In all walks of life you'll find people content to rest on past accomplishments, fame or glory. Two years ago or twenty, they remind you incessantly of what they did. Ask them what they've done lately, though, and you find yourself facing a blank stare.
Then there are those who are never satisfied; who are continually perfecting and innovating, experimenting with new ideas and trying to improve on the old. So it is with the folks at Deering Banjo Company in Lemon Grove, Cal.
Twenty years ago Greg and Janet Deering started out with a dream to build a quality instrument a beginner could afford. Back then, inexpensive beginners' banjos were cheaply made and sounded that way. The plastic or aluminum pots just didn't have the ring of the ones professionals played. Consequently, students quickly became discouraged and gave up shortly after trying to learn to play. (And anything that sounded good cost more than a beginner wanted to shell out.)
So, in 1978, after three years subcontracting banjo parts for a high-end brand the Deerings developed and marketed their Basic and Intermediate banjos featuring a steel pot and a mahogany neck. Their rich tone and easy action still amaze listeners and pickers alike; yet the price was affordable for someone just starting out.
The Deerings could have been satisfied there. Their place in that market was secure; why mess with success? But they weren't. Over the years, they went on to develop a whole line of professional quality instruments from the Sierra and Deluxe models that features a three-ply maple rim and mahogany neck to the Gabriella that features a Brazilian rosewood neck, a mother-of- pearl fingerboard and vine peghead inlay.
Their six- and 12-string acoustic banjos and Crossfire electric banjos have spawned a whole new interest in the banjo from previously untapped corners of the music spectrum. They have been responsible at least in part for the instrument's crossover from a purely folk and bluegrass instrument to one now heard in the country, rock, and jazz genres. Tune around the FM dial sometime. You'll hear names like Joe Satriani, Rod Stewart, John Hartford, John Sebastian, Jimmy Olandei (of Diamond Rio),Jeff Cook (of Alabama), and Bela Fleck playing Deering electric and acoustic instruments. Coming off the success of Garth Brooks' hit single and video "Callin' Baton Rouge," that features Bela Fleck on the Crossfire, Brooks recently ordered a new Crossfire for his band, Janet Deering says.
"Our goal has always been to build what banjo players want," Greg Deering says matter-of-factly. Janet adds their design was to "help expand bluegrass music as well as make banjos that can be used in other music forms. That way a broader spectrum of people can enjoy the banjo.
"That's the difference between us and other companies," Janet adds. "We're working to make the banjo market grow. The rest of them are all fighting for a piece of the same pie."
But it was neither thoughts of big names nor of owning his own business that motivated Greg to design and build his first instrument:. As with most cases of motherhood and invention, necessity spawned Greg's first creation. Greg had been playing banjo as a college student in the '60s for about six years by then; he needed a better banjo but couldn't afford to buy one. Building his own wasn't the end of Greg's banjo making, though; other pickers saw his banjo and wanted one for themselves.
Greg says he was unable to hang onto a banjo until he finally built a long-neck, folk model. Back then, the long-neck variety made popular by Pete Seeger and the folk boom was not as big as it is today. And while he still has the original long-neck he built for himself, he says orders for them have increased steadily over the years from one to quite a few each year. He explains fans of the Kingston Trio from the '50s and '60s have grown and probably have settled with families and careers now. They have enough time to learn the instruments and the old songs. Today, Deering Banjo Company sells a substantial number of long-neck folk banjos in a variety of models for those of us who never outgrew the folk era.
Not, long after that, Greg says he switched his major at San Diego State University from Biology to Industrial Arts, ultimately constructing a banjo for his final project. Greg recalls his professor gave him a B on the final, stating the instrument was too good; he couldn't have done all the work himself.
Ever thought of inviting the old man out for a tour of the shop since then, Greg? Maybe sending him a catalog? From there, Greg went to work for American Dream Music in Lemon Grove as a repairman, working there for about four years until 1974 when he and Janet were married and Taylor Guitars bought out American Dream. They opened Deering Banjo Company out of their home in 1975.
"Our living room was our shipping and receiving area," Janet grins. "Our bedroom was the office; the patio was the assembly area; the garage our wood shop. We sprayed banjos on the back porch." Times were tough then; many times Janet says she had to personally deliver a load of banjos to dealers upstate and then run to the bank afterward so the family could put food on the table.
Deering Banjos moved into more accommodating quarters in Lemon Grove about a year later when the Fire Marshal started asking questions about their operation. They finally settled into their place at 7936 Lester Avenue in 1983.
After the success of their Basic and Intermediate lines, the Deerings added the Deluxe, the Maple Blossom, and Calico banjos that featured a wood pot, a mahogany neck, an ebony fingerboard inlaid in mother-of-pearl, and a bell-bronze tone ring. The three-ply maple pot. was introduced in 1981. The GDL (Greg Deering Ltd.) followed a year later and the Ivanhoe, featuring mother-of-pearl and abalone inlay with all hardware is gold plated and engraved, a year after that.
The Deerings made a major breakthrough when they showed up at the 1985 NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show with their Crossfire, the first. electric banjo that worked. Until then, other instrument manufacturers had tried and failed in attempts to create an electric banjo. The instruments either were plagued with feedback problems or they sounded too much like guitars. This one sounded like a banjo. Janet recalls the new Crossfires drew quite a crowd of onlookers.
"People thought it was strange; they didn't know what to think of it," Janet recalls. "I explained it was like an electric guitar. The shape was designed so it would fit into an electric guitar case; the 'horns' housed the electronics." She adds that more than 90 percent of the Crossfires are ordered in black because many players wear a black shirt or jacket; to hide the instrument's odd shape. From a distance, the white head gives the instrument the round banjo shape.
Originally, the Crossfire could be ordered with either the banjo or six- string guitar neck. But in 1993, Deering discontinued the six-string version. As fate would have it, Jeff Cook of Alabama ordered one with the six-string neck shortly thereafter. He played it on the Grand Ole Opry this summer. Many bluegrass banjo players are also playing the Crossfire electrics in country and rock bands on the side, Janet says.
The Crossfire comes with two pick ups that can be selected for a guitar or a banjo sound, or for the two in combination. Greg and Janet have worked with Bernie Leadon (formerly of the Eagles and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) and Bela Fleck since the first Crossfire to perfect the instrument, recently coming up with a new pickup they say works even better than the ones they initially used. Greg notes it has a "cleaner, quieter sound. And it's easier to link up with wireless and other sound systems."
(If you're one of those who own a Crossfire that still uses the old pick-up, write or call Deering about having your instrument refitted with the new style.)
Besides some 15 models in a variety of styles (five-string, bluegrass, long-neck, tenor, plectrum, left-handed, six- and 12-string, archtop, flattop), Deering does a considerable amount. of custom work. If you can draw or describe the design you want, Deering craftsmen can probably build it. Such was the case recently for George Grove of the Kingston Trio. George wanted a long-neck banjo with the fingerboard and peghead inlaid in a dinosaur scene. Not just dinosaurs at the usual fret markers, an entire prehistoric scene including landscape inlaid from peghead to pot. He got it, too; an instrument he dubbed his "Banjosauris." Greg and Chuck Neitzel, one of Deering's top craftsmen, designed and laid out the fingerboard. And Jeremiah, Greg and Janet's son, drew the peghead design.
Bela Fleck ordered a purple Crossfire inlaid in a cosmic hippo design after his "Flight Of The Cosmic Hippo" CD. And, yes, it matches a purple shirt he wears onstage.
Texas banjo player and bluegrass DJ Tony Ullrich ordered a line of 151 banjos to commemorate each year of the Texas Sesquicentennial from 1836 to 1986. The peghead and fingerboard are inlaid in spurs, a hat, a boot, crossed pistols, the Alamo, a lariat, and flags of Texas and the United States.
The Deerings also built a model for John Hartford. The Hartford can he ordered with either the bell-bronze or a wood tone ring made from Granadillo. Enthusiasts of the wood tone note the banjo still packs plenty of punch but produces a more rounded note and is lighter in weight than the bell-bronze tone ring.
Still progressing, the Deerings released their new Hartford model this year. What sets the new Hartford apart is its 24-fret fingerboard. Unlike the long-neck which positions an extra three frets at the peghead end of the fingerboard, the Hartford adds two additional frets at the bottom (pot) end. This moves the bridge more toward the middle of the head, bringing out the full tone of the instrument.
As head of marketing, Janet keeps her hand on the pulse of the market to learn how they compare in sales with other banjo makers. Much of the success goes to Janet's marketing savvy.
"It's mostly common sense," she shrugs. "That and a weekend marketing seminar I took a few years ago. Sales really took off about 1986 when we came out. with our color catalog."
The company's workforce has increased to keep pace; but, at more than a dozen employees on the payroll now, it still hasn't lost its family atmosphere. On any given day, you'll see Greg binding resonators or setting up a Crossfire, Jeremiah turning a pot or punching out a flange, and Jamie, the Deerings' daughter, and Janet filling in wherever they can to help fill an order. However, Janet says she doesn't get to put in as much time in the shop as she used to. "I miss it," she says.
Two of Deering's craftsmen, Chuck Neitzel and Wendell Weisner, have been with the company better than 25 years between them. And another employee describes banjo making as "the most fun you can have with your clothes on."
The location helps the atmosphere as well. Lemon Grove is a small community east of downtown San Diego with a small town flavor. (Greg tells visitors to look for the big mailbox in back of the Lemon Grove Post Office as you're coming down Lester Avenue. When you see it, they're right across the street - 7936 Lester Ave., Lemon Grove, CA 91945, 1-800-845-7791)
Deering has expanded its quarters as well to include new space for an additional setup bench, a new office and showroom and recently-acquired space for more room for the machine shop.
As for the future, Greg smiles and admits, "I think all of us are hoping for another Deliverance," another movie like that or Bonnie And Clyde that featured banjo music and brought the instrument more publicity and increased banjo sales. "Banjo sales really jumped after that movie came out," he says.
Beyond that, Janet doesn't say much about future plans. "We have things in the works right now, but we're keeping them quiet for marketing reasons."