Ca. 1939 Vega Console Electric
“Far ahead of anything you have ever seen!” So begins the description of this console steel in the 1939 Vega catalog. Certainly, it has a number of features that were quite unusual at the time, but today it is generally seen as an icon of retro styling and a pinnacle of art deco design.
In fact, the very idea of a steel guitar with legs was new at the time. Gibson had just debuted the Console Grande in 1938, and Epiphone introduced consoles with dedicated stands by 1939, but the vast majority of steel guitars were still intended to be played on the lap. This wasn’t particularly feasible for large double-necked steels, so the introduction of legs and stands was a logical next step forward. This not only freed the player to stand while playing, it also allowed for larger bodies with more complex controls.
Vega joined the market for electric instruments in 1936, and this steel represents their attempt outshine all competitors both visually and electrically. Information is sketchy regarding production dates, but it was probably introduced in 1939 and discontinued around the start of World War II three years later. Christened the Console Electric – a name of standard creativity for the time – it was catalogued with one or two necks, but three or more necks were available on special order (though the Vega catalog shows the only multi-necked example I’ve ever seen). Each neck was available with between six and eight strings. A gleaming beacon of black paint and chrome, the body is made of maple and is mostly hollow to reduce weight and provide space for the wiring.
That wiring includes Vega’s own humbucking pickup, a sliding volume control (actually a slider connected to a conventional potentiometer by a shaft), and a 5-way push-button tone control. The presets – contra, bass, normal, treble, and high – allow a wide tonal range by selecting different combinations of capacitors, but all that filtering rolls off a significant amount of volume as well. On the multi-necked models, each neck featured its own tone selector and volume control. This tone control system may seem limiting today, but push-button ease of use was a big selling point at the time. It also allowed players to switch quickly between rhythm and solo tones. Vega console steels featured the system on and off until the end of the 1940s, at which point it was replaced by a 3-way rotary switch. The sliding volume controls seem to have been abandoned altogether by 1945.
A more successful (but short-lived) feature was a creative tuning system. The steel featured conventional Grover tuning gears with the pegs replaced by wheels connected to the worms by long shafts. Creative staggering of the wheels allowed them to fit along the side of the body. The steel featured the same adjustable archtop-style bridge saddle as many of Vega’s guitars; this allowed for the strings to be raised and lowered over the fixed pickup, giving some degree of output control.
The black finish and chrome accents were unique among contemporary instruments, and they match the styling on Vega’s DeLuxe amplifier. (The catalog’s assertion that “Vega Electric Consoles should be used with Vega Amplifiers for proper results” may have hoodwinked more people at the time than it would now). The multi-colored fretboard inlays are unique to this model. This steel is all original including the legs and case. It’s in excellent condition, the only alteration being the engraving of a previous owner’s name into the hand rest.