Ask Sonny Anything… how did you set up your 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.

Hey Chief, one thing that always amazed me about your playing, along with the freedom and how easy it looked for you to be playing. was the tone of your banjos. In particular the Granada. I realize just how great that banjo is after being fortunate enough to get to play it thanks, to you. But I’ve always been interested in your setup for banjos, and although we’ve talked about it before, particularly the advice about once you get a banjo right… LEAVE IT ALONE. I’ve noticed some of your heads in some pictures are worn horribly, which I think look great. It shows the instrument is a tool, and not a show pony. How often did you change heads?
Lincoln H.

Lincoln….good to hear from you, although we talk regularly This is a bit different. It was easy for me to play because I had finally gotten a banjo that would produce what I heard, or wanted to hear. I also knew the fingerboard well enough that my hands were in position usually to play the notes I wanted. I never bothered with set up very much and I don’t recall anyone ever saying I got a bad tone out of a banjo. Every time I let someone set my banjos up, usually I had to fix it so it sounded right. I tried to get the head tight enough that it felt like one more turn would break it, then make sure it was level. Let the tailpiece find it’s own spot, go get a 5/8 Grover bridge, and next find the spot where that banjo sounded the best, and after that leave it alone. If it sounded how I wanted it to sound, I didn’t want anyone to touch it, or breathe on it. You know, usually if you let someone play your banjo the first thing they do is tune it. I didn’t like that. Some of these set up guys will tell you that a plastic head will wear out, lose its sound, well to tell you the truth I hardly ever changed heads.. Only when they would come loose from the bead and I had to change. One head in particular on that Granada in the ’80s when we were still working a lot, I must have kept that head on there 10 years or more. If plastic wore out we would be in real trouble huh! Look at all the things we use a bunch every day, the dashboard on our cars, Man, everything is made of plastic. I had a conversation with E and he told me that when the plastic head came out “A feller’d never have to buy another head.” Case closed! . s


Hi Sonny,
I’ve heard you speak before about banjo players the do or don’t have “attitude” related to their playing and style (not their personality); could you expound on what that idea of “attitude” is?

Derek V.

Hey MR. Derek V….Thank you for wearing a mask and following the rules. We might make it through this Chinese Virisdown. Banjo playing/player attitude. It really should be labeled Aggressive, which would suit the attitude I always try to instill in the playing of an advanced player if they ask me. To be more clear, it’s the image the audience sees when he sees you play. MR. Scruggs, Don Reno, had it. I tried but I’m not sure I ever accomplished exactly what I see and hear in my own appearance and/or playing.

The facial Expression has something to do with it. It’s a Take charge, I own it, I want you to listen to me. I CAN play or I wouldn’t be up here. So, now listen!

Aggression. Confidence. Look at Flatt. Have you ever seen a more confident person?

Jimmy Martin had it. Scruggs, My Brother Bobby, Béla, Jens Kruger. Derek, I know how this might sound to a guy who doesn’t have it…CONCEIT….But man, I assure you it was not conceit. With the banjo I wanted to seem in control of my moment, confident, aggressive, sure of myself to the point that my banjo was screaming ‘I belong here now listen’…hey if you’re getting a house built or concrete patio poured you don’t want some guy that doesn’t know what he is doing, Do you? ‘course not. When you pay hard earned cash to see a bunch of guys come out on the stage and dilly dally around and when they start playing it’s almost like they’re saying to the audience ‘please excuse me for taking up your time, I won’t be very long’… at least I don’t want to see that. I had rather have my banjo scream and say; “Sit down, shut up and listen, cause we own this stage for the next hour. We are in control up in here!!!”
….something like that 😁😝😳….may be a bit harsh, you reckon?



Hi Sonny:
I greatly appreciate your comments and stories, they remind me of your music – honest, straight forward and offered on a take it or leave it basis. I hope you enjoy writing it as much as we do reading it.

Many of your colleagues were/are superb guitar players, people like Earl, Don Reno, J.D., and Alison Brown. Ralph may be the exception here, as I believe he stuck to the banjo. I assume most pros play several instruments and the guitar being simple to learn, is played by many of them. Do you in fact play guitar, and did you ever play on stage or in the studio? If not guitar, maybe you can tell us about any instrument you play for your own pleasure. I read recently that Bobby played fiddle for his own enjoyment all his life, and that is what brings me to ask you about other instruments.

Ont. Canada

Dick in Ontario, beautiful Canada. We did a TV show at a Chevrolet show room in Winsor for about a year in 1955. Broadcast on CKLW-TV with Casey Clark and the Lazy Ranch Boys and Girls.

Other instruments? I know chords on the mandolin, GUITAR Banjo, and can figure out the bass. I have played Mother Maybelle Carter Guitar breaks on several tunes and even recorded a couple. On stage I played guitar a bit but I stuck with the banjo and guitjo.

Bobby was a better musician than I, in that he could play anything. Fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, and at one time he could play some piano. I believe his favorite would be the fiddle. But his vocal was so good….so good. My opinion, Bobby started a style of mandolin that the majority of players do now. It’s the single string where you don’t necessarily play the melody, rather you kinda play around it. He started playing that stuff in 1952. Because his vocal was so good he was never recognized so much as a mandolin player, but believe me folks, boy could play.



Sonny, thanks so much for sharing your memories and observations with us. I really enjoy reading your column! A question for you: A while back, you mentioned listening to jazz. I’m curious as to who you listen to in that field. I know you worked with Hank Garland way back when, and there’ve been lots of bluegrass artists working jazz into their recordings, and some jazz folks [Bill Frisell, Cal Collins, Charlie Haden] who wandered into bluegrass and country. Did you explore integrating the styles in your playing, perhaps even for your own curiosity, or did you prefer not to mix the two [OK, two questions]? Thanks for all, and best of health to you!!

Henry K.

Henry K…welcome, good of you to share some of your time with us. Thank you!

Yes, I would have mixed it all together just to see what surfaced IF I thought I had the knowledge to do it and not get booed out of the stadium. Not very many guys I mentioned would wander very far into jazz because really good jazz musicians look right on down on people who proclaim jazz talent, and knowledge, without being able to back it up.

I was told that the Emmons try at a jazz album was not accepted well by the other musicians….and see, man I would run wide open away from that situation. Jazz and I go back to the early ’50s when I was around some folks who delved into some form of jazz. They were not considered top drawer players but I grew to like and admire their talent. Buddy Emmons, who recorded a jazz album (mentioned above) that I never heard. Hank Garland, Jethro Burns and Homer Haynes, and a little Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. I also recorded a fusion album with Gary Burton, Roy Haynes, and a couple more guys I can’t remember their names. Tennessee Firebird was the album.

We played a park in Chicago in 1955 and I had heard that Charlie Byrd was playing just a short few steps from where we were so when I got done I headed that way, (I wanted to head him off cause as soon as he heard I was near he’d be right there, and Charlie was getting right on up in years). Yeah Right, I’m sure of that! I got to see the great Charlie Byrd play. UNREAL.

I liked Charlie Parker and Billy Preston too. It’s a far cry from what made my living, but I really love (and better defined, Admire) Jens Kruger, Tony Trischka, Ned Luberecki, and Béla Fleck, and about a jillion others for what they can do, and what I couldn’t do. I neither have the time nor room to mention all of them. If I mentioned them all, man I’d be here ’til suppertime.

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.