The Deerings and the American Dream

Published in the Kruger Brothers Newsletter, December 2012.

It’s one of the great stories in the history of fretted instrument building in the US: In 1970 Sam Radding began a small manufacturing shop to serve a local community of musicians in the greater San Diego area. Small, unassuming, not a little bit rag-tag, it was run like no other shop had been before, or likely would since. And, in just four years, it left a legacy like none other. “It was like co-op,” recalls Sam Radding of the American Dream Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company, a grand name for what was a small and very fluid organization.

“Everybody set their time. and put their effort into it. It was Just a group of people who were equally interested in building and repairing instruments. And we just tried to make it work.”

Radding’s hiring practice was simple, and perhaps emblematic of the time. “If you want to work here, that was enough for me! And we picked up a very interesting collection of people.”

The aspect of the shop that Radding feels was most unique was that kind of open-minded approach to people and ideas coupled with a culture of learning, growing, and sharing. He says, “I left hopefully, even back then, a small legacy of ways of thinking about what you’re doing. This thing about sharing information. I honestly believed that sharing information about building something, it’s what one has to do if they have that information.

“I could never understand why anybody would look me in the eye and say ‘I can’t tell you what that glue is.’ You know, you might use that glue and do a better job than I do. And I’ve always felt that if someone can do a better job than I do, then they should be doing the job. And there was the knowledge that, you know, you may have to scrape and scratch, but you can make a living building something.”

By his own admission, in his book Guitar Lessons, when Bob Taylor started working at American Dream he was just 18 years old and “didn’t have any of the necessary skills.” Taylor had been building guitars as a hobbyist and approached Radding to buy supplies, such as fret wire and abalone for inlay. He brought guitars around for “show and tell” and otherwise just hung around, simply to be near like-minded people.

He pestered Radding into letting him have a bench in the shop in order to do repairs to clients’ guitars, and soon he was rubbing shoulders with a roomful of people who gained in enthusiasm and dedication whatever they lacked in skill, including Geoff Stelling, Kurt Listig, and later Kim Breedlove, Larry Breedlove, and James Goodall. All had the same perspective and the same dedication to what Radding was trying to do, and little else.

One of the builders who had been there virtually from the start was Greg Deering, who was often tasked with training those new to the shop. But, even for him, the initial impulse was fairly basic. In an interview with David Holt in 1988 Deering said of his initial interest in the shop, “I wanted a better banjo and couldn’t afford it, so I built one. Then another one and another one, and the next thing you know I was doing it for a living.”

While the shop was short lived, it’s easy to see that the lessons learned there have carried on long since, including that desire to share ideas. Geoff Stelling and Greg Deering worked together on the first instruments in the Stelling line. When Bob Taylor and Kurt Listig bought the shop in 1974, they transformed it into Taylor Guitar. Larry Breedlove and Bob Taylor worked together on many of the technological aspects that make Taylor guitars unique today.

Greg and Janet remained within that community of builders, and Greg worked for a time at Taylor, ultimately founding Deering Banjos in 1977. Working out of their home, Greg and Janet made their first Deering model to have “Deering” on the headstock: an intermediate model with a steel drum. Their next model was a basic one with a lightweight rim, a precursor to the extremely popular Goodtime Banjo which they would premiere in 1996.

The business grew and in 1978 they moved to a shop in Lemon Grove and hired seven employees, using hiring practices that were not unlike those at American Dream. Deering noted that, for him, skill was less important than commitment. In 1979 Chuck Neitzel was hired away from his job as a house painter after Greg saw him in action painting his banjo teacher’s house. He’s been with them ever since. Joe Falletta was an electronics engineer. Many other long-time employees began, literally, sweeping the floors.

“It’s really surprising how much you learn about somebody when their job is to sweep the floor,” said Deering. “When you don’t have to keep pushing him, and you don’t have to keep pointing to what he didn’t do, you know you’ve got a competent individual. And that’s what we look for more than anything, people who are just competent individuals. If they really care about what they do and are conscientious, then you can train them to do anything and they’ll learn. But if they don’t care, you can’t train that into somebody.”

Those values remained as the company grew, later acquiring one of the most famed brands of banjo, the Vega Banjo Company. It was the company that built the instruments that were used in the folk boom of the 60s and which created for Pete Seeger his iconic long-neck banjo. Greg jokes that he had always wanted a Seeger long-neck banjo, though to get one he ultimately had to buy the company and build one himself.

While the American Dream Musical Instruments Company is now long gone, it’s ripples are still being felt throughout the musical instrument industry and can be seen on the headstocks of guitar shops from coast to coast: Breedlove, Taylor, Stelling, Goodall, and Deering.

These days, Deering has an impressive legacy of it’s own. John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has said, “The Deerings have a mission that I’m totally behind. They want to change the world five strings at a time, and I think they’re doing it.”


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