Two 1930s Vega Lap Steels
Information on Vega instruments other than banjos is woefully hard to find regardless of era. Documentation on their early electric instruments, in particular, seems to be largely unavailable. It is known that the company was building a number of electric models by 1936; what follows is my best attempt to reconcile available information into a timeline for their lap steels.
Vega’s first lap steels, like those of Rickenbacker, Gibson and National-Dobro, had cast aluminum bodies. The very first ones debuted in April of 1936 with a double-coil humbucker and bar polepieces. Within about a month, the bars had been replaced with individual poles for each string and hand rests were installed over the pickup. This was not only functional, but it visually recalled the horseshoe magnets used in Rickenbacker pickups. The fretboards on the first examples had 21 frets and dot markers at the 20th fret, recalling National’s marker placement; there were also plastic markers at the 24th fret inserted into the body off the end of the board. At some point, the fretboard was extended to 24 frets, the dots were moved to the 19th fret, and the extra plastic markers were dropped. This is the version of the aluminum steel shown above.
In the fall of 1937, or possibly a little later, the aluminum body was dropped in favor of a wood body with an aluminum plate covering the body aft of the fretboard. At first this plate did not cover the entire body, but it was eventually redesigned to flank the end of the fretboard on both sides. The redesign of the plate allowed several other changes as well: its material was changed to chromed brass, an adjustable bridge was introduced, a tailpiece was formed into the plate instead of having the strings run through the end of the body, and a substantial change was made to the pickup. Previous pickups had the coils separated by roughly ½” and kept far from the strings below ¼” of aluminum; this produced relatively low output with a very mellow tone. With the brass plate, the coils now abutted each other and were raised through a hole in the plate; this considerably raised both the output and the treble response of the instruments.
The wood body steel was dropped from the Vega catalog by 1939, though there was still featured a double-necked version with genuine horseshoe pickups (as used on Vega’s earliest Spanish electric guitars). It was described as having 7 strings on one neck and 8 on the other, but the photograph shows a D6 configuration. I have yet to see a picture of one of these double-necks outside a catalog. All of these models were dropped by the early 1940s, and the Triumphal and Commander models became Vega’s main steel models until the late 1950s.
There are a number of differences between the aluminum and wood versions that I have not mentioned. Chief among them is scale: all aluminum instruments are 25”, while I believe all wood bodied instruments are 23”. This, plus the changes to the pickup, makes it difficult to assess the exact tonal contributions of the body material. The aluminum instruments I have played have superior sustain, but the brighter tone and stronger output of their wooden successors has its benefits as well. All models have humbucking pickups, and combined with heavy shielding from brass or aluminum tops, they all pick up very little background noise.
Visually, the aluminum models closely resemble their National counterparts. They were both silver with gold-painted tops; this has often flaked off over the decades along with the outer layer of varnish, and it’s not unusual to see an aluminum Vega with no gold left at all. The chrome plate on the hand rests is often worn through by players’ hands, and the chrome on the brass plates usually shows some pick wear. The wood-bodied instruments (which were finished in silver on the sides to match the chrome tops) show a more independent spirit of design, not obviously drawing from any other contemporary steel models.