Easy to play, easy to learn, and easy to own, this may just be the perfect starter banjo
MSRP $499.00, $399.00 "street"
By Phil O'Keefe
Deering probably isn't a household name - that is, unless your home is full of banjo players. If that's the case, as one of the world's most respected banjo makers, they probably need no introduction. If you're fairly new to banjos, please allow me to fill you in a bit. Deering has been building high-quality banjos right here in sunny Southern California USA since 1975, and they have grown to become one of the most popular banjo brands. Their entry level series, the Goodtime line, has been in production for sixteen years now, and they are the world's most popular American-made banjos. While there are several models in the Goodtime Banjo line, in this review, we'll be focusing on the basic Goodtime open-back 5 string model. (Fig. 1)
Figure 1: The Deering Goodtime 5-String Banjo
DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION
Let's get one thing straight right off the bat. While Deering labels this as an entry-level product, and it is certainly not as elaborately appointed and inlayed as their high-end banjos, it's definitely not cheap, as in "poor quality." Sure, some cost cutting measures have been taken, such as the lack of a gig bag or case (a triangular "carrying box" is included - a case or gig bag is an optional extra), or the satin finish over unstained wood, but the construction is expertly done, and the materials used are of very good quality. For example, like nearly all high-grade banjos, the Goodtime features a 3-ply pot or "shell" made from violin grade maple. (Fig. 2) This contributes significantly to its pleasing tonal qualities. Hidden inside the pot you'll find a single metal coordinator rod, which gives additional structural strength to the pot, and can be adjusted to provide some modest neck angle and string height control, letting you dial up just the right setup for your particular playing style and preferences. Importantly, this rod is made from a special alloy to help reduce sympathetic resonances and pitched vibrations that would otherwise negatively affect the instrument's sound.
Figure 2: The Goodtime Banjo is an open-back design, and has a 3-ply high-grade maple pot
The pot is covered with a frosted top 11" head, which is held in place against the pot's rim by a low noise steel tension hoop. This is in turn anchored by sixteen flat-topped hooks, which are anchored to 16 zinc alloy bracket shoes, which in turn attach to the pot with screws. (Fig. 3) Sixteen 9/32" hex nuts allow for easy head tensioning. The hardware feels solid and strong, and functions great.
Figure 3: The Goodtime Banjo also features high quality hardware
Unlike some cheaper banjos, which use one-piece bridges, the Goodtime Banjo's 5/8" tall bridge is made from two pieces of wood, with a maple base and an ebony top. The tailpiece features Deering's patented design, which allows for easy string replacement. By slightly loosening the nut below the tailpiece, the unit can be raised or lowered to increase or decrease the string tension over the bridge. (Fig. 4) This lets you change the sound of the instrument a bit, from a lower tensioned and sweeter sound, to a more aggressive and snappy bark when the tension is increased.
Figure 4: The Deering tailpiece, with the height adjustment nut located near the bottom of the banjo. Also note the two piece maple and ebony bridge
The neck of the Goodtime Banjo is made of hard rock maple. Featuring the same unstained, satin finish as the pot, it has 22 pressed-in nickel silver frets and nine hardwood "bow tie" fingerboard inlays. It also has a very comfortable, fast and smooth feel that begs to be played. Unlike some banjos, the Goodtime uses geared tuners for all five strings - no "friction" tuners here. This is extremely helpful in terms of ease of tuning and tuning stability, and the Goodtime stays in tune quite well. The four main tuners are "guitar-style" and stick out from the side of the headstock, as opposed to "banjo style" with the buttons sitting behind the headstock. They also feature nickel tuner buttons, while the geared 5th string tuner has a pearloid button. The headstock features Deering's "fiddle" headstock shape, and the Goodtime logo, star and "made with pride in the USA" emblems appear to be laser-etched into the wood. (Fig. 5)
Figure 5: The Goodtime's headstock logos are engraved into the wood itself. Note the sealed, geared tuners
The basic Goodtime 5 string banjo model doesn't have additional "spikes" for the 5th string at the 7th, 9th and 10th frets. When present, these allow you to hook the fifth string under a spike to quickly transpose the string for easier playing in the keys of A, B and C. While I personally like spikes and wish they were included, leaving them off leaves the buyer's options open - they can use a Reagan 5th string capo, or have a Shubb 5th string capo or a set of spikes installed. (Fig. 6)
Figure 6: There are no spikes for quickly changing keys on the drone string - you'll want to budget a few bucks extra for their installation, or for a 5th string capo. Also note the geared 5th string tuner and hardwood bow tie inlays
Also absent are any sort of dots or other position markers on the side of the neck. Another thing that's missing from the Goodtime is an arm rest, but one is available as a user-installable option direct from Deering for $24 for those who prefer one.
TRANSITIONING TO BANJO FROM GUITAR?
Obviously the banjo is a different instrument, with different playing techniques than a guitar, but the transition can actually be easier than you might think. For slide guitarists who are used to playing in Open G tuning, the banjo is a relatively easy instrument to transition to since their basic tunings are almost identical. Sure, you have the additional 5th / drone string, but the basic note layout of the remaining four strings is the same as found on the top four strings of a guitar tuned to open G. Don't play slide? You can think of banjo as being tuned similar to a regular guitar's four highest strings, except the high E string is dropped down a whole step to D. The basic chord shapes, scales and note layout are not all that dissimilar to what you already know. One of the most difficult aspects of banjo playing is learning rolls. These are eight note, eighth note picking patterns that are often used in Scruggs-style bluegrass playing. While it may take a while for you to get really fast with them, it's not that dissimilar to playing fingerstyle on guitar, and with a little practice, most guitarists will get the hang of it fairly quickly. Because of this, and its usefulness for bluegrass, jazz, country, dixieland and old-time styles, banjo makes a great "second instrument" for guitarists who are seeking new sounds and looking to try something new to broaden their musical horizons.
SOUND AND PLAYABILITY
Out of the box, the setup was first-rate, with no adjustments needed to fine tune the action or intonation. The Deering Goodtime Banjo is an absolute joy to play. The neck feels smooth, fast and silky, and is very comfortable and well shaped. As an "open back" model, the Goodtime is a solid choice for styles that are traditionally associated with open-back banjos, such as clawhammer and frailing, and old-time music styles in general. Traditionally, bluegrass banjos often employ a resonator. A resonator surrounds the back of the banjo pot, and projects the sound that would otherwise exit out the back of the banjo and be somewhat muffled by the player's body and clothing towards the front of the banjo and out to the audience, resulting in a brighter, louder sound. While the Goodtime 5-string banjo model under review doesn't have a resonator, Deering does offer other Goodtime models that do, such as the Goodtime 2 Banjo (MSRP $699, $549 "street"), so they've got you covered if you prefer a model with a resonator. There are other models in the series too, including shorter scale "parlor" banjos, as well as 17 and 19 fret four-string tenor banjo models. Even without a resonator, this is still a big sounding instrument, with plenty of volume on tap. You shouldn't have any problem being heard when sitting around jamming with a few other acoustic instrumentalists. The tone is sweet, and somewhat "warm" by banjo standards, but still has plenty of projection and bite. It's a very appealing sound, with much better tone than I was expecting at this price point.
LET THE GOODTIME ROLL
This is not a banjo that will hinder your playing development and force you into bad habits, nor is it one you will quickly outgrow, or that will fall apart on you. With a modicum of care, it should last a lifetime, and due to its relatively light weight, solid construction, open-back design, great playability and appealing sound, it would still serve as a great knockabout or travel banjo even if you move up to a top of the line model. It's not often that you can find a cool sounding, high-quality American made instrument at such a reasonable price. As such, the Deering Goodtime Banjo is a terrific value, and a great choice for not only those who are seeking an entry into the world of banjo playing, but also for those in need of a travel banjo or second, open-backed model to augment their main, resonator-equipped instrument. Lots of people are going to find something to love about this banjo - including me. I'm having way too much fun with it to send it back, so I'll be purchasing the review unit.
Type: Open-back, five string
Tuning: Standard 5-string banjo (g / D / G / B / D)
|Warranty: Six year limited warranty|
Here's some additional photos of the Deering Goodtime open back 5 string banjo.
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Associate Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.