside of the pot/rim of the banjo is used to adjust the action of the banjo neck. The coordinator rod also serves to firmly anchor the neck to the rim, making a stable unit.”

For guitars, I use 3/32 inches on the bass side and 1/16 inches on the treble side, which is slightly lower action than Deering mentions with their banjos.  In any case, I’m not what you’d call an expert on setting the action of guitars and / or banjos, but I personally, in general, like a lower action, because it’s easier to hold the strings down with your fingers.  I’ve played on instruments where the action is what I’d consider high, and it becomes too hard to play.

Since there isn’t really a universal standard for action on guitars or banjos that I know of, I can’t really say which one is easier, I just know that I like the action a bit lower for ease of playing.

Banjo String Gauges

When it comes to string gauges, I’m talking about string thickness.

Generally speaking, there’s light gauge, medium gauge, and heavy gauge strings for banjo.  This goes for guitar as well.

The gauge of the strings affects the sound, and it is up to the player which thickness they want to use on their banjo.

The thicker strings, much the same as with a guitar, are tougher to bend, and the lighter / thinner gauge strings are often so thin that some people complain that they’re cutting into their fingers.  That’s why I typically use medium gauge strings on either guitar or banjo.

Here’s a video showing the different sound that comes from the different thicknesses of strings on a banjo.  You’ll need to listen closely, as hearing the difference between each type of string is subtle.

One last note here about strings, is that you can string a banjo or a guitar yourself, but it’s not easy when you’re starting out.  Still, it can be done by you, and you don’t need a specialist to do it.

There are other things like fixing a warped neck, or other repairs, that an expert can and should do.  But changing and replacing the strings is something you can learn, without too much trouble.


Guitars, for the most part, are 6-stringed instruments that are noticeably larger than banjos, body-wise, and have wider necks.  They also sound a lot different.

I say “for the most part”, because there are also 12-string guitars, which are essentially guitars with double the number of strings, and yet the strings on a 12-stringer are grouped like so:

The vast majority of players play 6-stringers, though.

Acoustic vs. Electric Guitar

There are two main types of guitar – acoustic and electric.  It’s important to note that acoustic and electric guitars don’t function in the same way, and they don’t sound the same either.

Generally speaking, one is a hollow body (acoustic) and one is a solid body (electric).

One thing that is the same about acoustic and electric guitars is that they are strung the same way.  This means that they both have six strings, and that those strings are in the same order from top to bottom, thickest to thinnest (EADGBe).

What this also means is that whatever you can play on an acoustic, in terms of riffs or chords, is going to be the same fingering on an electric.  So, in that sense, they aren’t too different.

In terms of which guitar is easier to play, we have to take a closer look at how each is set up.

Acoustic Vs. Electric Guitar Strings

Acoustic and electric guitars each use different string materials, giving them a different sound, and a different playability as well.

Electric guitar strings are made from materials with magnetic properties, like steel, chromium, and nickel.  They don’t need to resonate acoustically because their sound is amplified electrically, though an amp.

Acoustic guitar strings do need to be more resonant, because the sound of your playing resonates through the body of the guitar by way of the sound hole, and then projects back out acoustically into the room.

When you’re at the music store, acoustic strings and electric strings are in their own little sections, and they’re usually clearly labelled as either one or the other.

There is no pack of strings that just says “guitar strings”.  They list all of the qualities of the strings, and, if nothing else, you can tell which guitar the strings are for by the materials that they are made of.

Action Rant, Part 2

In my experience, I have found that electric guitars are a little easier to play, due to the action being lower.

I mentioned this earlier, that I like a lower action, because even that fraction of an inch lower can make a difference in how hard you have to push down to play the string or strings.

When you’re just starting out, one of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from students is that the strings hurt your fingers, and this has a lot to do with finger strength (which can be built up with practice) and also the material of the strings and the thick or thinness of the strings slicing into your finger pads.

I’m not exaggerating either, I’ve had one or two younger students literally shed tears over how much their fingers hurt after trying to practice their playing!

Acoustic guitars, since the strings do need to resonate more, have that higher action (strings are higher off of the fretboard / neck), and that makes it harder to push the strings down than on an electric.

I’ve been playing for 25 years now, and I still don’t really enjoy stringed instruments where the action is higher than normal, and sometimes it can be.

I’ll also share this story – my first guitar was an old acoustic that was laying around the house, and the action was twice as high as it should have been because the neck was warped.  As such, I just thought I was extra terrible at playing that instrument, and it lead me to believe that all acoustic guitars were like that and I almost quit.

One more thing about the fingering of guitars and banjos has to do with fingernails, but still relates to the action.  If your fingernails on your fretting hand (not your strumming / picking hand) are too long, it might cause you problems and make things harder than they have to be.

This is because your fingernails can get in the way of your fingers pushing down the strings all the way to the fretboard.  I’ve had students who can’t push down the strings for this reason, because they have really long fingernails, and yet they refuse to cut them.  That’s a no-win situation!

So, chew your nails, kids!

My point is, if you’re new to either banjo or guitar, at least take a look at the action of it so that you a) understand the concept, and b) can begin to judge how appropriate the action is on the instrument you have.  You can have the action lowered if you take the instrument in.

Fingernails, Continued

On the other hand, if you have longer fingernails on your strumming hand, this can be helpful when it comes to both picking and strumming.

Some super famous guitar players are known for picking their strings with their fingers, and you can basically use longer fingernails as separate picks.

This works with banjos too, as banjos are a more pick-centric instrument.  Fingerpicking for bluegrass, especially, is a main feature of the music.  Banjos, in general, are all about flying fingers and pickin’ and grinnin’.

Here’s a video with famous guitar fingerpicker, Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, showing some of his finger style playing.

Styles of Guitar Playing

If you ask me, there seems to be more versatility with guitars, because there are more playing techniques and simply more styles of guitars out there.  Guitars lend themselves to more styles of music as well.

I think that this makes guitars easier to learn, because you can approach them from so many different angles and strumming and picking styles.  There’s fingerpicking, alternate picking, sweep picking, gypsy rhythms, and tapping.  Plus many others!  Or you can just make up your own style completely, and no one seems to mind.

For instance, if you want to play punk rock guitar, you just need to learn a few basic power chords.

Here’s the Germs playing their song Manimal from the documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization.  Keep an eye on that guitar player, Pat Smear (now in Foo Fighters).  The playing style here is simple but effective, and the idea is that anyone can really do it.

Then again, this kind of music might make you want to jump off a bridge.  Fair enough!  You might be interested in something a little more mellow and pleasant-sounding.  Why not try to learn some bossa nova?

Back to the point of what’s easy vs. what’s not easy, different guitar styles of playing are going to be harder than others.  Bashing out a simple rock song might be easier for you than playing The Girl From Ipanema, but if you want to play in that style, you’ll hunker down and learn it eventually.

Using a Guitar Pick

We have yet to mention the wonderful world of guitar picks.  Because beginners are always hurting their fingers on both hands (fretting hand and strumming / picking hand), using a guitar pick does make some things easier because now you won’t have to pick or strum with your hand, which can hurt when you’re just starting out.  You just use the pick instead!

Guitar picks come in different shapes, sizes, and thicknesses.  Like guitar strings, they range from super thick to super thin.  The one you choose will depend on your preference.

The rabbit hole runs pretty deep with guitar picks, in terms of variety and reasons to choose one over another.

Some have special grips, tips, glow-in-the-dark, special designs, some are aerodynamic, and some will actually go out and get you coffee and bring it back.  Imagine that!

At then end of the day, some guitar players use picks, some don’t.  Once again, you’ll have to try them out to see if you like using them at all.  Keep in mind, some guitar players never use a pick, unless forced to at gunpoint.

Lindsey Buckingham don’t use no pick!

What’s Easier, Guitar or Banjo? – Recap

It takes a long time to master an instrument. The ease with which you learn the instrument will depend on the style of music you want to learn.

The guitar has more notes and finger athletics to master than the banjo. This will make it harder to learn the banjo than the guitar for some people. The banjo has fewer strings, which can make it a bit easier to play.

If you’re just starting out and the action is too high on either instrument, that’ll make it harder.  If the strings are too thin, they might cut into your tender, un-calloused fingers.  If the strings are too think, they’re harder to pin down and harder to bend.

You’ll probably have a voice in your head complaining as you begin to learn, but just go easy on yourself.

Overall, the ease of learning really depends on whether you’ve had any experience with a stringed instrument, if you have a good teacher, and the style of music you are trying to learn.

The determination and persistence of the student matters to how easily he or she learns an instrument, too. Many people put down the guitar after a few months if they haven’t learned it properly.

A banjo player who practices for a few months can really enjoy the playing and won’t quit until they’ve enjoyed playing their favoirite songs.


Learning a new instrument can be hard.  Once you’re as old as me (I’m 204), you’ll realize that there are no shortcuts in life and that there’s really no such thing as having it easy all the time.

That said, if you consider everything I’ve talked about here today, you can make more informed decisions when it comes to learning either the guitar or the banjo.  Good luck, and tell me how it goes in the comments and if I missed anything!

What are the Main Instruments in Folk Music?

alison brown banjo player

There are some traditional instruments used in the making of folk music. Whether you want to make some folk music on your own, or you are curious about the instruments used in folk music, this guide should help.

We cover many of the instruments used in folk music from the traditional like the banjo and guitar to the non-traditional like the jug or spoons.

Fiddle or Violin


When the violin is being played for folk music, it’s called a fiddle. In both cases, it’s a 4- or 5-string instrument that is played in a certain way. While violinists are playing classical music in a style that demands perfection and accuracy for every note, fiddlers are able to give their own interpretation of music in a way that moves them.

A fiddle and violin is actually the same instrument played in varying styles.


alison brown banjo player

The banjo is one instrument that people think of when they are wondering how to make folk music. They come in different styles from the 5- or 6-string variety.

They’re played in styles like the clawhammer or Scruggs They’re a distinctive twang sound that most people associate with folk music.



This instrument is a type of guitar with a resonator attached to the front. It’s an inverted surface that produces a unique sound for the Dobro.

While the name and the type of guitar with resonator was developed by the Dopyera brothers, it’s now owned by Gibson Guitar Corporation.

They make all the current Dobros and have a trademark on the process and name. This guitar produces a unique sound that is well-known for folk music lovers. It’s a common instrument in bluegrass, too.



While mostly associated with polka music, it’s part of Cajun and folk music. The instrument is versatile, and it can be used in all kinds of music with folk topping the list.

There are piano keys on one side buttons on the other. In the middle is the bellows, which is opened and closed to produce the sounds.



The “mouth harp” is a portable instrument that is used in many folk music songs. It’s made of wood or plastic and metal. The reeds inside the instrument vibrate when the musician blows into it or sucks air out of it.

Both produce sounds that differ depending on the holes used. There are 10 numbered holes on the side of the harmonica.

Non-Traditional Instruments

There are a few non-traditional instruments that can be used for folk music like the musical jug.


The jug is made of stoneware, glass, or ceramic, and the musician blows into the top of it to produce a mournful sound that functions as the bass in most songs.

The spoons are another non-traditional instrument used in traditional folk music. Wooden or metal spoons are placed back to back and slapped between the musician’s hands or against their leg. There are musical spoons available or regular spoons can be used.

Acoustic Guitar

acoustic guitar

The biggest instrument in folk music is the acoustic guitar. It’s the most traditional and prevalent instrument in the genre.

Many of the greatest folk musicians worked exclusively with an acoustic guitar to create their iconic music. Gibson, Fender, and Gretsch are some of the popular models used by famous folk musicians.



The mandolin looks like a tiny guitar. It has a distinct sound that lends itself to bluegrass and folk music quite beautifully.

It’s considered a part of the lute family, which shouldn’t be a surprise since it looks like a guitar. It normally has 8 strings that are tuned at the same time. It became popular in the south in the 40s along with the banjo and guitar.



This is another instrument in the lute family. The banjo, guitar, ukulele, and mandolin all lend themselves to the genre of folk music.

The preferred wood for the ukulele is the acacia koa, which makes sense since the instrument originated in Hawaii. It looks like a miniature acoustic guitar with four courses of strings for 8 total.

The size of the ukulele dictates the type of sound it produces. There are 4 sizes, which are the baritone, tenor, concert, and soprano.

This could be a curiosity in your life, or you might be thinking of making folk music solo or in a band. Whatever your reasons for checking out folk instruments, these are some of the most popular in this form of music.

At the same time, the intent behind the instrument can be more powerful than the instrument itself for making the kind of music that you want. If you want to make folk music on an instrument not listed here, you should go for it.

You are only limited by your ability and imagination when it comes to instruments in folk music.

8 of the Best Folk Songs of All Time That Everyone Should Know

folk songs everyone should know

These are 8 of the all time best folk songs that everyone should know. Whether you’re 9 or 90, it’s unlikely that you haven’t heard the songs on this list.  If you, by chance, haven’t heard them, hear them now, for they are classics.

Goodnight Irene by Huddie William Ledbetter

This song was originally written and recorded by Huddie Ledbetter in 1933. It’s been redone in the years since- most notably by The Weavers who recorded their own version just one year after his death.

It lasted over 25 weeks on the Billboard Best Seller chart. With its popularity, most people are more familiar with the lyrics from The Weavers than those from Ledbetter.

The success of The Weaver’s version of the song brought out more artists who did their own take on the song. Frank Sinatra, Moon Mullican and Paul Gayten all have chart topping hits with the song that same year.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone? By Pete Seeger

Part of the song was written by Pete Seeger in 1955, but more was added by Joe Hickerson in 1960. He was inspired to write the song in October of ’55 when he was on his way to sing at Oberlin College.

It was after his group “The Weavers” was disbanded after being blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. The song’s verses were released in a magazine first before Seeger released a 45 single of the song in 1964.

It went on to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. It’s been done by some famous groups since like The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. It was even translated by Marlene Dietrich and sung in English, German and French.

Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel

The song was composed by Paul Simon, and it’s considered their signature song. It was released in January 1970. It’s grown to become their biggest hit single.

It hit Billboard Hot 100 for 6 weeks. Over time, many artists have sung their own renditions of the songs from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley.

In total, over 50 artists have lent their voices to this incredible song. Rolling Stone actually printed a list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, which put this song at number 48.

Although Simon wrote the song, he insisted that Garfunkel sing it. In later years, he actually began to regret that decision. It eventually led to frayed feelings and their breakup.

Mr. Tambourine Man by Bob Dylan

As popular as this song has been over the years – it’s certainly one of the most well-known songs of our time – it’s the only song that Dylan wrote to become number 1 in America.

What might not be known about the song is that Dylan wrote this on a road trip from New York to San Franscisco with some friends. Along the way, they smoked tons of marijuana.

They actually kept their supply going on the trip because they had mailed themselves some before the trip began. They would pick it up at post offices along the way.

It was originally written and performed by Dylan and released in 1965, yet it’s a song that many generations know and love.

Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul and Mary

The lyrics for the song were based on a poem written in 1959 by a student at Cornell University named Leonard Lipton. He used a typewriter to get the poem “out of his head” then promptly forgot about it.

His housemate named Peter Yarrow looked for him years later to give him credit for the song. He’s still getting royalties today.

There’s always been a segment of people who believe that the song is referring to smoking marijuana as taking a “puff” on a joint or “draggin’” is the smoking itself.

Both Lipton and Yarrow reject the interpretation.

Sounds of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel

This is another song written by Paul Simon between the years of 1963 and 1964. It was eventually released in 1964, but didn’t meet with much success.

The duo broke up after the failure, but the next year, it began to get play on radio stations on the east coast of the U.S. The producer remixed the track and released it in 1965.

The duo reunited and released the song on their second album with the same name. It was added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress in 2013 as a historically and culturally important song.

If I Had a Hammer by Pete Seeger

The song was written by Lee Hays and Pete Seeger. It was first recorded by The Weavers, but the version that most people know is the one sung by Peter, Paul and Mary nearly 12 years after it was first released.

It was chosen as a song to inspire during the Civil Rights Movement.

This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie

This is one of the most popular folk songs in the United States. It might even be called the national anthem. He wrote the lyrics in answer to a song that was driving him crazy on the radio, which was Kate Smith’s song “God Blessed America for Me.”

This sarcastic version of the song was soon forgotten and didn’t resurface for almost 5 years. It was revived in the 60s as part of the struggle for social justice in the U.S. The Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry in 2002.

Thanks for reading!  If you think we missed anything, leave us a comment so we can check it out.

Bonus Track

Philip-John K Mauro‘s folk song Heart Box was intentionally written with minimalism in mind. The song reflects many folk song formats by finger picking a delicate guitar, while singing a dynamic melody. This version has some acoustic percussion added for a well rounded live take. If you have time for new material please follow the link to his channel and enjoy.

What Are The Characteristics Of A Folk Song?

what are the characteristics of a folk song

Folk songs have been around as long as there have been folks to sing them, and, despite being one of the oldest types of music, new so-called folk music is still being created today.  

But, we wanted to explore some of the defining characteristics of real folk music, as opposed to pop music which parades itself as folk music these days.

After much researching and listening, we’ve compiled a list of qualities and characteristics that we believe help to define a truly authentic folk song, ranging from topical songwriting, to acoustic instrumentation, to lack of irony, to name but a few things.  

Let us know if you agree with us, or have something to add… 

#1 – Topical Songwriting

Historically speaking, when something happens in our world, musicians are often there to write about it and reflect on it. 

Not all folk songs are written about specific events or issues, but many certainly are, and we think this has been a characteristic of folk music since the beginning. 

characteristics of a folk song

One example of this type of writing is Neil Young’s song, “Ohio”.  This anti-war song came about when Neil Young heard about the famous “Kent State Shootings”, where 4 unarmed college students were shot by the National Guard during a protest. 

This event sparked a national outcry, and when Neil Young heard about it, he quickly got his band together and wrote this song to talk about the event.  

By Neil’s own account, this was something he reacted to right away, and his song was his own emotional response to the event, done in much the same way a news reporter might report a breaking story.

Neil Young’s Ohio – Lyrics

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,

We’re finally on our own.

This summer I hear the drumming,

Four dead in Ohio.

Gotta get down to it

Soldiers are cutting us down

Should have been done long ago.

What if you knew her

And found her dead on the ground

How can you run when you know?

Gotta get down to it

Soldiers are cutting us down

Should have been done long ago.

What if you knew her

And found her dead on the ground

How can you run when you know?

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,

We’re finally on our own.

This summer I hear the drumming,

Four dead in Ohio.

#2 – Addresses Social & Political Issues

In addition to simply being topical, when musicians write folk songs, they are also often addressing social and / or political issues. 

In other words, folk singers are often protesting some form of injustice, in the name of freedom and equality.  

A folk song doesn’t need to be politically charged, but they often are, and this is another characteristic of the genre.  “Ohio” qualifies on both counts of being topical (news of the day) and politically charged. 

Bob Marley’s famous “Redemption Song” is another song that addresses social and political injustices, such as slavery, but in terms of being topical, one might argue that it is more general. 

“Redemption Song” talks about pirates and merchant ships, but doesn’t mention any dates or talk about any one specific person or event, so it doesn’t really qualify as “news”. 

Still, when one thinks of a folk song, “Redemption Song” readily comes to mind, although it is a more purposely generalized than a song like “Ohio”.

Bob Marley’s Redemption Song – Lyrics

Old pirates, yes, they rob I

Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I

From the bottomless pit

But my hand was made strong

By the hand of the Almighty

We forward in this generation


Won’t you help to sing

These songs of freedom

Cause all I ever have

Redemption songs

Redemption songs

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery

None but ourselves can free our minds

Have no fear for atomic energy

Cause none of them can stop the time

How long shall they kill our prophets

While we stand aside and look Ooh

Some say it’s just a part of it

We’ve got to fulfill the book

Won’t you help to sing

These songs of freedom

Cause all I ever have

Redemption songs

Redemption songs

Redemption songs

#3 – Acoustic Instrumentation

Songs can be written in any number of ways, but, for most folk singers, they choose to write their folk songs with an acoustic guitar. 

In 1941, Woody Guthrie famously placed the message “This machine kills fascists” on his acoustic guitar, which was a political statement unto itself.

This Machine Kills Fascists - Woody Guthrie, two guitars-8x6Speaking of Woody Guthrie, who is perhaps the most legendary folk singer that has ever lived from the United States, and the man has written some of the most famous folk songs of all time, featuring mainly his voice and acoustic guitar. 

One of those songs that comes to mind is “This Land Is Your Land”, which does make mention of specific locations, and is also socio-political in nature, speaking of freedom for all. 

Unlike “Ohio”, it is not fixed on one specific event, and rather than rallying against anything or anyone in particular, it evokes a more inclusive, happy feeling, although it does have some subtle anti-authority messages worked into the song as well.

Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”

This land is your land This land is my land

From California to the New York island;

From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,

I saw above me that endless skyway:

I saw below me that golden valley:

This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps

To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;

And all around me a voice was sounding:

This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,

And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,

As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:

This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there

And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”

But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,

That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,

By the relief office I seen my people;

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking

Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,

As I go walking that freedom highway;

Nobody living can ever make me turn back

This land was made for you and me.

#4 – For The Common Folk

Typically, folk songs are written by regular folk for regular folk. 

You could argue that this applies to any song, really, but in this day and age, there is a little something called “irony” that makes a song less and less relatable to your average person. 

The argument we’re making is that a true folk song relates to everyone, not just musically, but lyrically.  And these lyrics should be simple and straightforward.

Let’s look at this song, which is actually called “Common People”, by a British band called Pulp.

According to what we’ve said so far, “Common People” would not qualify to be a folk song based purely on its synthetic nature (no acoustic guitar), but also because it has a keen sense of cultural irony that it flaunts.

Aside from that, “Common People” is a song that definitely has some characteristics that would certainly qualify it as being a “modern” sort of folk song. 

It discusses socio-political matters, and, actually, in its own self-referential and clever way, is a song that stands up for “common people”, as folk songs often do.

Pulp’s Common People – Lyrics

She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge

She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College, that’s where I caught her eye.

She told me that her dad was loaded

I said in that case I’ll have a rum and coke-cola.

She said fine and in thirty seconds time she said, I want to live like common people

I want to do whatever common people do, I want to sleep with common people

I want to sleep with common people like you.

Well what else could I do – I said I’ll see what I can do.

I took her to a supermarket

I don’t know why but I had to start it somewhere, so it started there.

I said pretend you’ve got no money, she just laughed and said oh you’re so funny.

I said yeah? Well I can’t see anyone else smiling in here.

Are you sure you want to live like common people

You want to see whatever common people see

You want to sleep with common people,

you want to sleep with common people like me.

But she didn’t understand, she just smiled and held my hand.

Rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job.

Smoke some fags and play some pool, pretend you never went to school.

But still you’ll never get it right

‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall

If you call your dad he could stop it all.

You’ll never live like common people

You’ll never do what common people do

You’ll never fail like common people

You’ll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw

Because there’s nothing else to do.

Sing along with the common people, sing along and it might just get you thru’

Laugh along with the common people

Laugh along even though they’re laughing at you and the stupid things that you do.

Because you think that poor is cool.

I want to live with common people, I want to live with common people [etc..]

#5 – The Oral Tradition

At this time of digital recording technology, the so-called “oral tradition” is not so much a tradition as it once was.  In the days before records, the only way to keep a song alive was through singing it. 

This oral tradition helped to keep songs from being forgotten, but also as a way to popularize them and take them from place to place.  

This tradition is also assisted by the practice of busking, who tend to take their show on the road with acoustic instruments.

traveling troubadours

Today, certainly, songs are still sung, but, more often then not, you simply need to play someone a song which already exists in the form of some sort of digital media. 

Originally, when troubadours would travel the land, singing songs, and playing their lyre, mandolin, this was the first way in which the oral tradition manifested itself, as well as being a way to spread news across the land.

People don’t rely so much on the oral tradition anymore, since technology has made it somewhat redundant, however, a folk song, by definition, does lend itself to being passed on this way, as well as though sing-alongs. 

For these purposes, the song should be simple, with economical use of language, and memorable.  This doesn’t mean it has to be short, as the next section will explain!

But first, let’s take a quick look at Puff The Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul, and Mary

Now, despite being about fictitious subject matter, this song still has all of the check points of a folk song that we have discussed, such as being simple, memorable, lively to sing, meant for anyone and everyone, and acoustic. 

It still mentions the names of places, as well as talks specifically about Puff the dragon. 

Puff The Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul, and Mary – Lyrics

Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali

Little Jackie Paper loved that rascal Puff

And brought him strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff

Oh, Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali

Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali

Together they would travel on a boat with billowed sail

Jackie kept a lookout perched on Puff’s gigantic tail

Noble kings and princes would bow whene’er they came

Pirate ships would lower their flags when Puff roared out his name

Oh, Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali

Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali

A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys

Painted wings and giant’s rings make way for other toys

One gray night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more

And Puff, that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar

His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain

Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane

Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave

So Puff, that mighty dragon, sadly slipped into his cave

Oh, Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali

Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali

#6 – Stanzaic Prose

A stanza, or the use of stanzaic prose, is a major feature of a folk song, not to mention all kinds of songs.  What is a stanza?  Basically, it is a group of four lines that make up a verse, also known as a “recurring metrical unit”. 

In folk songs, because they’re simple, we have verses and choruses, and a lack of bridges or middle eights.  The stanza is like a chapter of the story, referred to as exposition in film, and helps to develop the story that is frequently included with folk songs. 

With a lot of folk songwriters, we see a proliferation of stanzas, because sometimes these stories reach epic proportions, kind of like the musical equivalent of Ben Hur.

Take, for example, Bob Dylan’s famous song, “Hurricane”.  It fits the bill in many ways as a folk song, especially in that it has plenty of recurring metrical units, AKA verses!

Hurricane by Bob Dylan – Lyrics

Pistols shots ring out in the barroom night

Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall

She sees the bartender in a pool of blood

Cries out “My God they killed them all”

Here comes the story of the Hurricane

The man the authorities came to blame

For something that he never done

Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been

The champion of the world.

Three bodies lying there does Patty see

And another man named Bello moving around mysteriously

“I didn’t do it” he says and he throws up his hands

“I was only robbing the register I hope you understand

I saw them leaving” he says and he stops

“One of us had better call up the cops”

And so Patty calls the cops

And they arrive on the scene with their red lights flashing

In the hot New Jersey night.

Meanwhile far away in another part of town

Rubin Carter and a couple of friends are driving around

Number one contender for the middleweight crown

Had no idea what kinda shit was about to go down

When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road

Just like the time before and the time before that

In Patterson that’s just the way things go

If you’re black you might as well not shown up on the street

‘Less you wanna draw the heat.

Alfred Bello had a partner and he had a rap for the corps

Him and Arthur Dexter Bradley were just out prowling around

He said “I saw two men running out they looked like middleweights

They jumped into a white car with out-of-state plates”

And Miss Patty Valentine just nodded her head

Cop said “Wait a minute boys this one’s not dead”

So they took him to the infirmary

And though this man could hardly see

They told him that he could identify the guilty men.

Four in the morning and they haul Rubin in

Take him to the hospital and they bring him upstairs

The wounded man looks up through his one dying eye

Says “Wha’d you bring him in here for ? He ain’t the guy !”

Yes here comes the story of the Hurricane

The man the authorities came to blame

For something that he never done

Put in a prison cell but one time he could-a been

The champion of the world.

Four months later the ghettos are in flame

Rubin’s in South America fighting for his name

While Arthur Dexter Bradley’s still in the robbery game

And the cops are putting the screws to him looking for somebody to blame

“Remember that murder that happened in a bar ?”

“Remember you said you saw the getaway car?”

“You think you’d like to play ball with the law ?”

“Think it might-a been that fighter you saw running that night ?”

“Don’t forget that you are white”.

Arthur Dexter Bradley said “I’m really not sure”

Cops said “A boy like you could use a break

We got you for the motel job and we’re talking to your friend Bello

Now you don’t wanta have to go back to jail be a nice fellow

You’ll be doing society a favor

That sonofabitch is brave and getting braver

We want to put his ass in stir

We want to pin this triple murder on him

He ain’t no Gentleman Jim”.

Rubin could take a man out with just one punch

But he never did like to talk about it all that much

It’s my work he’d say and I do it for pay

And when it’s over I’d just as soon go on my way

Up to some paradise

Where the trout streams flow and the air is nice

And ride a horse along a trail

But then they took him to the jailhouse

Where they try to turn a man into a mouse.

All of Rubin’s cards were marked in advance

The trial was a pig-circus he never had a chance

The judge made Rubin’s witnesses drunkards from the slums

To the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum

And to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger

No one doubted that he pulled the trigger

And though they could not produce the gun

The DA said he was the one who did the deed

And the all-white jury agreed.

Rubin Carter was falsely tried

The crime was murder ‘one’ guess who testified

Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied

And the newspapers they all went along for the ride

How can the life of such a man

Be in the palm of some fool’s hand ?

To see him obviously framed

Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land

Where justice is a game.

Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties

Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise

While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell

An innocent man in a living hell

That’s the story of the Hurricane

But it won’t be over till they clear his name

And give him back the time he’s done

Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been

The champion of the world.

The Refrain

The refrain is basically the chorus in a song, and gets repeated, sometimes to the point of madness for the listener.  As we all know, it is hard to get a good chorus out of our heads. 

In folk music, this is the same thing, although typically the song has all of the other aforementioned characteristics as well.

Here is the famous Pete Seeger song, “If I Had A Hammer”, where the refrain is the same as the title, which is often the case with folk songs, not to mention a lot of other songs. 

Of course, we’re talking about a metaphorical hammer here, which might be used to solve the world’s ills, this being one of the more optimistic and hopeful song for the ages.  Also, this folk song is a great example of the 4 line stanza.

If I Had A Hammer by Pete Seeger – Lyrics

If I had a hammer,

I’d hammer in the morning

I’d hammer in the evening,

All over this land.

I’d hammer out danger,

I’d hammer out a warning,

I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,

All over this land.

If I had a bell,

I’d ring it in the morning,

I’d ring it in the evening,

All over this land.

I’d ring out danger,

I’d ring out a warning

I’d ring out love between my brothers and my sisters,

All over this land.

If I had a song,

I’d sing it in the morning,

I’d sing it in the evening,

All over this land.

I’d sing out danger,

I’d sing out a warning

I’d sing out love between my brothers and my sisters,

All over this land.

Well I got a hammer,

And I got a bell,

And I got a song to sing, all over this land.

It’s the hammer of Justice,

It’s the bell of Freedom,

It’s the song about Love between my brothers and my sisters,

All over this land.

It’s the hammer of Justice,

It’s the bell of Freedom,

It’s the song about Love between my brothers and my sisters,

All over this land.

#7 – Profit vs Pure Intention

Perhaps the most contentious aspect of this discussion, the last thing we will mention that is an important characteristic of a folk song is the fact that it must be pure and honest, as opposed to written for profit. 

Because there is a big part of the hippy movement of the ’60’s still attached to folk music, there is still an idea that a real, authentic folk song is most likely going to be opposed to capitalist ideals.

This is partly why you had that guy yelling “Judas!” at Bob Dylan when played electric guitar at a show in Manchester in 1966.

bob dylan 1966

In this day and age of folk music being applied to any music that has an acoustic guitar and some shakers, this idea of not-for-profit music basically disqualifies most mainstream musicians from calling themselves true folk singers. 

Groups that many of us associate with folk music (as a genre) are immediately disqualified from being “folk” due to having record deals and songs that appear on TV and in movies.  

Of course, its next to impossible to question a group or artist’s motivations for getting into music, but certainly there has been many a group that you might call “sell outs” or “posers” because they literally just wanted to adopt the visual or sonic aesthetics of a genre without also adopting the moral ideologies that initially defined that genre. 

Of course, were this one principle the defining characteristic of folk music on its own, that would basically disqualify everyone, including many of the original folk singers from the ’60’s, including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and even Woody Guthrie, all of whom have profited from their music in some way at some point in time.  

Defining what music was originally made with profit in mind is virtually impossible, and so, we leave it in as simply food for thought. 

We hope this list of characteristics provided you with some insight into what makes folk music authentic.  Thanks for reading!