Ask Sonny Anything… tell us about the five string dobro

Sonny LOVE THIS COLUMN! Please give us your thoughts on the 5-string dobro.

My best wishes for your health.


Hey M.C., thank you for participating in our free-for-all. The instrument you are referring to is the dojo. It’s an instrument I started playing in the mid-’60s and recorded one of our best-selling songs, I’m Making Plans, and the 1968 Gospel album, Favorite Hymns. My opinion is a lot more people should have played it with amplification because the volume on it was quite low. The first time we went electric was at the Flame Club in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We peeled the paint right off the walls and did it on purpose too, just because we could! Emmons and Shot Jackson had installed a pickup in my dojo and that’s what I used that first night.


Sonny – back in ‘73 or ‘74, you played a date at Philharmonic Hall in New York City put on by my friend, the late Doug Tuchman. I think I remember you breaking two strings on one song! Reno/Harrell and the Country Gents were also on the bill. What are your memories of that gig and trip to NYC?


Thank you for your question, Eric. Yes, I remember playing there and, as I remember, Doug had promoted the show pretty well but we didn’t have a large crowd. Somehow, I got the impression that he blamed it on Don and Bill Harrell. I never did know why. So Eric, the trip to New York was expensive!


Hello Sonny! What was the motivation for your excursion into electrified music, and did you have to endure excessive amounts of criticism from your fans or conversely, did it wind up bringing new listeners into your camp and enlarging your fan base?

Bob W.

Hey Bob.

The motivation was survival. Electric added to our instruments came as a necessity at the Flame Club in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We were booked there for a week, and the first night the folks sat out there and talked instead of listening to us. We decided make or break. They might not like us but they WERE going to at least hear us. Long story short, we blew the paint off the walls the next set. They listened, and heard bluegrass, and liked it.

Later Carlton Haney used us on all his huge Country package shows throughout the South and a few scattered other places. We were competing with The Big Name COUNTRY ACTS WITH THEIR VERY LOUD ELECTRIC instruments. We’re talking 8,000-15,000 crowds and we were dying because folks couldn’t hear us. So we drug out the amps and pickups and blew more paint off the walls, and they loved it. We did too.

Yes, we took a lot of heat from the diehard bluegrass fans but we did what we had to do. Yes, by playing the venues where the large crowds were increased our popularity and fan base, probably equal to Flatt & Scruggs who in the late ’50s and early to mid ’60s was the standard we used. All was not lovely though, at Berryville, VA. At Watermelon Park someone eased their way to the stage and cut my banjo cord. No problem, I had plenty more cords as this was not the first time that had been done. It worked so well for us that other bluegrass acts, J.D. and Adcock come to mind, tried it for a short while. But…WE HAD BOBBY, AND NO ONE ELSE DID AND HE COULDN’T BE DUPLICATED. Our record sales went through the roof and life was good. There are a couple interesting, funny stories about The Flame. You wanta hear it, I’ll get into that at a later date.


Back in my high school days, myself and two other class mates played music together and we played together for many years afterwards. Sonny and Bobby were our idols. I played the 5-string and the others guys played flat-top and mandolin, respectively. And when we played, it was played just like the record. We love your music and your style. Thanks for being the greatest of the greats. And still today there is no one like The Osborne Brothers… Thanks for the memories and making Bluegrass Music what it is today…….

Tim P.

Thank you Tim, for the kind words.

Compliments have always been important, always nice to know that our accomplishments are recognized and appreciated. At age 82, and soon to be 88 those words are quite a bit more important to a couple of advanced age, has been hillbillies from so deep in the hills of Southeast Kentucky, why…the Grand Ole Opry didn’t get to us till Wednesday! And sometimes the battery radio would run down…which brings up another question. When the battery ran down, how did my Dad recharge it. We didn’t have electricity to plug in a charger, so…how? You ain’ta gonna believe this….it was so unique for someone to have a radio or record player (talking machine) they would gather on Saturday night (I was just joking about Wednesday) to listen to George D. Hay, Founder of the Grand Ole Opry (The Solemn Ole Judge), Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb or Bill Monroe, then have discussions about how they looked, judging on their sound. I remember hearing Gabriel Heater’s news cast, (sponsored by WHIZ, THE BEST NICKEL CANDY THERE IS) and Joe Lewis knocking out Billy Conn. AND, Kentucky Wildcat Basketball. Where would we be without memories.


Hi Sonny,

Thank you for starting this column. I think that your music is among the most beautiful ever recorded. It says above that you’re retired. What is your music life like these days? Do you still play? If not, do you hear music in your head and think about arrangements and melodies?


Suzanne, you’re most welcome here.

First and foremost. I did not start this column. Terry Herd and John Lawless are solely responsible. However, I love doing it and I thank them profusely for giving me this great opportunity. First of it’s kind I believe.

I retired in 2005 and, other than some health issues, I have enjoyed retirement and just to not have to rush around needing to be somewhere. I don’t have a schedule. I’m not one of these people that must be doing something, keeping busy. Retirement is supposed to be just what it is, whatever you want to do. That’s my opinion anyhow.

Music? I haven’t played the banjo since rotator cuff surgery in 2003…November 23 in Myrtle Beach was my last time to play the banjo. I do hear and see things in my head that I would like to hear, and have written a few tunes but I think they are too complicated, not meaning “good” just “on paper” complicated to actually play…maybe someday I’ll show them to someone willing to take the chance.

I don’t listen to music, with a few exceptions. I love Tommy Jackson’s fiddle playing….favorite is Fraulein by Bobby Helms. Tommy’s fiddle is just way too good on this song. Recorded in 1956 and stayed on the National charts for a year. I’ve been asked my thoughts on the future of bluegrass music. If you’re asking about the bluegrass that I know, I would say in my opinion it’s spiraling. Lacking in leadership. There are no more Flatt and Scruggs, Monroe, Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Stanleys, Reno/Smiley, etc. To me these folks provided a standard…something to hear and learn from…

OK, I included the OB…you think that’s conceited…I don’t. Sorry! Think what you will. My opinion. Always. A few… Rhonda, The Grascals, Joe Mullins, Lonesome River, Junior Sisk, Ralph 2, Del, Larry Sparks, Larry Stephenson…are trying to do it right. IN MY OPINION. I left some out. Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t know everything.

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.