A Visit To Deering Banjo Company

Written by February 12th, 2012 at 2:23 pm

It would be hard to think of a musical instrument that was more quintessentially “American” than the banjo. After all, not only was the modern banjo created in America, but it was also part of the foundation of American-born jazz, bluegrass, and the aptly named Americana style of music, among others. The Deering Banjo Company keeps the banjo’s American theme going by keeping their entire production in the United States.

The Deering factory’s Southern California location (the climate is considered ideal for instrument making) is not too far from where the historical luthier co-op American Dream was formed. The co-op, where Deering founder Greg Deering learned aspects of the trade, was part of an acoustic instrument renaissance which fostered an intense period of innovation. American Dream would eventually be purchased by employees Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug, and evolve into Taylor Guitars.

The spacious Deering factory is filled with an interesting mix of hand tools, conventional power tools and modern high-tech Computer Numeric Controlled (CNC) machines.  In addition to all the tools that deal with the various aspects of curing, shaping, forming, inlaying and finishing the wood parts, there are those for the fabrication of the considerable number of the banjo’s metal parts.

Yet, in spite of all the technology and industrial brawn used for various tasks of construction, a considerable amount of handcraftsmanship goes into each banjo. And, the fancier banjos with intricate etching on the metal parts, elaborate inlay on the fingerboard, resonator and headstock, and even the hand carving of artistic designs on the neck heel require hours and hours of additional labor.

While Deering is more than happy to accommodate those willing to invest tens of thousands of dollars for truly breathtaking show pieces such as their Gabriella model, they’re also well aware the need of instruments for working professional musicians and those of even much more modest means.

Deering’s Goodtime banjos are priced for serious students and semi-professional players. With emphasis placed on the components that produce tone and elements of playability, the Goodtime models have a somewhat stripped down appearance. These instruments, with their lack of ornamentation and no-nonsense approach, holds appeal to some Americana and folk artists who appreciate the Goodtime’s working man ethos and the fact that they are made in the U.S.A. The line includes 4 string tenor and plectrum banjos, and several 5 strings models … with a rumored 6 string in the works.

Their professional line, besides the Deering brand itself, includes Vega and Tenbrooks brands. Deering also has sub-divisions of Artist Series, Golden Series and a Private Collection Series of investment grade instruments for the player-collector.

The list of Deering banjo players reads something like a who’s who of top bluegrass, folk and innovators including Bela Fleck, John Hartford, among many others. Deering banjos have also been spotted on stage with Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, whose recent Grammy nod has increased the banjo’s visibility.

However, some of the most visual artists using Deering instruments aren’t banjo players at all. They are pop artists/guitarists that use 6 string banjos which are strung and tuned like a guitar. This familiarity allows any guitarist to instantly tap into the banjo’s mojo and vibe. Among the artists using Deering’s 6 string banjos are Keith Urban, Taylor Swift and John Fogerty, whose rush order Deering was recently making its way through the factory to be shipped to the artist on tour.

Deering, who roots are firmly planted in the traditional construction, also realizes that the banjo’s role in different types of music and the demands of its increasing popularity sometimes requires innovation.

One of these newer demands is the necessity to amplify the banjo so it can compete with electric guitars in full-on band situations at full-on rock show volume … all the while maintaining the integrity of the instrument’s sound. To that end, they have developed replacement heads with built-in pickups, electric banjos with the traditional banjo styling and even the “solid body” Crossfire model that wouldn’t look out of place in the hands of Angus Young.

As a breeze blows through the open roll up door in the factory’s shipping facility, another batch of the 150 or so instruments built each week are sent out to music stores across the nation … and overseas, too: because to play America’s music on a foreign made instrument almost seems, well, un-American.

 

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