Ca. 1946 Vega Dual Grande

Vega sold their first electric lap steels in 1936 and kept producing them until the twilight years of the 1950s. They got onboard early with console steels as well, offering players a larger, more impressive-looking instrument for most of that period. The first examples – with either a single or double neck – were uniquely impressive: they were equipped with the same 1930s humbuckers as Vega’s Spanish electric guitars of the time, had unusual geared tuners whose knobs were located on the side of the instrument, and featured unusual push-button tone selectors and sliding volume controls.

After World War II ended, production of electric instruments resumed with a slightly tamer model called the Dual Grande (the single-necked consoles were dropped at this time). The first version was the instrument shown above, which was probably produced around 1946-1948. By 1949, the flamed maple body had been replaced by one of stately mahogany bound with pyralin and sporting 7 strings on one neck and 8 on the other. A D8 setup was available by special order, but it quickly became standard. Around 1950, the Dual Grande acquired two important electrical components: a neck selector switch (the previous versions had both necks on all the time) and a revival of the push-button tone selector first seen in the 1930s. This was probably the final version of the Dual Grande.

My instrument represents the transitional period between the flashy chrome-lined model of the art deco era and the plainer, statelier model of the 1950s. The body is built entirely of flamed maple, with the edges rounded in such a way as to suggest that it’s carved from one enormous block. In reality it’s constructed like a box, with the only large pieces forming the top of each neck. The inlayed purfling around the bottom edge was likely adapted from the rim of a banjo resonator. The interior is hollow except for wires and the mute mechanism, which leaves the instrument light enough to be transported with relative ease. Three legs screw into sockets on the bottom.

In terms of hardware, there are no surprises; the tuners, pickups, hand rests, knobs and control plates all can be found on other Vega steels or other versions of this model. The pickups are Vega’s standard single-coil design, 8-string versions of the units found on my much older Triumphal lap steel. There is a regular volume control, but the tone control is actually a 3-way switch that selects between mellow, normal and bright settings. The output is moderate and there is a slight imbalance between the two pickups, but at least these units have adjustable poles to improve balance between the strings.

Probably the most interesting feature of the steel is the mutes. Pickup selector switches were nearly unheard-of in 1946 since very few instruments had more than one pickup; Gibson had used mutes to silence console necks in the 1930s, and Vega adapted the idea for a few brief years in the 1940s. The two mutes are connected by a lever inside the instrument so that one is raised when the other one is depressed. The lever’s pivot point needs to be carefully adjusted since each side works within a tolerance of about 1/8” inch, but once set up the system actually works pretty well.

My steel appears to be entirely original, and it has survived in excellent condition; there is just a bit of wear to the chrome plating in the expected places on the hand rests. The massive original case accompanies it (albeit with new latches) and even the legs appear to be original.

 

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