Greg Deering wanted a better banjo and couldn't afford it, at least not at the time. The Boulder, Colo., native literally took matters into his own hands at 19, capitalizing on his gift for craftsmanship and his obsession with folk-heavy tunes by The Kingston Trio.
“I was at a friend's house,” he recalls, “and we were playing records. I heard ‘Tom Dooley' all the way through. That was it.”
It's 35 years later-and now, Deering and wife Janet run Deering Banjo Co., the nation's leading manufacturer of America's most American instrument. The 30-year-old firm has occupied its Spring Valley site since 2001, employs more than 40, does about $3 million in business annually and enjoys endorsements from acts as diverse as Rod Stewart, Smashing Pumpkins and The Dixie Chicks. And in the last 20 years, the company has patented an electric banjo and has sold nearly 30,000 instruments from its four lines throughout the United States and in several foreign countries.
But Deering, 54, reflects on it like a kindly land baron might survey an ancient strain of crop. He quietly acknowledges the banjo's relatively junior place since the advent of the electric guitar in the mid-1930s-but that footnote, he adds, obscures the instrument's global impact on musical consciousness. That sweet, sibilant twang actually found a following the minute a group of burly guys with beards and clubs stretched a bunch of petrified entrails over animal skins and laid down some serious live tracks.
Minstrelsy, jazz, the blues, even fledgling military motifs duing the Civil War and beyond: The banjo has occupied a substantial place in American genres nearly since the birth of the nation-perhaps in spite of itself.
“It's a special sound,” Deering said. “It has more history than any of the wind instruments. On a philosophical level, I suspect it's a sound that's in our genetic makeup, since we've been hearing it for tens of thousands of years.”
The firm's 18,000-square-foot site reflects today's refinements, and then some. Ear-splitting squeals from robotic sanders and saws compete with the crimson glare off digital calibrators. Maple and walnut fingerboards lay dead to the world in their infancy, later to be adorned with intricate inlays, steel strings and a Mylar face considerably lighter than the materials around it.
“Feel how heavy that is,” Janet Deering challenged, chuckling at a visitor's surprise-the showroom item runs a whopping 11 pounds, nearly triple the weight of some simpler models. That slice of whimsy yields some Deering lore, like the time The Kingston Trio's George Grove bought a specially made instrument valued at a staggering $52,000.
“George didn't pay $52,000 for that, either,” Greg Deering added. “He got a very special deal after it was built. We tracked about 300 or 400 man-hours making it, and then we lost count. It didn't matter. It was an honor to build a banjo for The Kingston Trio.”
If such intangibles translate to global sales, they also herald the nature of musical bliss. Deering is intimately familiar with that corner of the world, his strategy for success transcending the hopelessly cyclical phenomenon of profit and loss.
“It's not the notes,” he said. “It's not the harmony. It's not even how well it was played. It's the magic that was made. And sometimes, it takes the very least to make that magic. You don't have to be [violinist] Itzhak Perlman to make it. Itzhak Perlman will make more of it than I will. But to get to make any little piece of it is fabulous. Just fabulous.”