Arizona’s Premier Acoustic Music Shop

Deering Vega® SENATOR Banjo

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We return to our series on the American-made instrument inventory of Acoustic Vibes Music.  Today, a look at a dandy bit of craftsmanship from Deering.  This is The Banjo I would choose if buying one for all uses, be it stage, studio, and where a banjo gets most of it’s use, outdoor bluegrass circles during the summer.  Priced under two thousand dollars (2015 list $2188), the Senator does not break the wallet considering the quantity of quality oozing from every aspect.  

While the Senator has a spun brass tone ring, with the open back, the overall weight is reasonable.  Comfortable, even.  Six pounds makes it just a little heavier than my 1996 Guild D-4.  ◊◊◊

What do I like about this Deering?

No resonator to take off (or resonator flange digging into your leg if you do remove the resonator).  A banjo is usually overpoweringly loud;  you’d do fine against a couple guitars, fiddle, upright bass, and mandolin without the resonator.  Volume is never compensation for quality of tone, dexterity, or originality.  Buy a good banjo and practice.  Be confident in your playing and the authentic sound of the Deering.

Tone.  This banjo sounds fantastic even to some “players” with their $4,000-$6,000 banjos.  It all starts with great material, and Deering hit it right with the spun brass tone ring and violin grade 3-ply maple rim (see Deering’s Anatomy of a Banjo link if we’re talking gibberish).

Feel.  The neck feels right.  Slim and sexy.  Real ebony fingerboard.  Nickel silver frets.  Deering Planetary Tuners.  This banjo is screaming QUALITY  QUALITY  QUALITY!

Looks.  Deep warm brown stained maple neck with the slim Vega shape.  Nickel plated hardware.  Satin Finish.  Something about the metal,  stained maple, and ebony fingerboard.  Works great together!  Heck, it triggered a strong BUYING impulse in me, before I even played a note!

Feel.  Yes, we already wrote about feel.  But until you sit down with the Senator, run your hands along the neck, and have a listen, these are only words.  Words such as, “Wow, this feels really nice.  Sounds like a banjo should, and look, Deering took the time to do a really nice finish job on the instrument”.  This is one of three instruments I want when I’m ready to spend eight thousand.  The other two?  The Weber Bitterroot and a Bourgeois Country Boy, naturally.

◊◊◊ please, don’t forget to stretch and warm up before marathon picking engagements! 

Weber Bitterroot Mandolin

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Angels’ share:  The amount of alcohol which evaporates from the casks during maturation.

weber bitterroot kathryn butler for acousticvibesmusic 3My thoughts came back to this phrase over and over.  Angel’s share.  An Angel’s share of music coming from my chosen mandolin.  An Angel’s share which would go unnoticed but for the resonant room lined with dozens and dozens of high-end mandolins, guitars, banjos.

Continuing our series on the American-made instrument inventory of Acoustic Vibes Music, this week we turn our ears to WEBER FINE INSTRUMENTS of Bend, Oregon.  Fortunate was I to want a truss rod adjustment on my Guild D-4 a few months back.  Bernie welcomed me into the cool interior of Jeff Looker’s shop.  Eventually I discover the mandolin room.

Most stores would call one or maybe two mandolins in the $800 range a high-end inventory.  Jeff has a few like this;  that is just the start.  I had a unique opportunity to play mandolins of increasing quality (and cost) undisturbed.  A dozen visits over a year sharpened my appreciation of the better instruments.

Eventually I came back to one mandolin only, a mid-priced offering (list price $3600) that fit like your favorite jeans.  A spritely tone, almost etherial sometimes.  Giving me happiness to play, the mandolin had energy left over to play with the instruments around me.  In time, dozens of instruments were gently resonating along with the mandolin’s song.  When I stop, they continue for a time.  It is, I think, what heaven sounds like.

When I’m ready for an heirloom-quality instrument, increasingly it looks like I will choose the Weber F-Style Bitterroot mandolin.  For looks, sound, playability, resale value, workmanship, materials, you name it.  An average musician, which I am, will play better, sound better, and feel better.  Well worth the investment.  What cost a smile for life?

Bourgeois Guitars ◊ Lewiston, Maine

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Jeff Looker had turned his retirement plan into a destination instrument shop.  Hundreds of high-end acoustic guitars.  Santa Cruz!  Collings!  Half a dozen Martin Custom Shop 000’s.  A chance visit with this rare grouping kept me repeatedly occupied.

Humbly I ask Dana Bourgeois to forgive my inattention to his guitars.  Not until the seventh or eighth visit did I try a Bourgeois.  A simple mahogany OM short scale with Sitka spruce top.  The package of options Bourgeois calls their Country Boy*.  I was holding a Bourgeois Country Boy OM Short Scale.

Wow! Where have you been my whole life, darlin’?

Giddy with anticipation, the OM begins playing as soon as my hand rests upon the fingerboard.  My reaction, with no hyperbole nor financial compensation:  This is the finest mahogany guitar I have ever played!

“That isn’t me. What kind of trick is this?”  Looking down, I’m astonished to see the guitar nearly playing itself, my fingers immediately at home on this newly met field of frets.  I lean back, enjoy the music, and listen to a perfect guitar.

Country Boy sports a complete sound.  Absolute balance across the spectrum.  Not cocky, but confident.  The tone mature, captivating.  Clearly not a production-line product but a  construction lovingly born of faith and imagination.

More description?  OK, try this:  Punchy midsection.  Perfect intonation.  Powerful resonance.  No mud, conspicuously lacking in the usual trouble area,  midrange chords up the neck.  The guitar is full & open.  Again, it makes me play far better than usual.  My fingers move across fretboard as thought listening to someone else.

Even light groups of notes up the neck on the lower strings resonate perfectly with nary a misplaced overtone.  Country Boy has soul, a perfect transcendental musical experience.

After two visits with Country Boy, I am a believer. Jeff also stocks the Adirondack top Country Boy OM, but the Sitka is the one which talks to me with gracious warmth, forever my friend.

* When Ricky Skaggs suggested the name “Country Boy” for our mahogany dreadnought, we all fell on the floor. We still wonder where he got such a great idea for a name! Admittedly, depending on which Body Style is used with this traditional combination of spruce and mahogany, you can get pretty far removed from anything remotely “country” in look and sound. Over the years we have considered changing the name but we can’t, it was a gift! –

Bedell Guitars ◊ Bend, Oregon

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bedell acousticvibesmusic 3AFTER HEARING ABOUT  BEDELL guitars for a few years, occasionally hearing the guitar itself, always played proudly by it’s lucky owner, I finally got myself into one of the rare handful of dealers scattered across several continents.  A little stonework brought me within a mile of  “Arizona’s Premier Acoustic Music Shop”.  Of course we speak of Acoustic Vibes Music.

Favoring a smaller guitar, perhaps a 000 with attractive wood, my eye and hand choose the Bedell Coffee House Parlor- Natural top.  PLENTY of volume from this artistic meld of wood and metal.  PERFECT fretboard under my fingers.  Better balance than I would have guessed, perhaps the result of a 12-fret neck?  The sound was deep and full.  As melodies flowed from the lower strings, clear frequency response and rich sustain greeted me with every note.  Higher tones punched through with life and vigor.  With a Bedell like this,  I’d be ready for quiet couch time, outdoor picking with the bluegrass circle, or the stage!

Adirondack Spruce with East Indian Rosewood. Ebony fretboard.  Koa binding.  Everything I want in an artisan-built guitar.  Recently added to my short list.