Ask Sonny Anything… Leave those knobs alone!

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.

Sonny, I hope this finds you doing better/well! As we get older falls are one of the most dangerous things!

I saw your show at Sunset Park, PA many years ago and it was great! There was another place near there called New River Ranch at Rising Sun, MD. I was wondering if you ever played there? Now as you know Sunset Park [Mr. Lawrence Waltman] did not allow alcohol period! New River Ranch, did and was a whole different story! That place was rowdy! My father played in the “house band” at both places.

Dale Q.

Dale. Thank you so much for the donation of your time, and now you have me wondering who was your Dad. I betcha I knew him. Several more friends will be along presently so leave room for them over there.

During the day, Bobby and I played Sunset Park more than 30 times. We were very familiar with Lawrence’s “No alcohol” rule, which was violated regularly, not by The Brothers and our bands. We valued being able to play there as often as we did. It seems as though Lawrence told me that we were near the top of the list of non-local bands who had played there over the years.

I remember the first time. It was in 1952 as a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass boys. That was also my first time to ride on “The Pennsylvania Turnpike.” Not only had I not heard of such a thing as a turnpike, to actually be on it was worthy of a letter to my Mom and Dad telling them of my experience.

I’m also familiar with New River Ranch. Yes, they did allow alcohol which was responsible for some of the most bizarre moments from the stage and definitely a couple of the rowdiest fights I’ve ever witnessed. On one occasion, Big Jim Webb, a well known steel player, ran up to me and told me that he had just left a drunk stuck in the mud. The rain and the river running right by the park both contributed to the mud, and…Big Jim was 6’7″ and weighed about 300. Big man! I saw Jimmy (Frog) Martin and LE White swim in that river.


Hey Sonny,

Really enjoy your banjo playing, I’ve always been a fan of the Osborne Brothers since I first saw you all in the early ’80s, to me you’re the Cadillac of banjo pickers. I was wondering what you thought about J.D Crowe? Did you all work a lot of festivals together?

Preston r.

Preston welcome. If you can find room over there by the far, tell me what you want to know. JD Crowe? One of my truly close, best friends. However I’ve known of JD since I was 13 years old… of course you know that he is 2 months and 2 days older than I…I’ve made that perfectly clear over the years, haven’t I?

Gibson created 3 banjos in 1934 that were superior to all others. Serial numbers 9584-3, 2, and 1. Earl Scruggs acquired number 3 in 1949….He traded the model 75 for -3, the 75 which Don Reno played for the remainder of his career. I bought -2 from Tom McKinney in 1978 for $5000 cash. -2 has been referred to by many folks who would know such things, as the best banjo Gibson ever produced. I had the pleasure of that banjo being my companion until the end of my banjo career, November 23, 2003. One is able to hear that banjo’s beautiful voice on the many recordings old 1934 9584-2 accompanied me.

Dave Osborne (no relation) purchased 9584-1 about the same time as I. 1977-78. Once, at Renfro Valley, Dave was there and I played that banjo. It was good but not as good as Earl’s or mine. I credited that to set up, strings, head, etc. and the fact that -3 and -2 had both been played a lot. So, move ahead 40 years. Old “follow the leader CROWE” had the opportunity to join the leaders so he talked Mr Ed Lowe, owner of Lowe’s Vintage Instruments and the aforementioned -1, into a trade for one of his banjos. So JD has 9584-1, 40 years after the issue had been settled. Earl has passed this life, my health has failed me miserably, SO…Congratulations Crowe. You have 9584-1…which proves??? Tom told me that he took -2 to your house in 1970 and offered it to you, but you turned down the best banjo Gibson ….ah, well we’ve covered that, right? Right!

Let us cover another 9584-1… Crowe related subject. 1959, it was rumored…maybe fact…that Earl had put a mahogany neck in his 9584-3. Why? I have NO idea. so JD, not being satisfied with how -1 sounded, and because Earl did it, “Old Follow The Leader” had Frank make a mahogany neck for his Granada. Two others hearing this, rushed right up to Kentucky and Had Frank make mahogany necks for their banjos… Forgetting the fact that Earl had that failed experiment replaced with a curly maple neck…like the original. Leaving at least 3 disgruntled banjo players. Sometimes it pays to be a leader….10/4!!!!


Hi Sonny,

I bet you remember performing in Michigan at the Charlotte Bluegrass Festival (called the Stringbean Memorial Festival for a few years). A cozy festival at the county fairgrounds — The Brothers played there many summers. You won’t remember me, but I wonder if you remember this occasion. One year in the late ’70s you were there, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon as I recall. I lived just up the road a piece. I missed the Saturday show, but got a call Sunday morning from my friend who was running sound for the festival that year. He asked, “Joel, could you come down and run sound for the Osborne Brothers this afternoon?” I asked why. He said “Well, if Sonny sees me running the board, I think he might kill me.” I said “Oh… Okay,”

I came down and looked for you while your band was tuning up, and said, “Sonny, I’m running the sound for you today. Anything special you want?” And you told me clearly, “Make my banjo mic the loudest thing. Everything else comes down from there.” I said, “Yessir!”

So I turned the knob for your banjo up to 10, and everything else down a notch from there. Monitors the same as the house. Then adjusted the master volume so everybody could hear you. I will never forget it. You gave me the biggest grin a human can grin, and a big thumbs up. And you boys sounded great!

I am not a professional sound man, but I have played many times on stage at these smaller bluegrass festivals. Job one is play your best. Job two is to work the mics. Job three? Tell the soundman to keep his cotton pickin’ hands off the knobs once they’re set right.

Bless you, Mr. Osborne, for your wise words.

Joel M.

Joel…Come on in and sit beside Preston. We got room.

Hey, I remember well the times we performed at the Fairgrounds in Charlotte, Michigan. One of the many really good places to play. And, I enjoyed it for the most part but as usual we had problems with the sound. I never understood, the guy running it seemed to be qualified to do it, but it just didn’t happen. See, what he did wrong was try to readjust our mics once we had them set. They call that riding gain.

What that means is when an act is on stage they try to continually set everyone’s level to how he hears it. Only thing when a sound guy does that for experienced road musicians they throw all our practice and self mixing skills right on out the window. For a good road band nothing, repeat…NOTHING can be more frustrating. So that’s what must have happened there, that day. So you enter the fray and come to the rescue, saving the day and making for the fans who were there a pleasant and hopefully good sounding show on behalf of the Osborne Brothers. It doesn’t take much effort….just ask what they want, go to the board and set it how they want it, and we’re all happy.

I don’t remember that actual incident but it happened more than once…many times over the years. Speaking of Charlotte, MI, would you happen to have been there the day some old boy went La La and rode a motorcycle through everyone’s camp sites? He was so messed up on some drug-related substance it was not funny. It took 5 police officers to finally subdue him. They had to handcuff his hands and feet behind his back and carry him away as you would a basket. Never forget that one.


Hey Sonny! I really enjoy your column each week, and our opinions of this music we love and call BLUEGRASS, are mirror images!! My questions may revive a memory or two from the “glory days” of the Camp Springs, NC festivals. There was a performer, fairly local to the area, who often worked those festivals in the early/mid ’70s. His name was Roby Huffman and although no one was quite equal to Bobby Osborne when it came to singing, in his best days, Roby was pretty darned close. And of course, he did a bunch of songs by the Osborne Brothers. I have heard it said that you had a clause in your contract that you would not follow Roby Huffman at Camp Springs. Is there any truth to that? Do you have any memories of Roby? Thanks!

Lynwood L.

Hey Lynwood, welcome back. Been a while. Don’t stay gone so long…

I knew Roby… South Carolina guy I believe. This is a touchy situation in that Roby actually thought he was equal to Bobby. Once in Withlacoochee, Florida, a great festival run by Lonnie Knight, Roby was on and we were on the way to the stage when Roby saw us. He made the mistake of telling the audience that he was going to sing Ruby and that he thought it was as good as our record. An he proceeded to sing Ruby. Not half bad, but that made it only half good, Eh?

I knew it was a mistake on Roby’s part because he didn’t know my brother like I did. And, obviously he didn’t know Mr. Lonnie Knight very well either. When we went on Bobby went straight to the mic and as Roby was walking from the stage Bobby stopped him and told him to wait right there and he would “show you how it really goes!” After the show Lonnie called me over, paid me, and apologized for allowing that to happen and assured me that Roby would never be there again. I felt sorry for all that happened but Roby should have known better.


Sonny, I’m curious about the 6 string banjo. More specifically, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Did you have a certain song that you wanted to play and thought the 6 string would make it sound better, or did you get the banjo and look for ways to incorporate it into songs?

Dan M.

Dan…. thank you for your time. The 6 string banjo was an idea I had for years before it actually became a reality. There’s a note that a regular banjo tuned in G just doesn’t have. So I took my problem to a friend at the time and explained it. C.E. Ward listened closely to what I was suggesting that he build for me. A neck with exactly the identical inlay pattern of the banjo I wanted the 6 string neck for. He built it just exactly to my specifications. He called and said it was ready, we stopped in Charlotte and picked it up late one Saturday night. I took it home and with Dale Sledd’s help, we installed it on my banjo. You asked why I wanted the same inlay as the five string neck, so if I couldn’t play it I could reinstall the five string neck and no one would be the wiser. It worked like a charm.

I recorded Listening to the Rain two days later. I could play it just fine. That was 1970 and I used it until 1976.

Was it the first of it’s kind? Yes. So to answer your question, the idea came first. Then I made it work. Hardest thing was to keep from hitting that extra bass string. Just a matter of adjustment though. Several other guys tried it, JD Crowe was one, Rual Yarborough another. Obviously they didn’t think it rewarding enough. Fun being the first to do something though. Then see other guys try to do it too. 10/4. Such is life.

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.