The winners are:
Additional Bowden Comments
Well done all three winners!
Yes, Deering is today’s leader in banjo making and selling. In fact, they appear to have FAR outsold even Gibson’s nearly 100 years of banjo making. Gibson, if you don’t know, stopped making banjos in roughly 2009. Many folks blame that on the big Nashville flood that indeed wiped out Gibson’s shop in the old Opry Mills mall (there was a Gibson salesroom there also where you could try out all kinds of nice Gibson instruments). However, Gibson had “pulled the plug” on banjos prior to the flood, for reasons unexplained. It’s my understanding Deering may have sold around a MILLION banjos, which seems incredible to me. Surely their biggest seller must be the beginner’s “Goodtime” banjo which sells for well under $1000 and is of very consistent good quality.
Huber Banjos is a private luthiery just outside of Nashville founded by banjoist and mechanical engineer Steve Huber (of Pennsylvania). He builds WONDERFUL high quality, expensive Gibson copies and an “improved Gibson” style line of banjos too. His banjos are highly respected, but sold in small numbers. They are popular with today’s bluegrass pickers. Huber competes with a number of other small, top-quality US builders like Neat, Kel Kroydon, etc.
“Masterclone” is not a brand — it is a nickname for Asian-made copies of Gibson’s Mastertone line of banjos (the pre-war Mastertones are the epitome of bluegrass banjos). Starting in roughly the 1970s, Japanese builders could make you a better Mastertone than Gibson was making at the time. By the 1980s Japanese quality was so good it actually forced Gibson to overhaul their banjo line and “get good” again. In the 1990s Japanese manufacturing became “too expensive” and production was moved first to Korea, and now resides in China. Just like in electronics, papermaking, steel and pharmaceuticals, Chinese manufacturers hire American “masters” to instruct them in EVERY aspect of the industry and supervise the design and manufacture. At least two large Chinese musical instrument makers have ex-Gibson banjo builders in charge. Sometimes the Chinese builders are sub-contracted to Gibson (as with Epiphone brand instruments. American pickers (grudgingly) admit the Chinese instruments are a GREAT value, and quite accurate and good-sounding copies of Gibson Mastertones. Hence, Masterclones. BTW, there are also plenty of TOP quality US-made Masterclones too, but the term “usually” refers to an Asian made banjo.
Vega banjos of Boston were made from about 1910 into the 1970s when the company was sold to the CF Martin guitar company. In the hillbilly world, Vega banjos were a TOP brand, nearly up there with Gibson. CF Martin gave up quickly on banjos and the Vega brand was sold to an Asian company “Galaxy”. When Galaxy gave up on banjos, they re-sold the brand to … Deering!!! Deering uses the Vega name on a line of old time banjos that are improved Vega designs. (The Vega numbers count toward Deering’s market leadership position.)
The only other large-ish banjo maker in the US is Stelling. Geoff Stelling started making his own design of banjo in the 1970s. Stellings have never been Gibson clones. There are probably more high-end Stellings in bluegrass pickers’ hands than high-end Deerings! They are excellent banjos, but they look, sound and feel “different” compared to Gibsons and their ilk.