Ask Sonny Anything… Ever try the melodic 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.

Hey Sonny,
Legend has it that putting and keeping a rattlesnake rattle in your instrument improves the sound quality and it brings good luck. Did anyone in your band ever have a rattler rattle in their instrument?

Curious in the mountains!

CiTM….Yes I’ve been aware of fiddle players especially getting rattle snake rattles and putting them inside their fiddles. I have never been aware of it having any affect on the volume, tone, sustain, as a matter I’ve never been aware of the rattles doing anything to a fiddle. Curly Ray Cline insisted that the rattles would vibrate inside the fiddle while he was playing but although I tried, I never heard a thing. I believe it to be a hoax and need it proven to me that it means nothing but one less rattle snake…..UGH! I’m scared of snakes! Show me a snake and even with my bad wheels I bet I could break Jessie Owens records!



Not much has been said here about Bobby’s iconic hat. Certainly in all your travels there must be a colorful or funny story you could share with us about that iconic component of Osborne Brothers visual kit.

Jen L.

Jen thank you for your time during these dark Chinese days. Bobby’s hat, mandolin, and boots. Word was “Do not touch” and we never did. He also carried a leather bag which was off limits. We never knew what was in it, and so far as I knew up until the time that I retired, no one ever asked.

I carried a green bag with me at all times but every band member knew exactly what was in that bag. And, I might add, saw to it that it was protected at all times. I don’t know about Bobby’s hat and boots after my retirement, but from the time he first started wearing those two things and the Cazal Glasses, stay away. What can I say, he could afford them, he liked them and they made him feel better, more comfortable. I know they were each very expensive.

The hat and boots were made for him by a man in Houston, and I believe the glasses were from Germany. I told everyone including Little Roy Lewis, who used to come on stage during our show and do some funny antics, those items were off limits. Lincolnton, Georgia festival. We’re half way through our performance and Roy wanders out and the first thing he did was take Bobby’s hat off. I told Roy that was not a very smart thing to do, but he just did more and everything went down hill and sideways after that. Funny for a few moments, not funny after those few moments. I was afraid Bobby would get really UPSET, and the old Marine war boy would show up….I had seen that before…but he kept cool, thankfully. I know a million funny stories, but that was not one of them.



I enjoy your column and have always enjoyed your banjo picking. Your story about Bill Monroe breaking his mandolin by shutting the case with a set of stings under the peghead and breaking it got me to thinking. Banjos have a lot of moving parts and are real easy to mess up. Have you ever been out on the road and messed up your banjo so bad that you had to borrow another one? Did you do your own banjo adjustments or did you have someone you trusted to do it for you? Any tips for us on adjusting your banjo just right?

Our paths have crossed twice. The first time was in the mid 1960s and I was a snot nosed kid in the audience when you played at the city park in Sesser, Illinois. I soaked up every note you played and wanted to do that, but I had a big brother who went home and got a banjo after that and learned, so I never got the opportunity to be the banjo player. I compensated by playing everything else. When I was 58 years old, I finally got a banjo and learned to play it. So, you inspired me to play, but it was 50 years before I actually did it.

The second time was a bit embarrassing. At the Wichita Winter Bluegrass Festival, my band, The Home Rangers, was playing just before the Osborne Brothers in the 9:00 segment before you boys closed the show. Orin Friesen, the famous Wichita DJ, was in our band and should have known better and stopped us. Our second to last song was Once More, one of our favorite Osborne Brothers songs. As did the big finish, we saw none other than the Osborne Brothers staring at us from the wings. Oops. Sorry about that.

I hope this pandemic is over soon. My wife put me in quarantine and is only feeding me bologna and cheese. When I asked her why I was only getting bologna and cheese to eat, she told me that was the only thing that would fit under the door.

Ranger Stan

Ranger Stan. Thank you for jumping right on in here! Glad to hear from you. Yes, I’ve been in situations before but I don’t ever remember borrowing someone’s banjo. In Germany, we did a video and it shows me playing what looks to be a new Gibson Granada. But I didn’t have it on the entire trip. The dates were with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Blake Williams was playing the banjo with Bill at the time and he had a new Granada, makes sense that I used his banjo, but I’m sorry, I just don’t remember doing that.

Adjusting a banjo is like a box of chocolates, as Forrest Gump would say. When you open the case you don’t have a clue as to what you’re going to get that day. It’s much better now with the plastic head but back in the day, before plastic, skin heads were an everyday job. The weather had a lot to do with how a banjo reacted. I’m talking about being on the road….if you are a studio, or stay at home type player, it would have been much easier, but I was on the road most of me career.

Orin Freisen…a name from the past. Really nice guy He owned the record playing part of Wichita. Know what, knowing Orin a little bit, he would have seen no harm in doing one of the following band’s song. At the time we might have been upset but here we are talking about it calmly. So no harm. However, once in Alabama a band of motorcyclists were on before we were to close the show and guess what! They did 9 of our songs and thought it was funny. It was not.

Thick sliced Bar S Bologna is as good as the most expensive steak one can have, if that’s all you can get. I’ve been there too, not as much since Rocky Top, but I haven’t forgotten. Nope, not for a moment. “The price you pay for being a hillbilly!” But LORD, THANK YOU, what a beautiful ride it was!!!!


Hey Sonny,

Who’s the first person you ever saw use the melodic style (Keith style) of banjo playing (besides Bill Keith)? And also, have you ever tried playing that style yourself?

Ned L.
Nashville, TN.

Ned. NED. The only other NED that I know happens to be one of, if not THE most talented musicians I’ve ever been around!!!

I was so disinterested after hearing Bill Keith for the first time, I don’t remember. It might have been Benny Birchfield who tried to show it to me and tell me that it was rather easy but you must have a quick left hand. Still, I was not interested at all because I always thought if you were going to play fiddle tunes, go get you a fiddle. And, I had heard Don Reno play that kind of thing using a flat pick.

In a recording session once upon a time, Grady Martin suggested that I play a Bobby Thompson break in a song we were doing, Cut The Cornbread. I told him I didn’t like nor play that junky shit. He laughed and said something like “Could it be because you can’t?” So at the end of the tune I did an ending using that style, melodic I guess. I told Grady that I would dedicate that to him and he would never hear me play that style again, and may it rest in peace. And I never did! But, in my later years I’ve come to respect those who choose to play that style, although it’s not for me.

Bill Evans and I did a banjo camp for about 11 years here in Nashville and on Saturday night we had the teaching staff do a free for all. Tony Trischka, Alan Munde, Bill Evans, Kristin Benson, Jim Mills, Kenny Ingram, JD Crowe, the aforementioned Ned Luberecki (Rhymes with ‘Break Necki’) Jens Kruger, Alison Brown, (I’m sure I have left someone out), and each of these greatest players on the planet would see who knew the most notes and could incorporate them into the pretense of a tune. And what was billed as a traditional banjo camp, turned into the staff free for all, premium edition! The crowd LOVED it! Could I have played it? I guess we’ll never know. I think if I had wanted to, I probably could have.

I saw Alan Shelton try to play Black Berry Blossom on the Opry with Jim and Jesse, and it was a total train wreck. As he came off the stage I asked him why he attempted to do that, he said he wanted to do anything the crowd wanted to hear. I suspected Jim or Jesse, one or both, requested that he should do that. I guess they didn’t realize, nor care that they were messing with one of the best innovative genius banjo players in history. I saw and heard the same thing, with the same band, at the same venue, happen with a young Bobby Thompson, but he came out on the other side smelling like a rose who later was probably the guy who did most for that style, but Béla Fleck and Jens Kruger and Ned and Bill and Alan and Tony and Alison Brown and……… s

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.