Ask Sonny Anything… what was your first banjo?

Ask Sonny Anything is a recurring feature where our readers pose questions to the great Sonny Osborne, one half of the iconic Osborne Brothers who redefined bluegrass music in the 1960s, and noted banjo maven and collector of fine prewar instruments. Everyone is encouraged to pose queries of your own each week in the comments, about his history in the music, his wealth of banjo knowledge, or regarding any life advice you might be needing.

During the past couple weeks I’ve been talking (by text) to Silvio Ferretti, good friend, banjo player, bridge maker. Right now thanks to our Chinese friends who gave us The Chinese Virus Breakdown, he is spending most of his time in his house in Italy. As I’m doing here in Tennessee. He asked me to expound on a subject that I don’t think I’ve ever looked into. My relationship with JD Crowe. Both about the same age (JD is 2 months and 2 days older) Both from Kentucky, both banjo players. (One of us the Real Deal) Sorry Crowe man, it’s my column!!!!!!!!!! Kidding. I love Crowe, he knows it. Nothing I wouldn’t do for him, if possible! If I can’t do it, I’ll get it done…..I’ll call Steve Chandler.

So, yes, I can do this.

At this point in life JD is one of my very best friends. Before all this virus stuff and worn out wheels (knees) I would have a lunch get together and invite my banjo friends and others. Starting with Larry Stephenson, Ronnie Reno, and Robin Smith. It grew into a real deal and Del and his boys Rob and Ronnie, Mike Bub, Skaggs, Bobby, Boj, Rhonda Vincent… we’ve had a bunch of folks. So, get this, Probably 10 – 15 times guess who drives from Lexington, KY and orders his eggs…yep JD Crowe. Steve Chandler, great engineer and friend, always sees to it that JD can get there. I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate that little thing right there.

Throughout our careers our paths did not cross often but since his slowdown and my retirement we have become very close friends. One would ask if we talked banjos when we see one another. Strangely enough, no we do not. To me we have never been in competition nor have we been in a place where we would be.

When JD was with Jimmy Martin I thought on a couple of occasions Jimmy wanted JD to show me up, but that never happened. My way of playing the banjo was so different from his that there was actually nothing to compare. I played what I heard in my head and each time may be different from the last time. And, I never listened to banjo players other than Earl up to 1957. After that, I listened to everything but the banjo.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the guys, Sammy, Kruger, Aaron, Kristin, Lincoln, Brandon, Derek, Béla, Tony, Alison, I love them all … we’re brothers. Crowe and I are brothers. But, I don’t listen to their banjo playing. Like to take it apart. Understand, to me, the right hand is the most important part for a person to conquer. A great right hand, with all the correct moves, and the rest will fall into place. All of the above have great right hands that fits perfectly with what they want to accomplish with the banjo. But for me to play what I play, the way I go about it, ‘twould be a detriment to my way of thinking!


Hello again from Seattle. I grew up in Wisconsin in the 1970s and could often get the Opry on the radio. I dug out some old tapes I made off the Opry at that time. On a Trailblazer Dog Food segment it sounds like Lester Flatt & The Nashville Grass and the Osborne Brothers together on a few songs. Do you recall performing together with Lester on the Opry?


Jeff S.
Seattle, WA

Jeff from Seattle. Thank you for joining us. I don’t remember what year that would be but yes, I do remember doing the Opry and on stage with Lester. We did We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart and Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms. Paul Warren played the fiddle and Kenny Ingram played the banjo.

I think, if you were to go to my web page you’ll find a picture taken that night with the three of us at the mic singing. I loved that picture and the actual performance. Lester was a 100% pro and the most relaxed person I have know when he was at the mic. The most “laid back” person you would ever want to meet.

Flatt and Scruggs breakup must have been because of something really bad. Lester told me more than once, and he always said the same words. “I JUST WANTED TO KEEP PEACE IN THE FAMILY!” I won’t discuss their breakup, I loved them both and their contribution to Bluegrass Music is Immeasurable. Trust me, I was there from one end to the other.

If not for Flatt and Scruggs, what we know as Bluegrass Music would not have existed. Oh, for sure there would have been singers and banjo players but the bar would not have been set nearly as high. If you didn’t see them perform on stage, I’m sorry. Class act. From beginning to end. I met them in 1952. And after the breakup, Bill Mack, all-night DJ at WBAP Dallas/Fort Worth said it best. “I just couldn’t imagine waking up every day and there not being a Flatt and Scruggs!”


Hey there Mr Sonny….brother, just wanted to let you know how great of an influence you have been to all things banjo….and you proved time and time again that any music can be capably played if you just think through what you want to do. Especially for all us “unknown” pickers, the banjo is such an important part of our lives, it makes us hopeful that maybe we might be able to express ourselves through music, and the folks who are listening might understand what we’re trying to do.

Secondly, love the ending on Cut the Cornbread; free form jazz. To me,good stuff.

Ned L. asked about you playing any “melodic style,” listen to your ending on Old Joe Clark on the Wade Ray fiddle album on Camden. Again, good stuff.

Now to a question, how was it picking with Homer and Jethro? Thanks, stay safe, and take care.

Danny B.

Dan’l, I’m glad you could make it. Mighty kind words there my brother….Thank you. Good, well thought out banjo playing comes from practice, practice, practice until your fingers bleed. And then do it some more. If you love that sound enough, that much, anything is possible. Being able to play everything you hear in your head…. Man, they hain’t nothing no better. Just like corn bread crumbled up in cold butter milk. Lawd How Moicy!

If one would listen closely, both those endings are Classic Melodic. Cut The Cornbread was the first one I did and it was on a dare from Grady Martin. I’m not proud of it but I did it, it’s mine. The Old Joe Clark ending was done as a suggestion from Ray Edenton who was on both sessions. Man, I was so honored to do that album with the best musicians in Nashville. Maybe in the world.

Jethro Burns is unbelievable on the mandolin, country fiddle tunes, or Miles Davis jazz. He would be comfortable in either setting…and Homer Haynes…probably the best swing, actually any kind of music, guitarist. He can play the most beautiful rhythm you will ever hear. He plays chords that match. Each one leading to the next one. I LOVED doing that Wade Ray album. Homer and Jethro, Ray Edenton, Floyd Cramer, Henry Strezlecki??? and I can’t remember the drummer guy’s name. Maybe Buddy Harmon or Johnny Virgin.

And then there was Wade. Wonderful human being. Just a joy to be around. Great singer who worked on the Ernest Tubb TV show, Tubb called him “Pugg Nose!” How good was he? We took a lunch break and he stayed in the RCA studio and put harmony on the fiddle tunes… did it in one hour folks. Recorded on an Ampex machine direct to 2 inch tape. UNREAL! This comes from practice, practice, practice. When music is like that, that good, it just tears me up inside. It’s that good, and they knew my first name! Every banjo player would pray for this kind of opportunity. Thank you Lord for placing this in my path! s


Hey Sonny, my name is Nik M. and I’ve basically been a fan my whole life (grant it I’m 14)… My grandpa Earl Ray got me into listening to it, and then I kind of moved into classic country and now it’s kind of a mix of both. I really want to make my grandpa proud so I took up banjo playing. Do you have any beginners tips or suggestions?

Thanks, Nik

Hey young Nik….several tips that would help you. Get the best instrument that is possible. Get the best picks. I recommend Hoffmeyer finger picks, and a plastic thumb pick, or a Blue chip thumb pick which comes in s-m-l sizes.

Select a banjo player that their style of playing best fits what you have in mind. Then find a good teacher. I recommend Kristin Scott Benson, Bill (New Mexico Flash) Evans, or Tony Trischka. Tell them how you want to play and follow instructions. Above all, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. In a room with NO distractions. IE: phone, TV, Radio…complete silence, focus, and concentration is necessary if you want to learn to play.

If you can’t do any of these during practice time, you shouldn’t waste your time and money. You sound as though you may be somewhat talented. If so, you may be ahead of these recommendations, in that case…PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, P[RACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.


Hi Sonny, Long time listener, first time writer-inner. I interacted with you many years ago on The Banjo Forum and was able to ask you once about singing. You told me you never really liked singing but were graced with the natural ability to harmonize so you got stuck doing it. I always thought you were amazing on the banjo but your singing gets very little credit. I was able to purchase the CD and DVD of the show you did with Rhonda Vincent and thought you once again did a great job. Did you enjoy that experience being back on the stage and what memories can you share from the time you were touring where you did enjoy singing?


Stan, welcome my friend. Did you ever stop and think, He gets ‘very little credit’ because he doesn’t deserve much, and you can tell that he’s not very good AND the other two guys are thinking something like ‘JJJeesh, I wish Bobby would have gotten someone else to do this’ and man, we would have something. Seriously, all kidding aside, I just didn’t like singing because it took me away from my first love…the banjo.

I was blessed with the ability to recognize harmony parts and could blend well enough to make the other guys sound good. We were fortunate enough to have some pretty good harmony singers too. Benny Birchfield, Dale Sledd, Ronnie Reno, Paul Brewster, Terry Eldredge, Terry Smith, Daryl Mosely. These guys were good, really good. I would classify myself as adequate.

Did I enjoy being back at the Ryman. Partially. It was good until Mac Wiseman backed his scooter into my left leg and it almost knocked me down. But once again, that’s the price you pay for being a hillbilly.

I loved memories of the Ryman, I was standing within 5 feet of where my career started, and I chose to end it there. Full Circle! I also loved working with Rhonda’s band. They are the best. Aaron McDaris, Josh Williams, Mickey Harris, Hunter Berry, and Brent Burke….Good ain’t the right word, but for me, a 10th grade drop out, it’ll work. The singing part, not so much. Good to sing with my brother again. We spent 55 years together. Rhonda sings a high baritone and it was difficult for me and Bobby to focus in on the correct part. So, there were mistakes in the harmony, BUT THE CROWD LOVED IT AND THAT’S WHAT REALLY MATTERS.


Hi Sonny, I’ve always loved the tone you pull out of your banjos, be it The Granada or the RB-75 FON 182-3 (formerly known as an RB-3 or an RB-4, “the one with an X at the first fret”). These two great banjos were recorded with the best technology that was available to the Osborne Brothers through the years, but I’m wondering: what did you play before them? I’m pretty sure you had the RB-75 on the recordings with Red Allen, but I’m curious about the banjo(s) that you played before, with Jimmy Martin, on the Stanley Alpine recordings, and of course with Monroe. Could you shed some light on the Early Sonny Sound, so to say? Thank you!

Silvio F

Silvio….TONE. Everything has a ‘sweet spot’ including every banjo I played. Tone comes from learning to play at the banjo’s sweet spot. Each one is a tiny wee bit different. I takes a small amount of adjusting your right hand position.

I was just talking about you and the conversations we’ve had in the past few weeks.

STORY. My first banjo was a Kay. My Dad paid $100 for it. I had seen the picture of Earl where he was playing the RB 75 that he later traded to Don Reno. It looked like an X on the first fret. I got some white paint and painted an X on the first fret of that Kay!

The banjo used on the Bill Monroe recordings was a Gibson, no tone ring RB 100. That banjo was run over in a drive in theater while I was working with Bill. I sold it to Johnny Whisnent, and he never paid me for it, ha ha.

I had a Gibson RB150, and it was short lived. StringBean gave me the address of Shorty Fincher in Hallum, PA and that’s where my first Gibson Mastertone came into the picture. My Dad paid $125.00 for a 1929 RB3 Raised Head. I used it on the Gateway recordings in 1952. Sunny Mountain Chimes etc. also the RCA records with Jimmy (Frog) Martin, (Stanley Alpine was a fictitious name). Those recordings were made for Gateway and the Kentucky label. I played it on some of the very early MGM records until I bought the RB 3 (182-3) at The Dayton Institute of Music, becoming the second owner. Hershel Measle bought it new at Pop’s Music on East 3rd Street in 1937. I bought it in April 1956. Aaron McDaris has it now. I played it until the Vega era 1965 until the 1970s. This time includes the 6 string period which began in 1970.

C. E. Ward made the first one ever I reckon and after that I think Rual Yarborough made several for different people. I think maybe JD got one made by Rual. It didn’t catch on as I thought it would. I recorded a lot with the 6 string. It was fun to play, but needed adjustment in the right hand because of the string width being wider. The real problem occurred when I went back to the five string.

The speed was gone for the most part. I couldn’t play fast for long stretches. The Granada came in January of 1978. A Godsend for sure. I had played some good ones but that one, 9584-2 took the prize. ‘Twas the best banjo I ever had in my hands. No way to actually compare but if that were possible I bet that banjo would be the best ever. The Chief came to life in 1998, and I basically used 00 chief until the end in 2003.


If you have something you would like to ask Sonny, be sure to post it in the comments below, or send it to us directly.

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About the Author

Sonny Osborne

Surely among the most influential banjo players of all time, Sonny Osborne has dedicated his life to bluegrass music, and the five string banjo. For 50 years he toured with his brother, Bobby, as The Osborne Brothers and were one of the top acts in bluegrass and country music in the 1960s and '70s. He retired in 2005 but remains active in the banjo world with the manufacture and distribution of his Chief banjos.