We make banjos in virtually every configuration: four string tenor with 17 frets, four string tenor with 19 frets, 22 fret plectrum, five string resonator, five string open back, five string long neck, six string open back, six string resonator, and twelve string resonator and open back five string electric, five string acoustic/electric, tenor 19 fret acoustic/electric and six string acoustic electric.
Unlike some of the importers of Chinese banjos who come up with marketing names like Git-Jo or Banjitar, we call our banjos what they are…BANJOS!
Whether a guitar has six strings, four strings or twelve strings, it is called a guitar. Whether a piano is an up-right, spinet or grand, it is still a piano. At Deering, we make BANJOS. We also know that our customers are EXTREMELY savvy about marketing concepts and “gimmicks”.
One reason Deering ads have tended to be rather direct and perhaps a bit on the modest side, is because we know that our customers do not appreciate lots of hyperbole and we have always followed Greg Deering’s concept that the simplest, most direct communication is usually the best.
I understand that some companies who import Chinese instruments are focused only on marketing because they are not manufacturers and they feel that naming a product to “relate to the big guitar market” will help them sell the idea. I don’t know if this works or not, but I have always felt that it is a misleading distraction. Whether a banjo has four, five, six, seven, eight or twelve strings on it, it’s still a banjo.
I also understand that there are great loyalties to the various styles of banjo music. Four string Dixieland jazz players are often extremely devoted to their traditions. Bluegrass traditionalists feel that Bill Monroe and Flat & Scruggs are the final word in bluegrass music and any other approach is not valid. Some clawhammer players adamantly proclaim that any banjo that has any inherent brightness or a metal tone ring that is heavier than a few ounces is NOT real traditional clawhammer tone.
The irony of these very focused opinions is that jazz, for example, was rather radical when it was first introduced and not necessarily listened to in “polite” society. Earl Scruggs was definitely a radical in his early years and traditional musicians used to denigrate his style with comments like “he’s not playing the melody.” When Earl’s style became “a standard” in bluegrass music, Bill Keith’s “melodic” style, where he played melodies on the banjo note for note, was dubbed…”not really bluegrass banjo”. Many modern clawhammer banjoists prefer very simple open back banjos with no tone ring when in the Appalachian mountains, the mountain people played whatever banjo they could afford…which was usually a cheaper, lower quality banjo. When these people were recorded, they often played cheap or homemade banjos so modern “old time players” sometimes play cheaper banjos to imitate these old recordings. The folks who could afford it were buying resonator banjos with bronze tone rings to play their mountain styles. Around the turn of the twentieth century, open back banjos were played “in the parlor” and classical pieces played like classical guitar was the norm.
Styles of music come into popularity and go out of popularity. Approaches to instruments come into popularity and go out of popularity.
The four string banjo was THE banjo in the 1920’s and it was an immensely popular instrument at the time, much like the guitar is now. The great Charlie Poole sold over a million recordings in the 1930’s playing his five string banjo…that was huge during that time. Today, young performers like Taylor Swift, Keith Urban and many others are taking up the 6-string banjo and creating “new sounds” within the scope of their musical styles. Taylor Swift’s hit song, “Mean” has been a huge success with young listeners and she is playing her Deering B6 acoustic/electric.
All of these banjos, all of these styles of music, all of these technical approaches to these instruments are not only valid, but they demonstrate that, just like all great instruments, artists continually expand and develop the range of the banjo’s expressiveness in many different ways.
I’ve heard it said that “that 12-string banjo is not a real banjo.” That’s kind of like saying a Ferrari is not a real car because it only holds two people….. we all know THAT’S ridiculous. But these fact-less, destructive criticisms are tossed off every day as “I’m just expressing my opinion.”
I am writing this message today for this reason:
Success in one style of music always leads to success in others.
We, as banjo enthusiasts must embrace the success of artists who take the banjos outside of our preferred style. I am not suggesting we have to like everything, but denigrating any style of music is destructive and will stifle your own favorite style of music. You are your music’s best ambassador. Young people who have not developed style prejudice will listen to a current pop star play a banjo and might attend a bluegrass festival or a Dixieland jazz bash out of curiosity for the banjo and it’s roots. But if that same young person is met with, “this is the only banjo style that is real or valid” attitude, they might be offended, “put off” and discouraged from embracing it. Isn’t that the opposite of what we all want?
So, let’s cheer the success of young people who are trying new things things with banjos, regardless of what kind of banjo it is. This will bring more attention to our own favorite style and for all of us who love banjos, it creates a huge “welcoming atmosphere” that is at the heart of most promotions.
We are all enthusiastic about our music because we love it.
Sharing enthusiasm is infectious.