'The banjo is the hot rod of musical instruments with all the nuts and bolts on it, and it's usually made for playing fast, hard-drivin' music

Times Staff Writer

The banjo market has been minuscule for decades, but Greg Deering wasn't worried when he dropped out of industrial arts and music studies at San Diego State University 17 years ago. To him , nothing was more exhilarating than making musical instruments. He took a work bench in a co-op and began turning out one $300 instrument a month. The Deering Banjo Co . is now second only to Gibson of Nashville, Tenn., in banjo production nationwide. The Deering firm turns out 30 to 40 banjos a month . Folks have been lining up to try the new Deering electric and 12-string banjos at trade shows . More than 300 stores sell banjos bearing the Deering name, and dealers sell the handmade instruments in Japan and Italy. Deering , now 36 , says he wants his Lemon Grove company to be the biggest and the best. He was interviewed by Times staff writer Nancy Reed and photographed by Times photographer Dave Gatley.

Roy Clark plays one, and Dave Guard of the original Kingston Trio has called us and said he is going to play one of our electric banjos. Oh, it's incredible! He calls up and he is all humble about the honor that I would work with him--and he is the reason I am doing this.

As a kid, I listened to the Kingston Trio. My folks thought I was nuts that I wanted a banjo--I already had been playing the violin in the school orchestra. I found a banjo advertised in the newspaper for $20. I delivered the morning newspaper, and $25 was all I made in a month.

The heyday for the banjo was from about 1850 to the start of the Depression. The guitar almost didn't exist in social circles in those days. It was either the mandolin, the violin or the banjo. Our Hollywood stereotype of the cowboy and the wagon train and people with the guitar just didn't exist back then.

Good-quality banjos were available then; there were dozens and dozens of banjo makers back in the teens, '20s and '30s.

Between 1910 and 1929, everybody and their aunt and uncle made banjos; the Wurlitzer Piano Co. made banjos. Now there are five or six (manufacturers) in the country.

During the Big Band era, except for rural areas and in the South, the banjo had really died out. Pete Seeger, the Kingston Trio and people like that got banjos going again after World War II during the folk era. Then there was a surge of banjo sales after the movie "Deliverance" in the early '70s--but that has been gone for eight or nine years.

The banjo market is a very grass-roots thing. Compared to the number of people who would buy running shoes or something, the number of people buying a banjo . . . comes out to like 0.0001% of the population.

Back when I was a kid and wanted to buy a better banjo and couldn't afford it, I would make the rounds of all the music stores and pawn shops, and in the lower price range there just wasn't anything worth taking home.

So I formulated a goal to make a banjo in a low price range that is worth taking home.

When we built our first banjo for $250, my wife, Janet, went out on the road visiting music stores in Southern California and everyone asked her what was wrong with it--how come it's so cheap. It was hard for us to learn that you couldn't underprice; it took us years to get over that.

The business end of this has been the most frustrating. It's satisfying to do the work.

There is a lot of handwork. We have machines that do basic operations, but all the operations are one-at-a-time things. The final shape of the neck has to be done by hand and frets are all put in by hand. That's what takes the time.

The banjo is the hot rod of musical instruments with all the nuts and bolts on it, and it's usually made for playing fast, hard-drivin' music. We have customers come in on a fairly regular basis and they say, "It sounded great when I got it but it sounds terrible now." Most are scared to death to touch it. Within 5 or 10 minutes, I will tighten it up and tune it, and they fall in love all over again.

The banjo is just a really special thing. Once I got into it, there just wasn't much doubt in my mind that that was going to be my career. My emphasis in school was teaching, but that ended up not holding a candle to doing this.

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