1932 Vega Moderne 

I am not an instrument builder, repairer, or construction expert of any kind. I’ve picked up just enough knowledge to require the occasional insertion of a foot into my mouth. I know less about banjos than I do about guitars and mandolins – I can’t tell my tone ring from my elbow – so you’ll have to excuse the brevity of this description.

The Vega company was one of the top builders of banjos between the two World Wars. This was the golden age of the jazz banjo, when four-stringed tenor- and plectrum-scale necks ruled the rhythm sections of bands. As also happened with guitars, manufacturers sought ways of giving banjos greater volume and cutting power so they could compete with brass instruments and the general cacophony of sound that emanated from bandstands. Vega introduced its VegaVox line in the late 1920s; among other features, these banjos had unusually deep resonators that covered the entire side of the body. The result was a very loud instrument with a beautifully mellow sound. The VegaVoxes were expensive, though, and the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s eliminated many people’s ability to afford them.

In response, Vega introduced the Moderne model in 1931. At $150, it maintained some of the features of the VegaVoxes but at a much lower price – it was cheaper than all but one of the earlier Vegaphone models. The neck construction was identical to the VegaVoxes, but there was no dowel inside the pot. The tone ring was unique; the hooks are bent in order to attach to the flange, thus negating the need for brackets through the ring. I’ve been told that this design was later used in the 1960s on Vega’s Earl Scruggs model.

While I don’t know much about banjo construction, I’ve played enough to have some grasp of what a good one sounds like. This one sounds superb. It is incredibly loud and has a very focused sound; the emphasis is on the mid-range, without any harshness in the highs. It has a very compressed sound without much in the way of dynamics (even when lightly strumming without picks, it’s hard to play softly).

Just as interesting as the sound is the banjo’s decoration; banjos were always laden with much more lavish detailing than guitars, but the Moderne is unique. Instead of the fine inlay that predominated in the 1920s, the Moderne’s headstock is covered in an art deco paint job that transforms Vega’s star logo into something resembling a rising sun. The fretboard inlays are highly unusual: ivroid blocks were carved with shallow lines, which were then filled with ink. I’ve only seen them on a few Vega models such as the C-75 guitar, which is equally rare. The result is stunning but much easier to make than complex inlay, which can also be said of the headstock ornamentation. Unfortunately, the few other Modernes I’ve seen often had their ink partially worn away by regular playing; when I had mine refretted, I specifically requested that the fretboard not be planed down in order to preserve the markers. The back of the resonator is an unusual parquet pattern that must have been the most time-consuming part of the instrument to decorate. I’m certain I’ve seen that pattern on a ballroom floor somewhere. The hardware is plated in what the Vega catalog calls “the new Chromium process”.

My banjo is in excellent condition. It’s all original aside from the frets and one nut. I have the original faux-alligator case, but it has split along every seam and is no longer usable. The banjo plays perfectly thanks to a past neck reset.