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Bluegrass Banjo Legend, Sonny Osborne, Passes Away at 83


Yesterday, the banjo and bluegrass communities lost one of the great icons of the instrument and genre: Sonny Osborne, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 83.


Alongside his brother and mandolin virtuoso Bobby Osborne, Sonny made up one-half of the world-renowned bluegrass group, the Osborne Brothers.


Born on October 29, 1937, Sonny Osborne began pursuing music professionally at the young age of 14. He and his brother Bobby grew up playing together; however, when Bobby was drafted into the United States Marine Corps in 1952, Sonny continued his musical pursuits, sharing the stage with bluegrass legends such as the great Bill Monroe and others.


Following Bobby’s discharge from the military, the Osborne Brothers partnered with Red Allen on guitar, Ernie Newton on bass, and Tommy Jackson and Art Stamper on fiddles for their debut release on MGM Records in July 1956. The success of their first single, “Ruby Are You Mad,” led them to sign as regular members of the WWVA Jamboree in October 1956. The re-recorded Jamboree version of “Ruby Are You Mad” marked the first time in history that twin banjos were featured on a bluegrass record, the first of many progressive musical choices made by the Osborne Brothers.


“The Osborne Brothers were a major part of my bluegrass life in my younger days, and are still a pivotal band for me,” explains legendary banjoist and ArtistWorks instructor, Tony Trischka. “They were always taking chances and being forward-thinking, while still having a strong foothold in traditional bluegrass.”


In addition to premiering the first double banjo ensemble on a recording, the Osborne Brothers were also the first bluegrass artists to feature dobro and drums on a recording, the first to incorporate electric bass and percussion into their studio and live work, and the first bluegrass group in history to perform on a college campus—Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH in 1960.


“They were one of the first, if not the first, bluegrass bands to plug in [and amplify their instruments] in the later 60s,” Tony explains. “Sonny even went as far as to put a padlock on his banjo’s flange so that no one could figure what pickup he was using.”


Tony and Sonny worked together many times over the years, both on stage and in the studio. Sonny even co-wrote a tune on Tony’s 1985 album, Hill Country, called “Sunny Days.”


“‘Sunny Days’ is a tune I co-wrote with Sonny Osborne,” Tony explains. “When you hear the double banjo parts, Sonny is playing the melody and I'm on harmony. The banjo solo in the middle is Béla Fleck, who produced the album. Sam Bush is on mandolin, Tony Rice is on guitar, Blaine Sprouse is on fiddle, and Mark Hembree is on bass.”



Fellow ArtistWorks instructor, banjo master, and co-founder of Punch Brothers, Noam Pikelny also expressed the great influence that Sonny had on his musical pursuits and appreciation for the instrument.


Hearing Sonny's approach to playing slow music on the banjo was incredibly liberating for me, and his assimilation of pedal steel guitar-isms into his playing has served as a real model for me over the years,” Noam explains. “Sonny's music and spirit were inextricably linked to the very best-of-the-best first generation Bluegrass musicians who came before him, but his music was inarguably forward-looking, progressive, and uniquely his own.”


Sonny Osborne will be deeply missed, but his legacy will forever live on through his music and the countless musicians and banjo players who were influenced by his art and talent.



Have you always wanted to learn how to play bluegrass banjo? Through our comprehensive online banjo lessons and Video Exchange Learning platform here at ArtistWorks, you can learn from internationally renowned players, like Tony Trischka, and get personal feedback on your playing.


Tony’s course starts with the basics and teaches everything from beginner banjo to advanced performance techniques and tunes. So, whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced player, all levels are welcome and all students will grow and improve their skills as banjo players and musicians!


Try out some free sample music lessons here and see what makes ArtistWorks courses some of the best online music lessons around!



ArtistWorks Music Series Podcast—Artist Bio Series: Tony Trischka

Try Our Free Bluegrass Banjo Technique Builder Lesson Bundles!

Banjo Lesson: Righthand Positioning with Tony Trischka




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