Made in USA: Deering Banjo Co.

American Icons, Featured Article, Made in America, Odd Jobs
on March 22, 2014
Chuck Neitzel fits a fretboard with a decorative inlay at Deering Banjo Co.

Greg Deering was 12 when a Kingston Trio album inspired him to save his newspaper route earnings to buy a banjo so he could play along with “Tom Dooley” and the group’s other folk songs.

A half-century later, Deering and his crew of craftsmen in Spring Valley, California, have built more than 100,000 of the stringed instruments, including banjos played by members of the folk group that stirred his musical passion in the early ’60s, and contemporary artists such as Bela Fleck, Taylor Swift and Keith Urban.

“It’s like a dream come true,” says Deering, 63, about the origins and evolution of Deering Banjo Co.

Deering launched the company with wife Janet in 1975, five years after he built his first banjo while attending San Diego State University. Today, Deering is the largest manufacturer of banjos in the nation, producing 10,000 of the musical instruments last year.

In Deering’s 18,000-square-foot factory, banjos begin as pieces of hardwood, which are cut into the long, tapered necks and round triple-ply rims of the banjos-to-be. Craftsmen sand and stain the wooden necks before affixing frets and inserting decorative inlays. Once the fretwork is completed, the necks are sent to an assembly room where the rim is covered with a synthetic “skin” and attached to metal rings, which give the banjo its unique tone and twang. After the neck and body are joined, the instruments are fitted with bridges, tuning pegs and other hardware prior to stringing and tuning.

“It’s like a birthing room,” says Janet Deering, 59. “Everything comes together in its own instrument and gets to discover it’s a banjo.”

During the company’s early years, Deering and head craftsman Chuck Neitzel built banjos largely by hand, crafting mahogany, walnut, rosewood, ebony and two kinds of maple into a wide range of the stringed instruments.

Today, three-dozen craftsmen continue to use a sanding machine built by Deering 37 years ago, as well as a 1928 lathe and a computerized laser programmed to cut intricate designs for decorative inlays.

“We have a lot of automated machines,” Deering says, “but we still do a lot of the work by hand.”

The company produces more than 80 banjo models, types and styles, including plectrum and tenor, acoustic and electric, four-, five-, six- and 12-string, and instruments for right- and left-handed musicians. A basic Goodtime banjo sells for $499, while a long-necked, custom-made Banjosaurus, featuring a dinosaur mural inlay on the fingerboard, retails for $63,719. The latter was designed for George Grove of the Kingston Trio.

The company’s Eagle II model is both acoustic and electric, and is the instrument of choice for Winston Marshall of the English folk rock group Mumford & Sons. Yet, acoustic instruments remain the bulk of Deering’s sales.

Deering acquired the century-old Vega brand 13 years ago, and now the company manufactures the same banjo that Deering coveted when he was a 12-year-old. “This banjo was what I wanted, but I couldn’t afford it,” he says with an affectionate glance at a Vega being assembled in his factory.

“It’s like magic that we get to make it here.”