Ask Sonny Anything… Working with a rhythm guitarist

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.

Before the questions, let me say to you all, I’m glad you’re staying safe. This part is for the teen age children – I’m appalled by the thoughtless “spring break partiers” who just had to place themselves above all the rest of us. Obviously our safety, theirs, and all the people they are now infecting didn’t mean much.I would love to know where the parents were all this time.

I was asked two questions passed along to me by Lincoln Hensley. Who sang bass on the early (1952-53) recordings on Gateway Records. Recorded in Cincinnati at 3930 Spring Grove Ave. Billy Thomas, who played the fiddle, or Smokey Ward? It would be Smokey. And who sang the verses on A Brother in Korea? That would be 14 year old me….maybe 15.


Hello again, Sonny. A previous question asked about getting to work with the “A” team once you had a major label. I wonder how that was received by your fellow bluegrass pickers, who were doing the equivalent of “singing in a can” outside of Music City. When you first heard your music mastered and punched up for radio, did you like it?

Charles C.

Charles…thank you, good question. First, I speak for myself. I liked the mix on most of our songs. Maybe not one or two. We loved hearing our records played on radio because that meant we had good songs written by good writers, meaning better record sales, more show dates to work, which resulted in more $$$, and when you sign on as a professional anything, bottom line is whether one can make a decent living in that chosen line of work. If the answer is NO you better find something else, cause like that old Louvin song; “That old gray dog gets paid to run!” (In our case, that old white dog,,,.our bus, affectionately known as “The Refrigerator”) … Well, so far as the other Bluegrassers, I don’t really know. We were having a hard enough time being busy keeping up with our schedule and our own career to be concerned with others.

I will say that we were widely criticized for the most part because we had “sold out” to commercialism. If anyone wants to go that route, so be it. We had a living to make and we were doing it using the God given talent (He gave Bobby) and the God given ability (brains) to learn, and know how and where to use it best. Decca Records, all 4 Wilburn Brothers, The Grand Ole Opry, and Nashville, Tennessee. Thank you Lord, was a great ride! Too good! And being able to work with the A team on the best equipment, best in the world on both counts, better sounding records.

Honestly, for the most part we were next in line and ready to go when our number was called. Fate had put it’s mark on us… Interesting story. Once when Rocky Top was at it’s peak, I was in my truck driving from my house to Nashville, and I had the radio on, trying to find something interesting as I went across the dial. I heard Rocky Top being played on 6 different stations. It was hot, and that would be putting it mildly. Along about that same time, at the Opry one night, Earl walked up to me and said, “Rocky Top shore has been a good old horse to ride, ain’t it!”

We are so grateful to all of the items mentioned above. Decca, The 4 Wilburns, The Opry, and Nashville. Thank you. And mostly The Lord. Thank you for putting all of those things in our path. And 9584-2. Sounds a bit like bragging doesn’t it? I apologize if it’s warranted…. but there’s another saying….”If you can back it up, it ain’t bragging!”


Sonny. My father-in-law played guitar for Bill Monroe a few years. His name was Vernon McQueen. Do you remember him. We always loved hearing you and Bobby. Still listen to you guys. You are the best.


Charlie…thank you for your contribution. I do remember a fellow named Vernon who played with Bill periodically in the late ’50s. I never knew his last name and I’m wondering if this is the same guy. If he was good enough to play with Bill that means he was pretty good.

Hey, I appreciate your kind words. Not much left to make old folks feel good about things, but those words surely help. Thank you. Seems as though I connect that name with Bean Blossom. Bill’s park there was always a favorite place for us to play. Crowds were always good, and when Birch would go to that little market and get a pack of hot dogs and a pack of 8 buns, and you were lucky enough to get one of the hot dogs, man they were good. Of course in a crowd of 11,000 one would have to be mighty fortunate if he got one. (;-o

Funny thing happened concerning Birch Monroe, Bill’s Brother. We were on stage one Sunday morning singing I Just Steal Away Somewhere and Pray when we hear this really loud hammering. I JUST STEAL…POW…POW…TAP TAP…AWAY AND…POW POW… Hammering louder than we were singing. Later we found out the steps leading up to the stage were rotted and one had broken. Birch was back there with wood, saw, hammer and very large nails fixing the steps. s



I am a banjo picker and I learned a lot from your music and standards. Thank you for your music, creativity, words, and lifelong dedication to your art. I read “Ask Sonny Anything” all the time and I really appreciate your thoughts and time.

At the tribute to Earl Scruggs in Dayton, many great bluegrass banjo pickers including you were individually interviewed by Bill Evans. This would have been around the year 2000. I heard you speak about band rhythm and timing. I took a lot away from your answers.

I am writing to you to ask your thoughts on the relationship between rhythm guitar and banjo in a band setting. As I am sure you know, one rhythm guitar player can set a banjo picker free, and another guitar picker can shut a banjo picker down.

Could you describe what you perceive to be the relationship between rhythm guitar and banjo? How did different guitar players affect how you played banjo with them? What about at different tempos or time signatures? What did you feel was the best support for your banjo picking? Any stories or experiences you could share?


Chris Q.

Chris. Interesting questions. The correlation between a banjo being played and a rhythm guitar being played as a second instrument. Well all right…

A good rhythm guitar can spell success to the banjo guy. This gets down to splitting hairs… so to speak. The way I explain this might be a long way around, but I think everyone will understand what I’m trying to say. If you can imagine a rhythm strum as A CIRCLE. O Now draw a line through the middle. (West to East) We’ll call that line “The Beat,” or the down beat. That’s where most country rhythm is played on a guitar. (Good Timing) Below that line is called “DRAGGING” the beat…(Bad Timing) for a banjo player, “The Death Knell.” So, ideally for a banjo player, one would like that Guitar strum to be slightly above that center line. Just slightly ahead of the beat. Remember I said “Splitting Hairs?” This is where that comes in. If you go too far, that’s called RUSHING the banjo player…that’s BAD.

So the perfect rhythm is between the center and TOP OF THE BEAT. Dale Sledd, Dana Cupp, Doyle Lawson, Josh Williams, and Paul Brewster are examples of perfect rhythm guitar guys for banjo players. And oddly enough, four of those five were banjo players. Good banjo players. Good Players? Curley Seckler, Larry Stephenson, Bobby, and Bill Monroe (in the ’40s), mandolin. Bob Moore, Terry Smith, Barry Bales, Mickey Harris. Acoustic Bass. J.D., Brock – Electric bass. All this drivel is just MY OPINION ONLY!


Mr. Osborne:

I’m a native northern Virginian who had the great pleasure to listen to Tom “Cat” Reeder on WDON and WKCW, two AM radio stations that played many an Osborne Brothers record. I’ve seen one or two photos of you and Bobby with Mr. Reeder, and I saw a bit of mischief in all of your eyes. Do you have any stories about your visits with the old Tom Cat in the Washington, DC, area?

Oh yes. I have lots of memories from that area. Don Reno, Earl, Ronnie Reno, Eddie Matherly, Tom Reeder, Red Shipley….etc. WKCW, one of the truly great Country/Bluegrass radio stations we ever came in contact with. Eddie, Tom Cat, Red, and a couple more guys I can’t name for lack of memory. Anytime we were playing within any kind of range some of them were there, and we had the extreme pleasure of hanging out with them all day and maybe all that night if we weren’t working some distant place the next day.

Hunter’s Lodge…man, how many remember that place? So many stories. Take it Easy Ranch, Calloway, Maryland, and Tommy Taylor, who claimed to be brother to Earl Taylor, although several say he wasn’t. Every time I saw Tommy he would wander to the area right in front of the stage between the audience and stage, while we were on. Drunker than Cootie Brown…almost falling down drunk. Carrying a quart bottle of Miller’s (Robb M. said) or Colt 45 beer.(Larry S. said) He would dance around while we sang almost falling, but never fell. Last time I saw Tommy, we were on stage, large crowd, Tommy be drunk as usual, when all of a sudden this loudest clap of thunder you ever heard. It shook the stage. So you can get the picture as we saw it. We’re playing on stage, the audience is directly in front of us 10-2 o’clock. On the 2 o’clock side and 150 yards behind the crowd was a rather steep hill and it was used as a runover parking area. On this day several machines were parked up there. OK, now back to us on stage, and this loudest thunder you ever heard, with Tommy, drunk, carrying the ever present quart bottle of Miller’s or Colt 45, dancing in front of us and the crowd. As soon as the thunder roared Tommy dropped his quart bottle, and sprinted, cold sober, to his car on top of that hill. It shocked us and the crowd to see him just all of a sudden be sober and able to walk, much less run at full throttle. He was about half way to the hill when Bobby turned to me and said; “That S.O.B. ain’t drunk, is he?” only, He said the words, right in front of the mic. (I cleaned that part up but I’m sure you got the idea.) Tom was there doing the MC work. Wonder if anyone remembers that. I promise you, I didn’t make that up. No one could. EVERYBODY laughed!

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.