In the hinterlands east of San Diego, in a nondescript building hemmed in by a CVS pharmacy and the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway, Greg and Janet Deering produce more than half of all the banjos made in the United States.
Béla Fleck, arguably the world’s most celebrated living banjo virtuoso, plays a Deering, as do Keith Urban, Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons, and Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks. Recording artists who favor Deerings have piled up dozens of Grammy awards. The company’s product line ranges from the Goodtime, a $559 banjo popular with beginners, to the $32,000 Gabriella, with its mother-of-pearl fret board, abalone trim, and resonator back made from the same walnut burl veneer that graces the dashboard of the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud.
As Greg tells it, Deering Banjo grew out of adolescent longing.
It was sometime in 1963 when he noticed a Vega Pete Seeger signature banjo hanging on the wall of a San Diego music store. Greg began visiting that unattainable instrument most afternoons on his way home from junior high. Developed for the legendary folk singer, the long-necked Vega had also been embraced by Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio. It was $420—around $3,500 in today’s dollars. “I would dream about that banjo, but I never even asked the guys at the store if I could play it,” Greg remembers. “I was too intimidated.”
While there were a few value-priced banjos on the market by the mid-1960s, they didn’t come close to the Vega Pete Seeger. Greg managed to find a beat-up mass-produced five-string in the classifieds that cost him $20. It sounded OK, but after a few years he decided that he would design and build the kind of affordable high-quality banjo sought in vain by kids like him.
Greg was uniquely equipped for the task. Working on his own, he had completed his first airworthy rubber band-powered model plane at age five. By his mid-teens, he was an accomplished draftsperson and had clocked thousands of hours designing and working in metal and wood.
While attending San Diego State University, Greg led music services and the youth group at Pioneer United Church of Christ. One evening, hanging out in a VW bus with several youth group members as they awaited rides home, he began talking with 16-year-old Janet Miller. He asked her what she wanted to do with her life.
She replied that she wanted to start a family business that would manufacture “something worthy of being passed down from generation to generation.”
“He had this look—like he couldn’t believe I had just said that,” Janet recalls. “He told me, ‘Well, I want to have a family business, but I want to make banjos.’ ”
“I asked him what a banjo was,” she continues, “and he said, ‘You know when I’m doing the music service at church, and I put down the guitar and I pick up the round thing? That’s a banjo.’ ”
Janet was 18 and Greg was 23 when they went on their first date. Six months later, they wed. In 1975, less than two years into their marriage, they launched the Deering Banjo Company out of a garage.
Inside the Deering factory, amid piles of banjo necks, fingerboards, and resonators, Greg shows me a contraption made from a metal disk, plywood, and a salvaged truck axle. Like most of the equipment here, this banjo rim–gluing device is a Greg Deering original. “When I make a machine myself,” Greg says, “I can build it for 10 cents to the dollar [that] it would cost me to have someone else build it.”
He has also patented some major design innovations, including a white-oak tone ring that produces a mellower sound than traditional bronze or brass.
By the time they celebrate their 45th business anniversary next year, the Deerings will have made over 150,000 banjos. Their daughter Jamie, who heads PR and market expansion, is taking the business into the next generation.
It’s been a rite of passage for many successful middle-aged American men to reward themselves by splurging on that Jackie Robinson–signed baseball, Camaro Z/28, or equally precious object they fantasized about in their youth. But few have had their boyhood dream fulfilled the way Greg Deering did after his company bought the Vega banjo trademark out of bankruptcy.
In 2007, Deering Banjo premiered its series of Vega Kingston Trio signature banjos with a limited edition run to commemorate the band’s 40th anniversary. But Janet remembers grabbing one of the first Vega long necks off the factory floor nearly a decade earlier, marching into her husband’s office, and placing it in his hands.
Greg sat down with the instrument and began to play.
“There!” she exclaimed. “You finally got your own Vega banjo!”
Greg didn’t answer. He just looked up at his wife—picking and grinning.
Ed Leibowitz is an L.A.-based writer currently planning the centennial celebration of his 1919 Washburn concert-size guitar.
• From $559 for the Goodtime to $32,000 for the Gabriella
Three recordings that demonstrate the bond between comedians and their banjos
The Crow: Five New Songs for the Five-String Banjo (2009): Steve Martin’s songwriting gifts and mastery of clawhammer technique are on conspicuous display on this Grammy-winning disc—further burnished by contributions from Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, and bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs.
The Lonesome Trio (2015): A veteran of The Daily Show and the Hangover movies, and the cinematic voice of Captain Underpants, Ed Helms is also a member of bluegrass band the Lonesome Trio. His banjo work and weary vocals add a double shot of melancholy to the song “Whiskey Drink” on this self-titled album.
A Mighty Wind (2003): Cowritten and directed by Christopher Guest—the auteur behind Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman—the mockumentary A Mighty Wind chronicles the misadventures of a fictional 1960s folk band. Guest portrays the combo’s banjo and mandolin player, and his stylings can be heard on the soundtrack.