Eric Weissberg of Dueling Banjos Fame Has Died

Whether you’re a fan of the banjo, or bluegrass and folk in general, or even if you’re not, nearly everyone recognizes the opening riff of the iconic instrumental “Dueling Banjos” made famous in the 1972 film Deliverance. And now guy who actually played the banjo on the song (despite the name, it features only one banjo dueling with a guitar), has passed away.

Multi-instrumentalist and folk music icon Eric Weissberg died on Sunday, March 22nd at the age of 80 due to Alzheimer’s disease. Highly proficient on the fiddle, guitar, mandolin, dobro, and bass as well, Weissberg was a much-renown and highly prolific musician in both the live and studio space, along with being responsible for arguably the best known banjo song in history, with all due respect to “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” “Dueling Banjos” was not just a novelty. It became a #2 all genre song in both the United States and Canada in 1973.

A banjo song made him famous, but it was much of Eric Weissberg’s work behind the scenes that would earn him the respect of his peers worldwide. Recordings from Doc Watson, Billy Joel, Frankie Valli, Bob Dylan, Loudon Wainwright III, Talking Heads, Jim Croce, Art Garfunkel, John Denver, The Clancy Brothers, and Tom Paxton who Weissberg would regularly tour with all featured the instrumentalist’s work. For all you old school hip hop fans, it was Eric Weissberg you heard being sampled on their song “5-Piece Chicken Dinner” from the legendary Beastie Boys album Paul’s Boutique.

Eric Weissberg interfaced often with the bluegrass world, but the majority of his career was spent in the folk realm. He was a big part of the Greenwich Village scene early in his career, born in New York City and graduating from the New York School of Music & Art before attending the University of Wisconsin and eventually the world-renown Julliard School of Music. He played in folk groups such as The Greenbriar Boys and The Terriers early in his career.

Weissberg served in the National Guard in 1964, and as folk music began to fall out of fashion, he started working more as a session musician, which later led to “Dueling Banjos.” Though his 1963 album New Dimensions in Banjos and Bluegrass did not go far, he took his “Dueling Banjos” to an album release of the same name for Warner Bros. that eventually went Gold. Some of that money would ultimately be shared with Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith whose song “Feudin’ Banjos” helped inspire the track.

Eric Weissberg remained a mainstay of many folk music festivals and gatherings, and was a favorite of fans up until his death.