It has been more than 40 years since Greg and Janet Deering started Deering Banjo Company as a family business. In that time, the company has grown into the world’s largest manufacturer of American-made banjos, producing some of the best-made banjos on the market. That certainly includes the Goodtime series, which launched in 1996.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the Goodtime series, Deering Banjo Company announced an exciting new release: the Artisan Goodtime banjos. Although, historically, Greg Deering has led the design of nearly all Deering banjos, the Artisan Goodtime banjos are a little different. The prototype was designed by two longtime employees—Dave Moore and Chad Kopotic—with some input from Jamie Latty, who serves as Vice President of Administration.
“This involved some clever techniques, such as having to hide the parts under desks and blankets as they made their way through the factory, and keeping conversations on the quiet side,” Latty said. “As you can probably tell, Greg and Janet loved it, and they gave us the go ahead to plan out the launch to the public. It was definitely a great moment and a testament to the trust they put in their team.”
One of the most innovative aspects of the Artisan Goodtime banjo series is the Midnight Maple fingerboard. An ethically sustainable fingerboard, it came about as a response to recent issues that involve the environmental impact of ebony.
“The traditional fingerboard of choice has been ebony,” Latty explained. “However, in the last few years, our industry, thanks to the work of Bob Taylor and everyone at Taylor Guitars, has been made painfully aware of the current state of ebony and its availability…in particular, the pure black ebony.”
First, the company tried a few synthetic materials. “However,” Latty said, “they were not really what we were looking for.” Eventually, the company moved to hard rock maple, which, Latty noted, “is incredibly dense and which has a very tight grain…far tighter than in the maple we use in our rims. We had been using hard rock maple on Goodtime banjos for a long time. So, its density and durability as a fingerboard were thoroughly tried and tested.”
Four years of research and development ensued, as Deering Banjo Company’s R&D team, led by Greg Deering, worked hard to find a method to stain the maple in a way that went all the way through the wood, rather than remaining on the surface. “We didn’t want the stain to come off on the players’ hands,” Latty stressed, “and we didn’t want the strings to eventually rub through to reveal the blonde maple.” He continued, “We essentially wanted to change the entire color of the wood.”
The Artisan Goodtime banjos sport a few other striking design features. Those include a rich, dark brown, hard maple neck that features vintage, artisan-style inlays that are reminiscent of the Greg Deering-designed Calico model, along with a three-ply, violin-grade maple rim and a peghead that’s adorned with a carved scroll design. “The breakthrough was mastering how to engrave the peghead with the stain,” Latty stated. “We essentially had to do everything in reverse and really play with the tooling to make it work.”
Latty estimates that there are about 40 different models in the Artisan Goodtime line, with four main models each available in a variety of styles. They include 17-fret tenors, 19-fret tenors, plectrums and parlors, which are short-scale, five-string models. All are available in left-handed models, as well. There is also an Artisan version of Deering’s Americana model, which is an openback with a 12-inch rim. What’s more, the list might further expand in the future, as Latty explained that the company has received several requests for an Artisan version of its banjo ukulele.
The ever-growing series, which is intended to replace the popular Classic Goodtime banjos, still maintains some of its predecessor’s most popular features, such as planetary tuners and fifth-string capo spikes at frets seven, nine and 10.
“The Classics always sounded great and played great, but the upgrades featured on the Artisans, like increased fingerboard durability and outstanding aesthetics with the same great tone, are being very well received by customers,” Latty enthused. “We have heard some very positive feedback from our dealers so far, and it’s still the early days.”
Another way that the Artisan Goodtime banjos are similar to the Classic Goodtime series—not to mention all of Deering’s products—is that they also proudly carry the label “Made in the U.S.A.” That is something that has been critical to Deering Banjo Company’s strategy from day one.
“The really key feature with the Artisans is that we have been able to work out a process that allows our dealers to display a very competitively priced, aesthetically beautiful instrument,” Latty began. “All the while, though, we’re allowing them to say that this is ‘Made in the U.S.A.’” He continued, “We don’t have any competition in this price point that is ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ So, the challenge that we set for ourselves was to offer more, but with the absolute minimum change in price.”
He elaborated further, saying, “It’s very much a case of ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ or not at all with us, and we intend to keep it that way. We will always be an American company.”
With a mix of new and old features, the Artisan Goodtime banjos are capturing the imagination of banjo players across the country and around the world. According to Latty, that appeal is not based on something that is 100-percent tangible; rather, it’s a feeling that players get when they have an Artisan Goodtime banjo in their hands. “On paper, they shouldn’t sound or feel any different from the Classic Goodtimes,” he said. “And yet, somehow, during the prototype phase, everyone at Deering commented that there was something different about them.” He concluded, saying, “Nobody could really pinpoint what it was. They just have an aura. It’s a very exciting instrument.”