Deering Banjo celebrates American music and craftsmanship with expert Jens Kruger

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They call it American music. They should.

Bluegrass music may trace its provenance to influences from British Isles folk songs. And the banjo, a distinctive musical instrument in bluegrass bands, may have been developed based on a similar design imported into the country from Africa. But both the music and the instrument were born here, in the southeastern regions of the U.S.

They call it American music. They should.

Bluegrass music may trace its provenance to influences from British Isles folk songs. And the banjo, a distinctive musical instrument in bluegrass bands, may have been developed based on a similar design imported into the country from Africa. But both the music and the instrument were born here, in the southeastern regions of the U.S.

East County features an outpost of dedication to the complementary crafts of banjo making and bluegrass banjo musicianship at Spring Valley’s Deering Banjo Company. On June 7, the company brought together a small group of local banjo musicians with expert player Jens Kruger, for an evening session combining musicianship workshop lessons with tours of the instrument manufacturing facility.

Kruger, a naturalized citizen who originally hails from Switzerland, is one member of the Kruger Brothers trio, together with his brother, Uwe Kruger, and New York City-based bass player Joel Landsberg. Jens Kruger is a winner of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Bluegrass and Banjo. 

Deering Banjo hosts such banjo workshops occasionally each year. Tony Trischka is another renowned banjo player who has led workshop sessions at the Deering Banjo Company.

During his workshop, Kruger gave pointers on improving banjo technique, including scattered classical references to Paganini and Yehudi Menuhin, alongside such premiere bluegrass banjo artists Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs. Early in the session, though, Kruger related his enthusiasm for the instrument from an early age. “The banjo rolls sounds like a rattling railroad,” he stated. “You play banjo behind the guitar, and it adds this magic. The music sounded like white water, wild water, to me.”

Kruger advised that students of the banjo tend to “stagnate” by always taking their playing to the edge of their abilities. “There is a phenomenon in learning, to concentrate, like in tai chi, and force yourself to go slow, control your energy by going slowly.” That is the self-instruction practice method he counseled for learning fast playing, after mastering slow playing of a particular passage of music.

The family-owned Deering Company, which was formed in 1975, has 49 employees. The enterprise has the self-descriptive slogan “The Great American Banjo Company,” with “Proudly Made in the U.S.A.” emblazoned on banjos made there.

Janet Deering is CEO of the company, and during a tour of the manufacturing areas of the facility, she spoke warmly about the deep roots the company has nurtured in East County throughout its history. Her husband, Greg Deering, made his first banjo in an industrial arts class at San Diego State in 1968. The couple initially made banjos and mountain dulcimers in the garage of their home, before moving to a Lemon Grove location. After outgrowing that facility, the company moved to its current factory site in Spring Valley during early 2001. Over its 40-plus years, Deering has built over 100,000 banjos.

A factor in that feat was development and introduction of the Good Time Banjo series of low price, high quality instruments in 1996. According to Janet Deering, Chinese makers had been turning out cheap banjos, and she and her husband decided to build a better banjo at a competitive price tag of around $200.

Janet Deering expressed pride in her husband’s devotion to the crafts involved in making banjos. Greg Deering also has made pieces of the company’s manufacturing equipment. “This is a real crafts place,” Janet Deering said. “There’s a tremendous amount of handwork involved. Inlays are done by hand, with precise craftsmanship.”

Moreover the company continues with ongoing research and development to turn out increasingly better banjos. Jens Kruger assists with these efforts. The company holds six patents. Janet Deering noted that the company further surveys customers for feedback about what banjo purchasers want.

Current 2017 retail prices for Deering banjos start from $529 for the Original Goodtime 5-string, rising to over $2,000 for the new white oak banjos and more than $15,000 for several of the artist-inspired banjos. Tony Trischka’s Golden Clipper, for example, goes for $15,999. The costliest banjo the company offers from the Private Collection series is the Banjosaurus Long Neck, at $63,999. The company recently added banjo ukuleles to the instrument product lines. Sometimes called a banjolele, the small instrument is a hybrid tuned and played like a ukulele.

Deering Banjo Company is located at 3733 Kenora Drive in Spring Valley, contacted by phone at (619) 464-8252. More information on the company and its banjos can be found online at www.deeringbanjos.com.

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