1920s Harmony Roy Smeck Vita

While musicians were endorsing instruments prior to the 20th century, the idea of developing new models specifically for musicians really took off in the late 1920s. It’s likely that no musician’s name appears on more instrument models than Roy Smeck, “The Wizard of the Strings”, who could play just about anything with dazzling virtuosity. Smeck’s name appeared on guitars, mandolins, ukuleles and banjos by Gibson, Bacon, Harmony, sometimes under external brand names (such as the Gibson-built Recording King instruments he endorsed for Montgomery Ward).

Smeck’s name appeared on headstocks well into the 1960s, but his first signature instruments were produced by Harmony in mid-1927. The year before, he was approached by the president of Harmony to create a series of models specifically for him. The result was the Vita series of instruments, so named by Harmony to capitalize on the popular new Vitaphone sound-on-disc system that Warner Brothers had introduced (WB refused to license the Vitaphone name, so Harmony made do with a shortened version). The Vita instruments were unique partially due to their pear-shaped bodies (which recalled tenor lutes by a few manufacturers) and partially due to their seal-shaped soundholes. At first there was a ukulele and a 6-string, tenor and plectrum guitar, but a Vita mandolin soon appeared in catalogs bearing a similar body to the ukulele.

While Harmony is principally remembered today for churning out myriad cheap guitars, they (along with fellow Chicago-based mass-producers Regal and Stromberg-Voisinet) were also capable of producing excellent, professional-grade instruments when it suited them. The Vita series were all mid-priced instruments featuring spruce tops and flamed mahogany backs; the guitars featured an airplane-shaped “Aero-Bridge” that capitalized on the popularity of Charles Lindburgh at the time. Unusually for a flat-topped model, the Vita-Mandolin had a long 14” scale. It initially sold for $15.00, changing to $18.00 by 1930, plus $5.00 for a leatherette case.

While a large number of the Vita-Ukes survive (they were by far the most popular of the series) and the guitars and tenor guitars pop up occasionally, the Vita-Mandolin is probably the rarest of the bunch. It’s not likely that many were built since the mandolin’s fortunes were ebbing quickly by the end of the 1920s and players were increasingly favoring archtop models. This mandolin’s sound is rather unusual as well; the small body doesn’t produce a ton of volume, but it has a clear and sweet sound with excellent balance across the strings. Not surprisingly, it tends to favor the treble frequencies. The tone is not as tubby as most flat-top mandolins, probably because the seal-shaped soundholes are closer to f-holes than a round hole.

 

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