Ca. 1940 Vega C-71 Soloist

Vega is remembered primarily for their banjos, somewhat for their mandolins, and less so for their guitars. This is unfortunate, as their guitars of the 1930s and 1940s were the equal of anything produced by Gibson or Epiphone. Although they didn’t build as many guitars as their principal rivals, Vega’s archtops were solidly built, easy to play and extremely toneful. Since the company gradually faded away in the 1960s, and since their guitars were never closely associated with well-known players, prices for Vega archtops remain well within the grasp of ordinary players today.

Vega introduced its first archtop guitars in 1933. These were fairly conventional for their time, with stocky 16” bodies on the higher-end models. Sometime around 1938 most of the archtop line was enlarged to 17”, the largest body that Vega would ever produce. Most of these larger guitars were fundamentally similar but varied in their level of decoration: carved spruce tops and maple backs were the norm, though the rare C-76 had a rosewood back. The most popular model (and the most often seen today) was the C-56, equivalent in price to a Gibson L-4 but with a larger body. A slightly more upscale version was the C-66, which is almost as common. These two models remained the backbone of the Vega guitar line until the 1950s; the more expensive models are considerably rarer.

This C-71 from about 1940 is an excellent specimen of Vega’s more upscale line. Priced at $165 in 1939, it was similar in features and trim to the Gibson L-12 and the Epiphone Broadway, but $10 cheaper than either. It features gold-plated hardware and a standard blonde finish (it’s the only Vega model on which a sunburst finish was a special order), which highlighted the beautiful flame maple used for the sides and back. The two-piece spruce top is relatively rare; Vega started using tops with anywhere from three to five pieces of spruce around the time they introduced 17” bodies. This unusual building technique was explained in the Vega catalogs was a way to always carve with the grain: “none of the delicate tone fibers of the wood are injured or affected, as this is an important factor to obtain the finest tone”. Its tonal benefits are debatable, but it allowed the manufacturer to use smaller pieces of wood – thus keeping the price low.

The guitar features a few additional marks of Vega’s ingenuity. The “Adjustone” tailpiece has no hinge, but its angle can be changed by turning the screw that holds it into the tail block. This changes the break angle of the strings over the bridge, which affects the tone of the guitar “requiring only slight retuning of the strings”. The steel-reinforced neck is not adjustable (Vega would introduce adjustable truss rods after World War II), but it has kept the instrument playable for over 60 years. The asymmetric bridge may appear to be broken or modified, but it is actually Vega’s “Acoustic Balanced” design intended to balance the bass and treble frequencies transmitted to the body.

The effects of these features may be debatable, but I cannot argue with the overall tone of the guitar. The sound is huge, with booming bass and a smooth but clear treble. This model was named the Soloist (“designed for the man out in front”) mainly due to its flashy appearance, but its voice would have easily carried over bands of the time. The guitar is entirely original and shows only minor wear, and it plays very easily. The pickguard has begun to crystallize, and the outgassing has cause some cracking in the binding nearby, but nothing is in need of replacement yet.

 

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