Christmas Songs on the Banjo

Casey Henry

Casey Henry

'Tis the season when I start trying to remember all the Christmas tunes I know how to play on the banjo. Some work quite well bluegrass-style. Others not so much. The most common, by far, is "Jingle Bells," which lays great on the banjo. I posted this link last year, but I'm posting it again, because it is so great. Here's Earl on YouTube playing "Jingle Bells" with some other pickers who aren't so shabby, either. It's a fabulous version because he plays a straightforward melody, yet he's also got some really, really cool rhythmic licks going.

Since there are not really any standard banjo versions of Christmas carols, you can do pretty much anything you want with them. I figured out really easy arrangements of "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World" for a custom lesson student a couple months back. They're not so much Scruggsy versions as bare-bones melody versions, but they're very doable for a beginning student. When I play them for myself, though, I'd probably fancy them up considerably.

I'm currently working on "Greensleeves," also for a custom lesson. I've always loved the melody, but never thought to play it on the banjo. Turns out it's very simple, but it's challenging to make it sound a little fuller without skyrocketing the difficulty way beyond the advanced student level. That one should be done next week and if I can get a decent recorded version I'll post it for y'all to hear. I'm doing it in A minor.

On the subject of recorded Christmas music: last night I was listening to a Gusto Records compilation CD called "Christmas Country Style."  (That link leads to iTunes.) It has several cuts by Jim Eanes on it and on every one of them I remarked to myself, "Wow, I really like that banjo playing," or "Now that's a good banjo player!" I had to call my mom to ask who played banjo with Eanes and I found out it was none other than Allen Shelton. There are a couple clunkers on the disc, but it's totally worth the $8 it costs on iTunes. It also has one of my favorite bluegrass Christmas songs, the Stanley Brothers' "Christmas is Near."

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