Ask Sonny Anything… Did Earl ever show you how he played something?

Good morning Chief, I hope you had a good week and either already have your COVID shot, or are on the list. I got mine late last week. Either way, fear not, we’re all masked up out here in the Bluegrass Express (as always) and we have the pages-of-timeometer set to the early ’50s. First up, a question about Earl.

So come on, Judy says we have to have you back by 5 tonight for her special chicken dinner, and Professor Dan has already eaten more than his share of the donuts.




Nowadays anyone who wants to learn to play can find instructional videos, tablature books, online lessons, and more, but back in your day none of that existed. Which is part of the awe we all have for Earl’s contribution – he invented a huge amount of the bluegrass banjo sound that became the defacto standard for the genre. My question is simple, while I know most everything you learned was by ear, unrelenting practice, and sheer determination – did you ever have an occasion to actually sit down with Earl and have him show you a lick, or technique on the banjo?

Willy B.
North Carolina

Willie, thank you for your interest in our little get together, glad you could join us, Your question is simple, how would you feel to sit down with an absolute genius King, 0r the Pope. When I was a kid I didn’t have access to him, and when I got to the point where I knew Earl, I didn’t have the nerve. But, once at the opry, ’bout 1965 I asked him about the C7th thing he did on Bugle Call Rag. I was ready for his stock answer that I had heard him use to others. “I don’t remember exactly how I did that!” I said “OK, see you tomorrow.” I went home and really listened and figured it out. Next night and as soon as I walked into the Ryman, he rushed up to me and played the lick and said, “is this the one?” I said, “yeah, that’s it.” He played it through several times and I told him I heard where he did that was confusing me. I asked him where he got that and he said, “I don’t know, it just came out that way.” What else would you ask a King Genius with the greatest right hand ever. I believed it then as well as now although within the last few years some have moved on and taken some of THE EARL with them, as well they should, but brother just listen closely to Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and then tell me, in the Bonnie and Clyde movie, when that car came around the curve and Earl’s banjo busted the speakers, was there was ever anything better. Hell no! {I bet I wasn’t the only banjo player who had a little dampness in their pants… and eyes.}



Sonny wrote:

Sometime in the future, if anybody’s interested in knowing the difference in the way we sing and the way they sing, I will be glad to go into detail, but I’m not going to at this point.

Sonny, I’m not especially interested in the way they sing (or sang), but I’m VERY interested in anything you feel like saying about the way YOU sing (or sang), whenever you feel like saying it. Many thanks in advance!

Sandy R.


My old compadre, I’m always glad to hear from you. By golly, I did write that. Answer is relatively easy if you understand harmony just a little bit. Tell you what, Sandy. Draw 3 horizontal lines and number them 1-2-3 top to bottom. Traditional harmony would be 3-tenor, 2-lead, 1-baritone. What we did was invert number 2 to the top spot lead, number 3 to the middle spot baritone and number 1 low tenor.

You may wonder why we did this. It put Bobby singing the verses to most of our songs and there were times when we would trade parts several times within a song. We did this because a different voice would have a better tone for certain words, so we exchanged parts.


Mike E… Your answer is above, the same as Sandy’s. You also asked if we had disagreements, and the answer to that is no. The guy making the suggestion was very close to 100% correct so we never had arguments or disagreements on how a song ought to be structured. As for whether a song should be harmony or solo. Beginning with Benny Birchfield, and followed throughout our career, we had such great success with harmony songs that we just automatically thought in those terms.


Hey there Sonny really enjoy your column. I have a question. Dan Tyminski wrote a song about Jimmie Martin called I Never Saw Jimmie Martin Change His Guitar Strings. Is it true he never changed his guitar strings, or is this kind a joke?

Wes H.

Wes, thank you for joining our little chaotic free-for-all. We try to have a little fun and sometimes bring a smile to your face. The song you are referring to, about whether Jimmy Martin changed his guitar strings, I don’t believe Dan spent much time around Jimmy. In my 5 year association with James Herman, I sorta remember Jimmy changing strings just like the rest of us, when we could afford to buy ’em. So as far as Dan Tyminski writing a song about Jimmy, song content rarely is written about truth, it’s all about whether words fall together and rhyme.


Sonny, I agree with you, Bobby was one of the best of all times. However, another singer came along who was absolutely unbelievable too: John Cowan. I have heard him hit an Eb above double high C!! He could sustain notes forever. He could sing loud and strong or sweet and light. Never lost his voice through the years. Great technique.

Your thoughts, please.


Hey Neal. Glad you could join us. Thank you for your time. The reason I think my brother was the man, was because for the better part of 50 years he brought his “A” game to work every night. As for John Cowan, I tend to agree with you that he definitely had the voice, but I thought his song content was not a good match for his voice. It seemed as though the bands he was associated with, traveled in different circles than where we were. So I didn’t get to hear him on a regular basis. Actually enough to make an accurate assessment. So I agree with you, John was the total package and, from the people who worked around him, he was one of the good guys.


Now if Larry can back this monster back up his driveway, and Dan can quit throwing doughnuts at you, maybe we can get ready and do it, and do it again next week.

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.