Ask Sonny Anything… did you ever play clawhammer style?

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.

Well Chief, here you go! Welcome to your Tuesday drive through the pages of time. Enjoy the journey and have a safe and wonderful Holiday season my friend. I count it as such a blessing and privilege to be part of this thing you do every week.

Terry Herd



Yesterday was Thanksgiving and I found myself thinking about you and Judy. In these pandemic times, many of us chose to forego the usual gathering of family and friends, but not our memories of past years – or our hopes and plans for future gatherings. I’m wondering if you could take us down memory lane and perhaps revisit one or more of your favorite bluegrass Thanksgiving memories?

Wendell T.

Wendell, sir…thank you for your time. Totally appreciated. Our Thanksgivings have almost always been just immediate family, which has grown over the past few years. It now consists of 11 fine folks. Daughter Karen, son Steve and his wife Jennifer, grandsons Joseph (Jessica), Matthew (Savannah), great grandson 10 year old Michael, and great grand daughter, Adalyn. Just wonderful, beautiful people.

We don’t go for the huge gatherings, with all kinds of turkey food. There is an abundance of food available, and they know they can all come at once, or just when their schedule’s permit. They have obligations too, we know that, and adjust accordingly. We are happy and thankful for their health and safety. Naturally, I wish we could see all of them more, but as I said, they have lives…we respect that and try very hard to not make any of them feel differently…how do we adjust? Simple…Christmas is just a few weeks away and they don’t show up in November, they can expect a thin December…See, that way, all the stuff (clean up) woik out!

November is a memorable month in that my Dad passed from this life on November 2, 39 years ago, on the 6th The Osborne Brothers became full time at WROL in Knoxville, JD Brock’s birthday is the 16th, Rocky Top and 20-20 Vision were recorded on the 22nd, Kennedy was murdered – we were obligated to play that night in Oxford PA…which we did. Thought there was no use going…no one would be there…wrong. We had a full house, all Amish kids. 

On the 23rd, 2003 Myrtle Beach, SC, I played my beloved Granada for the last time. My left shoulder came undone. Couldn’t be repaired 100%…I would guess, about 80%. The part that was gone was the part that made it possible to move my arm to the left. Going UP the neck was no problem, it wouldn’t come back down.

Memorable dates in November… 22nd we unloaded our families, (6 at the time) at my house…Bobby and I left for Dayton to pick up Benny Birchfield, and from there we headed for California. We three had Thanksgiving dinner in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I wonder if Benny remembers that…or Bobby for that matter. We were gone 23 days…and Judy, Steve, Karen, Pat, Robbie, and Wynn….why, they had a big time all crammed into my house at 219 Harbor Drive…all the furniture was in my garage…with the exception of the refrigerator. One thing good though, when we got back we had some money, when we left we didn’t, and if we didn’t…they didn’t.



We all know you as a proficient 3-finger style banjo picker, but did you ever learn clawhammer? Are there any particular clawhammer style pickers that you enjoy listening to or have taken inspiration from? Finally, does the clawhammer style have a place in bluegrass music?

Drew from WV

Drew. From West, By God, Virginia. Home of old route 52. Before the W.VA turnpike. It was the most treacherous stretch of highway on the planet. Best you could do was average about 30 MPH. The real fun came in the winter and snow. Beautiful state though. You see the Smokeys and you’re impressed and then you go through West Virginia and you think, I golly, these h’yer is mountains. Then by chance you go to Colorado and they take your breath away. THESE ARE MOUNTAINS…and they are.

Drew wanted to know if I ever learned to play clawhammer style banjo. No, I did not. My Dad played pretty good, but I just couldn’t get it…One night at the Opry I asked Grandpa Jones to show me how…we got in a dressing room back there at the Ryman…he with his banjo, me with mine. He told me exactly how it was done. I tried my best to get that rhythm going but I just couldn’t do it. Paw had a pretty good temper…he found it whilst sitting there. He looked up at me right wild eyed and said, “A man that can do what you do with your fingers and can’t do this!” He jumped up and stormed out of the room. He didn’t speak to me for a solid year after that. I didn’t ask him anything else about clawhammer either.

My favorite players. I have two. Mike Seeger and Merle Travis. Mike (PAMS) Snyder here at the Opry is good, but he plays more melodic style. I know, it’s good but like melodic three finger style, it just hain’t my cuppa tea. Matter of fact a thimble full would be a gallon too much. Yet I love Béla, Jens, Tony…and others who seem to know what their million notes really mean to a song…… Does it have a place in the bluegrass world? Good thought. I guess I would have to say No. It’s too closely associated with old time music.

With the media as it is, everything is right out there and available, and folks are too knowledgeable. Man, Lincoln has a million songs on/in his phone, Dan Boner has a U87 and a U47 and 1967 Chrysler, Aynsley is playing so much like Shumate you think it’s him, and all I have is a 1934 five string Granada. Woe is me….oh woe is me!!! {;-O>


Hello again Mr. Sonny. I would like to know how you and Vega collaborated together to come up with your Vega banjo, or if there’s any interesting stories behind any of that? God bless!

Jacob P.

Hey, Jacob. Hello again to you. Thank you for joining into my free for all. My deal with VEGA. It started with a letter from the owner, Mr. Bill Nelson. Asking in a roundabout way if I would be interested in the Vega Company building a Sonny O model. He stated that they had dealt with Earl and would like very much to build a banjo, The Sonny Osborne model, which I would design for Vega. (Funny, everyone calls it VAGA…he owned the Company, and he called it VEEGA.) Which I do to this day.

He briefly went over the business part of the de,,l and of course I agreed. They held up their end of the deal in that they changed everything I wanted changed. Four banjos later I held in my hands a genuine Vega Sonny Osborne Model five string banjo. During the process in 1965 they sent a Pro 2, 1966 Gold one of a kind, 1966 The Fat Banjo which I used for one song…The Kind of Woman I Wanted, 1967 the finished product. Sounded pretty good. But the Gold One of a Kind was, and is the best sounding Vega banjo ever made under the Vega name. I recorded Roll Muddy River with it…pretty good sound. Shortly after that, Nelson sold the company to Martin Guitar company, thus drawing an end to The Sonny Osborne model banjo.

I’m told there were 12 made. If you can find one it will be priced in the $15,000 range. That One of a Kind Gold banjo I would guestimate it would be nearing the $100k mark.



It’s probably safe to say that every Scruggs style banjo player in the world would like to have an old Granada like Earl’s, and the one you own. In the 1950’s when you began these instruments would have only been twenty years old or less. At what point in your career did you become aware of these great instruments and start to desire one? Were luthiers converting tenors and plectrums to five strings back then. Were folks converting tube and plate instruments to one piece flange instruments back then? Were any manufacturers, like Gibson, endorsing any professional players back then or was it just you and your wallet?


Mike E

Mike… .thank you for participating, I’ve been waiting for this. I was 11 years old…Earl was 24 (JD was 12). I saw a picture of Earl, poor quality photo. The banjo he was holding was the 75 he traded to Don for the Granada. It looked like an X on the first fret. Well, laugh, if you will. A dumbass 11 year old kid who had just heard the name of Earl.

I had an RB100 and I wanted to be like that, so I got some white paint and what do you think I did with it. I painted me an X on that first fret. When I bought the 3 Aaron has, well hell, I thought it was an RB4. Information was not the same then as it is now. Those Gibson Masterpieces were 20 years old in 1954, about the time I realized the difference in tone. But up until then I was only interested in playing….every note and string in it’s place. Play Play Play…play til your fingers bleed then grit your teeth and go forward…and keep on playing, practicing.

I doubt I knew the word luthier. At the Opry David Akeman (String Bean) told me my banjo wasn’t “worth a shit!” I had an RB150. He gave me an address for a man named Shorty Fincher in Hallum, PA. He had a Gibson Mastertone for sale. I bought it, with my Dad’s help. $125.00…a 1929 Raised head RB3. That would be 1953. So, by April 1955 I was more into flat head….saw the 3 Aaron has and bought it.

I was not aware even then of people converting and changing tone rings..etc. I still don’t think it’s a necessity. If you have a good one, leave it alone. Gibson in the ’50s… I wasn’t aware of endorsements, converting plectrum or tenor to five string. I was not a tinkerer. I got it to sound good and just played…left it alone and played. GOOD SUBJECT. Thank you.


Hi Sonny,

I was just curious if you remember a story you told on stage years ago at Bean Blossom? This particular story would have been back in the days when you still had to park your bus up by the front gate. Due to the distance back to the stage they would transport you, your instruments, and merchandise in a white work style van that was empty in the back. Without giving the story away, lets just say it was an interesting ride for you and Bobby from the bus back to the stage in that white van one day.

I still get a kick out of this particular story to this day because the way you told the story on stage at Bean Blossom. It created a mental image for me of this particular event as you described it. If you do in fact remember what I am talking about, you thought it was hilarious as well. I remember you could hardly tell the story because you got so tickled over it. Thank you for a moment of your time sir, wish you well!

Jason B.

Jason, I have not ignored your question. There were so many funny things if I tried to single one out we would be here a while. Send a private email to me at and remind me, and I’ll jump right on it. Man, thank you for getting in here. I appreciate you.

Send me the email now and I’ll get on it this 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.