Ask Sonny Anything… did banjo tone change with plastic heads?

Sonny, I can’t thank you enough for your insightful article that you both produce each week. I read a lot of music articles in various online publications on a daily basis, a few are pretty good, most are just fair, and many are just a waste of my time. Yours are like gold to me. The way you candidly, “tell it like you saw it,” makes for great reading, and a tremendous help for those of us trying to make sense of the music business (especially bluegrass).The saying “you don’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you been” captures what your articles are all about! Keep up the great work!


Len..I appreciate your time and your kind words. At my age, every little bit helps, and when I tell a story it may be the 5th or 15th time that I tell that same story, and sometimes they differ a little. But I still tell basically exactly what I saw.

If you’re trying to make any kind of sense out of the music business, mainly country which is now pop, and especially bluegrass which is now bad country, or I should say weak country…in my opinion….and the old saying, “You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.” That holds so much truth for what they call country now and it’s beginning to trickle down into bluegrass, sorry to say.




I look forward to this column every week. I consider it a treasure. I’ll ask you something I’ve always wondered about.

I’ve heard hundreds of people over the years talk about your style of banjo playing being among the best (which I happen to agree with), but I don’t ever hear anyone talking about the Osborne Brothers rhythm. I’ve always felt there was a very unique “drive” to the rhythm section. You have this unique vamp, or “chop,” like us hillbillies call it. It almost has a double vamp, at times…like when a snare drum adds an extra hit for accent.

I’ve never heard any other banjo player, myself included, be able to recreate it. That, combined with Bobby’s broad mandolin chops and Jim Brock’s powerful Music Man Sabre, made for a percussive and unique rhythm. I noticed Bobby would often drop out to focus on a vocal line, but then when he would come back in with the chop it would be like getting hit with a tidal wave of sound. I’m sure the Granada and Bobby’s Fern have a little to do with that.

It seems like your vamps and Bobby’s chops became more prominent in your music after you no longer carried drums. Was this by design, necessity, or both?

My original question here: In your opinion, what makes your vamps so powerful and unique? I think I’d rather listen to your vamps than most players lead playing. Have a great day!

Tom Feller

Hey Tom, good to hear from you.

When we had Jim Brock, who was the best electric bass player ever, who is now playing drums by the way, we also had Robby (Bobby’s son) playing drums. We didn’t need Bobby’s rhythm nor mine that much. The vamp I did on the banjo came from watching Bobby’s right hand and Dale Sledd’s right hand. It’s different, I understand that, but when we stopped carrying drums my rhythm vamp was a necessity and, yep, it was my design.

My vamps were so powerful and unique, as you stated, was mainly because I wasn’t afraid to do it.

And that last part of your question, I’m not even going to comment on. I’m just going to thank you for it.



Hello Sonny,

I’ve got two things I’d like to ask your opinion of. First, once (’80s) I showed you a 1925 TB-Granada I had recently purchased, and the first thing you did, was to put your nose to the flange, and inhale like an addict getting a fix. Ever since that day, I also do the same when I encounter an original old instrument. I wonder why you do?

Secondly, I’d like to hear your opinion of how the plastic head changed the sound of the great pre-war banjos, as many of the most revered records were cut with calfskin. When did you switch? Were there some players that stuck with calfskin?

Thanks, always enjoyed your music.


Paul, thank you for joining us and thank you for your time. The old instruments, like a 1925 Granada, used a different kind of glue that had a specific odor, and the first thing I did was smell that glue, and that would tell me if it was authentic. That was why I did it, although I realize that I looked like an addict getting a ‘fix.’

Secondly, the plastic head for a banjo was the greatest improvement ever, and I really don’t think it changed the sound of the really good pre-war banjos. I can only think of the Scruggs tone that would have changed when he started using plastic.

I switched in 1961 and some of guys still tried to use calfskin, and they realized quickly that it wasn’t worth the effort because the skin heads took maintenance on your banjo every day, tightening and untightening the head, which involved removing the resonator, etc etc.




I understand that the Osborne Brothers were the first to record the Darrell Statler song (in 1967) – My Favorite Memory. You did a great job, of course. Merle Haggard recorded it much later.

How did you connect with Statler? Did you record any other songs of his?

Thanks for taking my question.

Tom McCreight

Tom, thank you for your question and I appreciate your involvement in our little free-for-all.

My Favorite Memory was not the only Statler song we recorded. The other ones included Up This Hill and Down and When You Wind Down. The Haggard song was not the same as the one we recorded. Teddy Wilburn found the Statler song among the others. He was a genius at just that.


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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.