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, When I was about 17 and not very far along on banjo, you spent an afternoon with me (a day off on your tour) showing me stuff. That one day watching you pick up close was life-changing for me in several ways. First, it meant so much that you would do this for a young fan. I think and hope it influenced me to be the same way when opportunities came up. In terms of the banjo, you redirected me to what was really important: the basics, the fundamentals—like Cumberland Gap played right.
Later I got to see you play at the early festivals and other occasions after that—many fun and fantastic Osborne Brothers shows. I feel the same as you do about Bobby’s incredible voice (how could anyone not?), and also believe his gifted mandolin playing has never received its due just as I feel your wonderful harmony (and never enough lead) singing never has.
Since you said readers could ask you “anything,” could you tell me (or us) what the chord shape is that you use in the ascending lick on Making Plans? I don’t think it’s shown on the chord page of your Mel Bay book, my old copy of which you autographed on the front cover with “A friend always.”
Many thanks and my best to you always,
I knew a Sandy from California. Remember an incident at Frontier Ranch in Hebron, Ohio. Friend thing still holds. Glad to help: 4th on the 3rd fret index finger, 3rd on the 4th fret ring finger, second on he 3rd fret, middle finger, second on the fifth fret little finger (5). Play those three notes and then release the little finger (3) and play it again using only the little finger on the 3rd fret. Now move up the fingerboard 3 frets and do the same thing then move up the fingerboard one fret past C (9-10-9) second string 11-9 and do the same thing, then go to the C chord… The basic (melody) note will be the little finger and it should be noted 5-3, 8-6, 13-11 then C. If you have trouble let me know by email and I’ll fix it!
Sonny, I do not like to play my banjo in a stand up position because I do not see the fingerboard perfectly. I know the black dots are made to guide me but it works almost for current and easy hand positions. It stresses me when I have complicated ones to accomplish or when I play tunes I do not know by heart. How did you solve this problem and what kind of tips can you provide to help?
Simple…Always try to play standing and you will learn the fingerboard and where each string is and how the same note appears on a different string at another place on the fingerboard. This will force you to learn and know the fingerboard so your problem will be eliminated. You can also play in front of a mirror and you can see and learn to feel where each group of notes are that are creating the problem. Stay in touch and let me know if this helps. Another thing you might try to remember where your problem notes are is by feeling the thumb string tuner as your hand passes by it. This should tell you where you are and where you need to be. Your best playing will be standing or if you choose to sit, then ALWAYS SIT!
Sonny, I have the album Detroit to Wheeling (Pinecastle) and Disc 1, Track 1 – Shady Lane is a tune I have grown to like and play. Can you tell me a little about the tune?
I wrote Shady Lane when we were playing Eminence, Missouri. There is a motel right across the road from the venue entrance named The Shady Lane Motel. I liked the name and it reminded me of my home in Ohio when I was a kid. We had a driveway lane on the farm that was about a quarter of a mile, and the tune just seemed to fit the name. I’ve walked that lane in a foot of snow to get to the school bus. Rarely was school called off, if the bus could run it was our job to get to the bus. I digress… in the summer the lane was shady.
Sonny, I’ve always liked stories about artists going in the studio and recording. Do you have any memorable moments from recording sessions you were part of?
Paul, I have several hundred. Chet Atkins was a great guitar player, and I knew it, but I was always a Merle Travis kinda guy. So, I was playing the banjo on a Chet Atkins album. I’m sitting right across from Chet waiting my turn to play, and I’m thinking “he ain’t showing me much,” so suddenly he did this lick that went from the fifth fret all 6 strings to somewhere around the 18th fret and it shocked me and I thought, “Damn, where did that come from?” Chet stopped and looked at me and said… “Ah, right there is where you’re supposed to play!”
Another time we were doing a session at Bradley’s Barn and Grady, Ray, Pig, Willie Ackerman, Hal Rugg, they were all there and we were cooking… all except Pig, who NEVER missed anything, missed a lick. We stopped and he missed it two more times… same place. Grady said; “Damn Pig, what in the …. is wrong with you?” Pig (Hargis Robbins) stood up so fast that the back of his legs hit the bench and knocked it down. (For those of you who don’t know, Pig is one of the greatest piano players ever, and he is blind.) He said, “Damn it Grady, (Grady Martin) I’m blind. Hell, I can’t see nothin’!!” The studio, including Owen Bradley and the Wilburn Brothers and Joe the engineer, were laughing so much that we couldn’t play again for 20 minutes.
Sonny, I had the luck to see you play the Dunnellon Bluegrass Festival in Florida back in the early ’90s, when you guys played a set with the Easter Family. I then had the chance to see you play in Woodstock, IL not too long afterwards. You told me it was the first time you had played with an electric band in something like 20 years. Did you ever play with an electric on stage after that? It was an incredible set.
Dan are you sure it wasn’t the Lewis family with Jeff Easter playing the harmonica? We played Dunnellon several times with them. I do remember playing with a country band but I just don’t recall exactly where. I’m sure you have the venue right but it just escapes me at the moment. We plugged our instruments in until 1975, but we did play with an electric band on two occasions. One was The Flame Club in Minneapolis MN in 1967 around Thanksgiving, November 23… but the other time I just can’t place. After we unplugged, I don’t remember doing much with an electric band. To play good bluegrass with an electric band is not an easy thing to pull off. Country players timing is good but draggy compared to bluegrass timing. You would call it playing behind the beat, while bluegrass would be on top or a shade IN FRONT OF THE BEAT. Kinda deep!
s…see you next week. I hope youn’s are liking this. Man, I sure am.
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.