I got a comment from a customer the other day, the gist of which was, “The Goodtime is a good banjo but a bit over-priced.” Knowing how these banjos are made, I started wondering “what is the Goodtime being compared with that would make it look over priced?” What standard is used to make this statement? Is the standard based on tone? Appearance? Playability?
After researching on some forums, I found that these statements are most often based on comparing the Goodtime to the various import banjos; some which are priced lower and some which are more expensive but advertised as “having more features.” This begs the question, “what criteria do banjoists use to judge a quality banjo?”
I don’t think anyone can say that any one banjo is “the best” for every person, every music style, every time, all the time. Besides different tastes, people’s tastes change and develop through experience and desire. Some players start out looking for the brightest, crispest sound possible only to find they really like the warmer, softer sound better after much trial and error.
The reason Deering makes more models of banjos than any company in the world, or in the history of the banjo is because there are so many different opinions about what a good banjo should sound like.
In thinking about this I have come up with a few simple criteria that help “define” a good banjo as judged by the vast majority of players around the world.
The best quality banjos in the world use a rim made of some kind of maple and they are made with three strips laminated together though some are made of blocks of wood glued together. Both emphasize the “wood” in the rims having more wood than glue. Older Vega banjos had multi-ply rims (some of five and some of 9 laminations.) of maple and these were built into some of the most desirable banjos in Vega’s long history. Still, what has proven true in the banjo world is that the three-ply, strip laminated maple rim is the best sounding and most stable rim design.
The Goodtime banjo has the same three ply maple rim design as competitor’s banjos that cost $3,000 to $15,000.
Every Chinese made, Vietnamese made, and Indonesian made imported low cost banjo has either a soft wood rim with maple veneers (or some wood that looks like maple) around the outside or a rim made of soft aluminum. These kinds of rims are not found on ANY top line professional banjos. Clearly, if the aluminum rims or soft wood rims were considered “the best for tone” the top makers around the world would have made banjos that way.
The top makers have never used these cheap, poor quality rims. The “make it look like a banjo” companies have always, and continue to make rims, in the fashion. But again, it is unfair to expect the furniture factories to understand the needs of the musician. Greg Deering IS a musician, and has been all his life. His goal is the “best banjo possible” at every price.
Just like the “style over substance” idea in the fashion world, the “make it look like a banjo” company is the company that puts “looks” or “appearance” as the primary focus and tone and playability are a distant secondary consideration.
Deering makes every banjo, Goodtime and Deering, with a professional grade 3-ply violin maple rim. This is “substance over style” which could also be interpreted as a REAL banjo.
The shape of the neck on a professional banjo allows the player to easily reach the strings and push them down comfortable and quickly on the frets. The neck shape can vary to taste or needs of the player. Most customers like the necks on high end Deerings and other brands of high end American-made banjos.
The Goodtime neck shape is the same as Deering’s high end banjos with only a slight variance in thickness.
The Chinese made, Vietnamese made, and Indonesian made imported low cost banjos do not have this carefully crafted neck shape. It would be unfair to expect them to have it because they have to manufacture them with such low cost in mind. Even with low cost labor, craftsmanship takes time and knowledge of “what is” the correct design. Since the imports are usually made in furniture factories or factories that make “luxury items”, it is also be unfair to expect these companies to know what the specific needs of musicians are.
Playing in tune is part of precision fret placement and proper adjustments also known as good “set up.” Goodtime banjo fret slots are cut using a “gang saw” which has a saw blade for each fret slot that is cut. The fret slots are all cut at once and this means that once the saw blades are correctly adjusted, they are exactly the same every time. This is a time honored, albeit somewhat hand labor intensive way, to cut perfectly placed fret slots, repeatedly, every time. This technique is still used by many high end guitar makers around the world because of its precision and repeatability.
While I don’t know how the import companies cut their fret slots, I consistently hear complaints from customers about their foreign banjo not playing in tune. I hear it mostly when a customer buys a new Goodtime banjo and calls to tell me how much they love it and how it “plays so in tune” compared to their other banjo.
While a furniture factory could make a neck with accurately placed frets, they would have to know “why” it’s important. If they are not musicians, how would they know? What’s important is that the imports just don’t have the precision needed, regardless of why.
This is a technique that Deering has pioneered. We use metal in our tailpieces, armrests, coordinator rods, and other metal parts, that no other banjo company uses. Historically, there have been banjos that used “quiet” metal, but unfortunately, the older alloys were not as strong as our modern alloys and many of these old parts have broken and disappeared in history. Every Goodtime banjo has quiet metal in the tailpiece, the coordinator rod and where applicable, the armrest.
The “quiet” metal is metal that does not vibrate musically. It is, by choice and design, musically dead or inert. You don’t want a vibrant, singing metal in your tailpiece. Why? Because a tailpiece that is vibrating is “competing” with the tone of the rim and tone ring, which are the primary vibrating parts of a banjo.
Using “singing” metal like brass or bronze on a tailpiece, or armrest or coordinator rods is like mounting a tambourine on a violin. As the violin sings, the tambourine vibrates and shakes and jingles which, at best, distracts from the sound of the violin and at worse, distorts the violin tone.
How the Goodtime fits in all of this:
Most of the features on the Goodtime banjos are similar, though not quite the same as features found in competitor’s banjos of $3,000 and higher. Deering puts the building emphasis of the Goodtime banjo on these “important tone features” and keep the cosmetics simple to save labor. We NEVER hold back material or labor on tone features.
Every customer who has toured our shop and sees the level of hand work that goes into a Goodtime banjo, leaves the tour with this question, “ how can you make them for this low price?”
A Goodtime banjo is a simple, professional grade banjo compared to anything that is imported. I know some imports talk about having tone rings and some even talk about brass tone rings. But, in a true, honest, blindfold test, the Goodtime banjo out shines virtually every import banjo.
Only by using professional grade woods, hand fitting of tone producing parts, and only by keeping some parts quiet to allow the other parts to sing, does the Goodtime banjo produce a clear, full bodied sound. This level of banjo for the incredibly low price of $499, is one of the best bargains in the music business today. No import banjo even comes close to this level of design, quality materials and precise craftsmanship.
And… it’s made right here in America.