1924 Vega Style X No 9

 

Vega built all sorts of instruments in the first half of the 20th century – guitars, mandolins, ukuleles, and a number of brass instruments – but their bread and butter was always banjos. Once they purchased the A. C. Fairbanks company in 1904, Vega continued building a design by Fairbanks employee David L. Day called the Tubaphone: the first modern tone ring. The ring was actually a hollow brass tube with a square cross section (see this diagram from a later Vega advertisement), and its resonance and increased mass created significantly more volume than earlier banjo designs.

Vega created entire lines of models around the Tubaphone design and its predecessor, the Whyte Laydie tone ring. Each design was available as a regular (5-string), plectrum, tenor, guitar and mandolin banjo. Each model was assigned a number based on the level of trim; more inlays and expensive materials were denoted by higher numbers. A few models were given letter designations, but a few were given names instead. Thus, by the start of the 1920s, the Vega banjo catalog was a jumble of letters, numbers and model names, sometimes interchangeable but often not. Thus, the banjo pictured above is a Style X No. 9 while its fancier counterpart with the same overall construction is simply a De Luxe. If the Style X wasn’t quite the top of the line, it was still an exceptional banjo by any standard. Considerably fancier and more expensive than the stalwart Tubaphone Style M, it was described in the Vega catalog as “in a class by itself… strictly an Artist’s instrument”. Indeed, as the Tubaphone line evolved into the Vegaphone line with the addition of a flange and resonator, the Style X would gradually be replaced by the Artist model.

When this banjo was built around 1924, the Vegaphone upgrades were not incorporated. Thus, it sports friction tuners, a short 21”-scale, 17-fret neck, and originally left the factory as an open-backed instrument. As became common as the 1920s progressed, it was fitted with a resonator – in this case, one intended for a cheaper Vega Style N. As the Tubaphones were intended to be played as open-backed instruments, this banjo has excellent volume and tone without the resonator; however, I still prefer the extra projection offered with the resonator in place. This particular Style X is slightly unusual in not having a fingerboard extension; it’s uncertain whether this was a change made to the standard model at some point or whether it was a special order. Aside from the resonator, this banjo is entirely original; it shows average playwear for its age, but the neck is straight and it plays superbly up the neck.

 

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