1920s Schmick Lyric Guitar Banjo

The 1920s was a golden age for banjos. They reigned supreme as the only stringed instruments loud enough to keep up with the horns in a jazz band, and they found their way into just about every other kind of music as well. Manufacturers had already realized the potential for hybridizing banjos with other instruments, and by the start of the 1930s there were up to a dozen different banjo variations on the market (depending on how you count them). Some types were more successful than others, and the guitar-banjo was somewhere in the middle. It allowed the guitarist to produce banjo tones without learning a new instrument, but many musicians found that the guitar’s low voicing and close chord structures don’t lend themselves to such a sound.

That didn’t keep all the biggest American banjo manufacturers from building them, though. Gibson, Vega, Bacon & Day, Slingerland and others built guitar-banjos of all sorts, usually just by sticking guitar necks onto existing pot designs. Banjo-guitars never achieved the same variety of features as tenor banjos (usually there were just one or two models at a moderate price point), but they did evolve in the same ways as tenors, plectrums and 5-strings. Tuners changed from friction to geared, resonators were added, and tone rings were introduced to change the tone and volume of the instruments.

Curiously, this particular instrument seems to have bypassed the normal evolution of American banjos in favor of a popular European design. William Schmick of Camden, NJ described his Lyric line of banjos as resembling the zither banjos that were popular in England at the time. Zither banjos do not have a direct connection between the neck and the rim; instead, the neck is attached to the resonator while the rim floats inside, held in place by string tension and a couple of screws. It is questionable whether this arrangement has any tonal advantages by itself, but the small-diameter rims used in zither banjos do create a unique sound. Schmick proclaimed that the banjo’s other features were more revolutionary, but the only substantial difference I can detect between the Lyrics and its contemporaries is the intended use of gut strings (actually, a step backward for banjos).

Little information about Schmick survives beyond what can be gleaned from examining his banjos. The labels inside the resonator claim that he patented his design in 1914, but further investigation indicates that the patent was applied for in that year and only granted in 1916. The banjos were distributed by Carl Fischer (a mail-order catalog company) as late as 1925, but they seem to disappear from the historical record shortly thereafter. It is generally agreed that the instruments were actually built in the Vega factory in Boston; this is partly due to the similarity of the necks to other Vegas and partly because a few non-Lyric Schmick banjos are nearly identical to other Vega models. This is probably the only slot-head Vega guitar-banjo model ever made, but the headstock is consistent with Vega’s acoustic guitars of the time.

The instrument shows the high quality of construction that one would expect from a Vega product. The neck, rim and resonator are all maple; the binding is rosewood, the fingerboard is ebony, and the headstock veneer and heel cap are dyed pearwood. The flange is a heavy cast metal, possibly iron. The neck is unusual both for its extremely wide profile and for its 26.5” scale; the instrument is playable, but it takes some getting used to. Fortunately, the huge neck has remained perfectly straight and the frets (though low) show little sign of wear. It’s not particularly loud for either a banjo or a guitar, but the tone is mellow and not brash. Fingerpicking brings out a moderate sustain not unlike a biscuit-bridge resonator guitar, but when playing chords it’s important not to put much emphasis on the bass strings – the instrument becomes muddy very quickly when too many low notes are added.

 

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