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Click to see our Banjo Buyer's Guides on RiverboatMusic.com

Click to go to home page.The Goodtimes Just Keep Getting Better.

Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise™
and School Of The Rock™

Editor's Note: I confess, I think Goodtime banjos are among the best things that have happened to American banjo in forty years. I've written about them in several articles and blogs, but there are now so many choices, I thought it would be nice to compare the various classes (Goodtime, Classic, and Artisan) in one article. Here's a head's up. If you click on any of the photos of the whole banjo, you'll go to an Amazon page where you can see more photos and descriptions. And if you want, you can buy one (which is good for me since I earn an itty-bitty commission). That said, I bought all three of mine used, so I'm not plugging any particular outlet. But I also know how hard it is to get your hands on these things in many parts of the country. I live within 30 miles of about forty music stores that carry stringed instruments, and not one of them carries Deering. Only five or six carry any banjos beyond the base-line Chinese student models.

If you have any questions about my descriptions or anything to add, just use our contact page. Enjoy the article, or at least enjoy your music! - Paul

Several years ago, a Deering Goodtime rekindled my love of the 5-string banjo. I am a singer-songwriter who accompanies himself on several instruments. But for a long time I had been getting my banjo out only to play certain kinds of songs. The Goodtime base model I picked up on a whim was so much fun that I started learning to play all kinds of music on it, and enjoying it thoroughly. I had other banjos - technically better banjos - but the Goodtime was the one I found myself going back to more often than not.

Deering's first Goodtime banjo and still their most popular.  Click for bigger photo.

Apparently I wasn't alone. Deering's Goodtime, introduced in 1996, was an American-built, eminently playable "starter" banjo. It did cost more than the Chinese banjos with all the "bells and whistles," but it didn't take an engineer to "set up," and it kept its tuning and intonation far better than most imports. The three-ply maple pot (or rim, or body, if you prefer) uses the same materials they use on their professional banjos.

Folks loved it, not only beginners, but also experienced banjo players who wanted a sweet-toned eminently playable open-back banjo and weren't finding what they wanted among the cheaper imported banjos of that era. Personally, I didn't mind the lack of a resonator - almost universal on cheap starter banjos - because I was playing a lot of 19th-century stuff on which the sweeter, plunkier sound of a backless banjo was preferable (think Cold Mountain sound track).

Eventually, Deering heard the wishes of customers who did want a resonator version and introduced the Goodtime 2. (They have since made the resonator available as an add-on.)

Deering's Goodtime 2 banjo added a resonator.  Click for bigger photo.

Then some folks enjoyed the resonator version so much they started trying to figure out how to put tone rings on the thing for a more "Bluegrassy" sound. And Deering "heard their cries." They introduced the Goodtime Special 2 (with resonator) and the Goodtime Special Backless (without resonator). In Goodtime-speak, "Special" means tone ring. Deering does not make an aftermarket tone ring for the Goodtime, by the way, since the pot had to be "routed" for a good tone ring to fit. I don't show the "Specials," since they look pretty much like the other ones unless you look very closely, but they do sound different, louder and with a more "chimey" tone, if that's a word.

Players didn't mind that the Goodtimes lacked some of the bells and whistles of the "fancier" but "slapped-together" Chinese banjos that were flooding the market (and which are all basically clones of the cheap import banjos of the 1960s). The banjos of the late 1800s and early 1900s didn't have many bells and whistles either, but they helped make the banjo more popular than the mandolin or guitar for almost forty years. Sadly, most of those old banjos are barely playable today - they're certainly not for beginners. Owning a Goodtime was like owning a classic banjo that almost never needed any kind of adjustment, that would stay in tune far better than its ancestors, and which was more playable than many banjos costing two or three times as much.

So, even though it was "positioned" as a "student" banjo, the Goodtime found itself in more and more semi-professional and even professional situations. Which led to another customer request.

Goodtimes Go "Upstream"

Because of the Goodtime's great playablity and its tonal similarity to many classic banjos, it was eventually used by many individuals and groups who played old-timey music and the like. To hear them on CD or mp3, you'd assume they were playing classic instruments. But the Goodtime's natural finish was recognizable, even at a distance, and many "old-timey" music afficianados would "diss" bands that used the an instrument that looked like a student instrument, even if it didn't play or sound like one. (Yes, sorry to say, there are brand bigots even among fans and players of the kinds of music I enjoy.)

In addition, many players of "old-timey" music participate in historical reenactments and the like - where the Goodtime's natural finish, frankly, looked out of place.

Reinventing a "Classic"

Greg Deering is an innovator, and he surrounds himself with innovators. When demand for a slightly more traditional-looking Goodtime reached its peak, Deering decided to add three more features from the grocery list of customer requests.

  • Planetary Tuners - those straight tuning pegs that stick out the back and make the banjo faster to tune once you get used to them.
  • Spikes - Little L-shaped pieces of metal under the fifth string at the 7th, 9th, and 10th fret. These let you quickly raise the pitch of the fifth string to an A, B, or C, making it easier to play in the keys like D, A, E, and F.
  • Traditional Fret Markers - Using inlaid dots of a pearlish material to mark the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th, 15th, and 17th fret, instead of the little bowtie marks on the fretboard.
Deering's Goodtime Classic 2 banjo.  Click for bigger photo.

Deering named their new line of Goodtimes "Classic," since that's what they looked like. So:

  • A Goodtime Classic 2 has a resonator, but no tone ring.
  • A Goodtime Open-Back Classic has no resonator and no tone ring.
  • A Goodtime Classic Special has a resonator AND a tone ring. And
  • A Goodtime Open-Back Classic Special has a tone ring, but no resonator (photo below).

It's worth pointing out that all of the "Classic" updates to the Goodtime banjo are either for convenience (spikes and planetary tuners) or cosmetic (brown color, pearloid fret markers). Tone and playability are virtually identical to the natural-finish equivalents, which is a very good thing.

  • The Backless Classic sounds and plays just like the Goodtime.
  • The Classic 2 (which has a resonator) sounds and plays just like the Goodtime 2.
  • The Backless Classic Special sounds and plays just like the Goodtime Special.
  • The Classic Special (which has a resonator) sounds and plays just like the Goodtime 2 Special.

Since I like banjos with spikes and planetary tuners, the cost difference between the Classic and the natural-finish GoodTime is worth it to me, just because (based on my experience with such things) I'd otherwise be tempted to do it on my own and spend countless hours getting a less-than-ideal outcome.

Other Responses to Customer Requests

By the way, Deering has also expanded its natural-finish Goodtime line to include:

  • The Americana, which has a bigger banjo head for deeper tones,
  • The Parlor, which is a few frets (and about four inches) shorter than a standard banjo, ideal for smaller people and for travel, and
  • The Solana, which is a 6-string based on the six-string banjos of the early 1900s, with nylon strings, slotted head and a wide classical-guitar-style neck. It also has a built-in piezoelectric pickup.
But I'm not going to talk about those in this article. I just wanted you to see how variety customer demand continues to drive Goodtime product development.

The "Classic" Goodtime Wins New Fans

Here's where things got interesting. Goodtime's Classic banjos look like classic banjos, but sound, play, and stay in tune better than anything in their price range (once you factor in paying a pro to set up your imported "bargain"). Consequently, they won lots of new fans, especially among folks who play old-timey styles like frailing, clawhammer, Classic, and Zither banjo - styles that don't need the kinds of extreme sustain and volume that professional Bluegrass and Newgrass banjo pickers do.

I bought one myself. I wasn't planning on it per se, but I wanted planetary tuners and spikes on my next backless banjo. Plus, I occasionally do reenactments, so just installing those on my natural-tone Goodtime wasn't going to do it. I had also heard nice things about Goodtime's tone ring. It's not as big and fancy as some, but it's very similar to some classic tone rings that are still well-regarded. So in the back of my mind was the thought that if I ever saw a Goodtime Backless Classic Special at a "no-brainer" price, I'd get it. Before long, that happened.

Deering's Goodtime Classic banjo.  Click for bigger photo.

Paul and sister Tess Hoffman singing folk songs at a Springfield Historical Society event.The Backless Goodtime Classic Special played just as smoothly as the base-model Goodtime, but the tone ring gave it a chimey tone that I quite liked. Also the planetary tuners made it easier for me to go back and forth between that one and my professional Bluegrass banjo (a restored first-gen Deering Sierra). I did one historical reenactment with it and I was entirely pleased with how it projected.

I even published the statement that this was probably the last backless banjo I would ever need or own. It has the tone and features of a lot of backless banjos that cost twice or more what this one does. It certainly out-performs the Chinese banjos I've tried in its price range. (Some are prettier, but the Goodtime Backless Classic Special sounds better, plays easier, and stays in tune and adjustment better.) I suppose it's possible that someone could come up with a ninety-year old Vega or something that outperformed this one, but it would have to be some banjo.

BTW, on the die-hard Bluegrass front, I will admit that lack of a cast one-piece resonator flange, dual coordinator rods and BIG honking tone ring keeps the Goodtime Classic Special 2 (resonator version) from being the optimum Bluegrass guitar. But it gets you closer than you'd think, a lot closer than those Chinese banjos with all the requisite bells and whistles and none of the craftsmanship.

But with that exception, I can't help feeling that Deering's upgrades to their "student" banjo lines have blurred the lines between "student" and "pro" almost beyond recognition.

Artisan

Turns out I'm not alone. As soon as the Classic was available, folks started using them in situations that would ordinarily have required a truly "professional" banjo. I think you'd be surprised at how many folks with expensive pro banjos bring these out to gigs more often than not.

But some of them who had played their Goodtime Classic to death complained that they had worn the brown stain off the maple fingerboard. And couldn't Deering do something make the headstock look just a little classier?

Instead of resting on their laurels and letting "high-end" Chinese banjos "own" the gap between the Goodtime Classic and Deering's least expensive professional banjo (the Boston), Deering paid attention. They figured out how to stain the maple fingerboard so that the stain goes all the way through. They added a much classier headstock engraving. They even put nicer fret markers on the thing, using technologies first used on their high-end instruments.

Deering's Goodtime Artisan banjo.  Click for bigger photo.

All of the other "Classic" figures remain, including the planetary tuners, the spikes, and the brown color.

As of this writing (May, 2016), only a few models are available, including an Artisan version of the Americana. That said, I expect the Artisan line to eventually fill all of the gaps that the Classic line does now.

Will they Classic line be discontinued? Some people say they heard as much from Deering. So you might be able to get a Classic for a "discontinued" price soon. If that opportunity arises, it might help to remember is that the only differences between the Classic and Artisan line are cosmetic. So if you want a dark brown banjo that is spiked and has very nice planetary tuners, the Classic will do just fine.

I Didn't Really Need One, But. . . .

In the meantime, I've been doing my practice and travel with the base line Goodtime and taking my Backess Classic Special to play "out." They play so nearly alike I have no trouble at all going back and forth. But I was thinking that it would be nice to have planetary tuners and spikes on my Goodtime. On the other hand, when I dragged it out in public among people who think they know something, the natural finish still put them off. Goodtime Basic, Classic, and Artisan side by side. Wouldn't it be nice to have a "base" line Backless Artisan? If I could get one real cheap.

Then a fellow in Florida listed one on eBay at a no-brainer price. Ooops.

So now I have the chance to compare all three up close. Let me tell you that there were no surprises when the Artisan arrived, and that was a good thing. It plays just like the other two, which is high praise. It's also as light as the Goodtime, which is a good thing for a banjo that may become my travel banjo. (My Backless Classic Special weighs a few more pounds because of the tone ring).

It also basically sounds like the Goodtime.

Side-By-Side-By-Side

Here are the headstocks of the three models. As you can see, they get progressively fancier.
The Headstock on the Base-Level Goodtime, with the emblem stamped or lightly burnt into the wood. Click for bigger photo. The Headstock on the Classic Special, with the emblem silk-screened onto the wood. Click for bigger photo. The Headstock on the Artisan, with a more classic engraving carved into the wood. Click for bigger photo.
Goodtime
Classic
Artisan

Here is a close-up of the fret markers on the three models, showing the part starting with the ninth fret. On the Classic and Artisan, you can see the spikes at frets 9 and 10. The bowtie emblem on the standard Goodtime is lightly burned into the fingerboard, so it won't wear out. The pearloid dots on the Classic seem to be standard inlays. I'm told that the inlays on the Artisan go all the way through, using a technique first developed for improving the inlays on Deering's high-end banjos.

The neck of the standard Goodtime, showing frets from 10 to 13. The bowtie emblems are lightly burnt into the fingerboard. Click for bigger photo. The neck of the Classic, showing frets from 9 to 13.  You can see the spikes at frets 9 and 10, which make it easier to play the banjo in keys like E and F. Click for bigger photo.The neck of the Artisan, showing frets from 9 to 13.  You can see the spikes at frets 9 and 10, which make it easier to play the banjo in keys like E and F. Click for bigger photo.
Goodtime
Classic
Artisan

Most remarkable is the Artisan fretboard, which is still maple - a Goodtime standard, but which has been pressure-stained so that the stain goes all the way through the wood. I believe that the fret markers also go all the way through the fingerboard, so they won't wear out, either.

The pots are all 3-ply, made from the same hard maple that Deering uses for their better banjos.The pots are all 3-ply; made from the same hard maple that Deering uses for their better banjos. You can see the single coordinating rod, which is pretty standard on open-back banjos. What you can't see is the tone ring on the Classic in the middle. It's a fairly low profile, but makes a big difference in sound.

Conclusion

Deering is constantly listening to their users, as well as unilaterally driving improvements that started on their top-line banjos down into the middle and lower tiers. So anything else I write about features now is likely to be superceded by Deering in a few years, or maybe even months, anyway.

The point is that by making banjos that played like classic instruments at a reasonable price, Deering's Goodtime attracted players who were more concerned with craftsmanship and playability than they were with bells and whistles and flashy looks. And Deering has consistently responded to users who wanted just a few more professional features, and then just a few more, until the Goodtime has all but obliterated the line between "student" and professional banjos.

No, even the most expensive Goodtime does not compete with Deering's least expensive professional banjo. But the American-built Goodtime banjos outplay a host of more expensive (imported) competitors who claim their "high-end" banjos are professional. And at this point I don't see Deering backing down from any new challenges.

Please get in touch.if you want to share your experience with any of these instruments or ask any related questions.

Whatever road you decide to travel, I am certain that it will be made more fun with a properly chosen and set-up banjo or banjo-like instrument. :-)

And please stay in touch!


Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you come away with some great ideas for "sharing the joy."

And please stay in touch!

    - Paul Race Click to see Paul's music home page Click to contact Paul through this page. Click to visit the Creek Don't Rise discussion forum. Click to see Paul's music page on Facebook Click to see Paul's music page on Facebook Click to see Paul's music blog page Click to learn about our Momma Don't Low Newsletter. Click to see Paul's YouTube Channel. Click to see Paul's Twitter Page.


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