1930s Vega Electric Archtop and DeLuxe Amp

 

Vega is known today for their banjos, and with good reason – they made some of the best tenors, plectrums and 5-strings of the first half of the 20th century. Although the brand’s prominence has fallen somewhat after a series of new owners, it’s still associated with high-quality instruments. However, Vega made a lot more than just banjos.

The original Vega company dates back to 1881, and by World War I they were building a range of banjos, guitars and mandolins, plus a wide variety of brass instruments. After WWI they introduced their cylinder-backed mandolins and guitars, unique designs that showed an aptitude for innovation. Vega was quick to jump into the field of electrification, adding pickups to guitars and mandolins by 1936. Not content to copy designs by other firms, though, they created some of the most interesting electric instruments of the 1930s.

This guitar, whose model number I have yet to uncover, is not revolutionary but was fairly advanced for its time. There are factory-installed sound posts connecting the top and back, thereby reducing the body’s ability to resonate freely. This reduces feedback at high volumes, and could be seen as the forerunner to semi-solid guitars such as the ES-335. The enormous pickup weighing down the top also helped reduce feedback. The guitar was advertised as “fully carved and… non-crackable”, which is a contradiction. By 1939, Vega was building electric guitars out of laminated woods that provided additional resistance to cracking and feedback.

As was common in the ‘30s, the pickup was located near the bridge for a more cutting sound. The pickup’s innards are mostly hidden by the enormous horseshoe magnet, but inside can be seen two coils. Yes, this is a humbucking pickup; it was referred to as the “dual-tone” unit in literature, but it was never advertised for its hum-cancelling ability. Each coil has a bar magnet acting as a spacer between the bobbin and the horseshoe. The horseshoe serves to focus the magnetic field up around the strings, and the non-adjustible poles inside the bobbins serve the same purpose. The end result is a pickup that sounds a lot like an early Rickenbacker, but with no hum at all. Volume and tone controls are located on either side.

The guitar plays excellently. The neck is perfectly straight, and I suspect that it has a non-adjustible truss rod based on contemporary Vega catalogs. Someone removed one of the soundposts – I’m not sure why, but I suspect that the top had begun to sink asymmetrically due to the weight of the pickup and this was the easiest solution. The guitar has plenty of nicks and scratches, but the only replacement parts are the tuners (which I believe are from the ‘60s).

This model was only built for a few years, approximately 1936-1939. There were also electric mandolins, banjos and tenor guitars built in the same style and with similar pickups. All of these were replaced by a few models that were impressive for their flamed maple veneers but equipped with weaker single-coil pickups. Vega also produced a number of lap steels in the ‘30s equipped with both single- and dual-coil pickups; some of them ranked among the most visually striking steels of their time.

Actually, Vega made visually striking products in just about every category. I didn’t buy this amp as a set with the guitar, but they are roughly contemporaneous and could have been sold together originally. This was a pretty big amp for its day – 18 Watts and a 12” speaker. Vega called it the DeLuxe amp, but that really just referred to the cabinet; the standard model was an identical circuit in a plainer, cloth-covered cab. The DeLuxe version sold for $110, and the guitar was likely about the same price.

The amp has two channels; the microphone channel has significantly higher gain than the instrument channel, as was usually done to compensate for the era’s low-output microphones. There is a tone control (which was a deluxe feature in the ‘30s), but the amp is really a one-trick pony. Like most amps of its time, it has a very strong lower-midrange and not much treble. I call the 1930s the “Age of Woof” for this reason – electric tones were about as far from sparkling cleans as they could get. This makes it a fantastic amp for replicating early jazz records; in fact, Charlie Christian was once photographed playing an identical Vega guitar and amp (with the standard cabinet).

I also have the matching volume pedal. It was probably intended for use with steel guitars, but it works fine with any electric instrument.

 

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