Thursday, February 26, 2009

My New Vega/Deering Banjo





A few years ago, I approached Greg Deering about making another special banjo for me.  I had some specific ideas, and Greg is always up for a challenge, so we began making our plans.  I had two specific ideas structurally for this instrument, one from Greg's incessant search for the better banjo sound and one born of necessity, mainly the fact that I am not a tall guy.

Now, if you had seen me with my parents you would know that in their presence I could have been designated as "tall."  All things being relative, that adjective can only be used in consideration that my Mom was 5'1" and my Dad was slightly taller at 5'3".  Yeah, you're getting the picture now, right?  So even at a towering 5'8" I have difficulty with either of my long-neck banjos whenever I break a string on stage.  The BanjoSaurus is very light and balanced, but the Vega (Kingston Trio 40th Anniversary Commemorative) is a little heavier and, for me, less balanced.  Therefore, when I break a string on it, reaching for the tuning pegs is not easy, and I often resort to help on-stage from Paul.

So, back to the new banjo.  I knew that I was still in love with the long-neck, but its length needed to be shortened slightly.  My solution was to change it from an instrument with three additional frets to one with two additional frets.  This one change made the instrument just shorter enough that it became physically manageable for me.  It also provided a dramatic change in the musical fundamental of the instrument, changing it from the key of E to the key of F.  Musical lore has it that any song in a key with sharps (the key of E has four sharps) is a bright sounding song, and any song in a key with flats (the key of F has one flat) is a warmer sounding song.  So I was taking a bright sounding instrument and forcing its fundamental into a warm key.

The other structural difference between this and a regular banjo is the inclusion of Greg's new Tenbrooks tone ring.  That tone ring is made by a foundry in Sweden which has been making bells for 600 years, so they know something about ringing that the rest of us can't even conceive (go to http://www.deeringbanjos.com/   and navigate to Tenbrooks).

For the inlay, I wanted something to commemorate my inclusion in and love for The Kingston Trio.  I had access to the autographs of the positive energies that had created and maintained lovingly The Kingston Trio, so I asked Greg if he could turn those autographs into inlays to become the fret markers.  At the bottom of the fretboard is the name "The Kingston Trio," and framing the group's name is Tom Dooley's hangman's noose, made of real rope.  The rope from the noose winds through the names on the fretboard, tying us all together, and ends up wrapping around a tree limb on the headstock.  There are four wraps around the limb, signifying Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds, Dave Guard and John Stewart.  The leaves emanating from the limb are green abalone, and their design came from a scan of actual white oak leaves from North Carolina.

The banjo's neck is a beautiful piece of koa signifying Bob Shane's and Dave Guard's home state.  The tree limb on the headstock is made of koa in order to match the neck.  There is a great deal of abalone trim:  on both sides of the neck, on both sides of the fretboard, and even inside the bowl.

Greg and Janet Deering and their talented craftsmen have again created an incredible musical instrument that will live forever as a one-of-a-kind.  Having a banjo from the Deering company is a treasure, but having Greg and Janet as my friends is a gift from the Universe.