Ca. 1949 Vega Tenor Guitar

Vega may have produced some superb and interesting guitars, but they never matched the popularity of the company’s banjos. Although Vega built guitars throughout their history, guitars remained something of a sideline until the banjo’s popularity began to wane in the 1940s. Even then, Vega was slow to respond to trends in the guitar market; they continued to focus on archtops into the 1950s while their flat-top and solidbody models were never produced in large numbers. By the time the company started to diversify its range of flat-tops in the late 1950s, it was too late to make a big dent in the market.

Any Vega flat-top acoustic is therefore relatively rare, but a tenor flat-top is particularly remarkable. The tenor guitar was developed as a crossover instrument that allowed tenor banjo players (and, vicariously, mandolin players) to double on guitar without learning a whole new tuning. It retained some degree of popularity into the 1940s as banjo players gradually acquiesced to the new reality that their instruments were rapidly falling out of favor and they sought a more popular sound. Major builders such as Epiphone, Gibson and Guild occasionally built tenor versions of popular guitar models into the 1960s, though usually on special order.

Vega built tenor versions of their catalogued models as well, but that’s not what this guitar represents. As the label attests, this was not just a special version of an existing model – it’s a totally custom instrument. It has a 17” body that appears to be formed in the same shape as an early version of the FT-J “Jumbo” model flat-top. The exquisite spruce and maple combined with a natural finish recall a contemporary C-71, though the back appears to be laminated like the Electrovox series. The black binding and embossed rosette is also unusual on a Vega acoustic, though similar material was used on the natural-finished version of the Triumphal lap steel. The slotted headstock is an interesting throwback to an earlier time, a feature that Vega abandoned in the 1930s.

Assigning a date to the instrument is difficult; there are no catalogs to reference, and serial numbers on Vega guitars are so random as to be meaningless. The overall styling suggests that it was built in the late 1940s to the mid 1950s. [See update below.] The instrument is mostly original, though there is a hole drilled in the heel from a later strap pin [now believed to be original]. The bridge saddle is a replacement as well, designed to improve intonation; the bridge itself is original, but curiously, it’s a Vega ukulele bridge rather than the conventional pin design used on most Vega flat-top guitars. Aside from a mark on the top where a sticker was applied, the guitar has normal wear and tear but no damage or repairs. Its sound is enormous despite the fairly thin body, with booming bass, clear highs and considerable volume.

 

Update, June 2016:

When I purchased this guitar, I thought of it as a nifty piece of Vega history. As a custom-ordered, one-of-a-kind instrument, I knew I wouldn’t find it described in a Vega catalog. Much to my surprise, however, I did recently find it pictured in a Vega brochure from 1950.

Bando da Lua (“Band of the Moon” in Portuguese) was a popular Brazilian band in the 1930s through the 1950s known for their vocal harmonies. The lineup shifted over the years, but the group appears to have usually featured a tenor guitarist as well as a 6-string guitarist. The two musicians sometimes sported matching instruments, and they seem to have purchased matching custom Vegas around 1949. They also affixed matching quarter-moon marks (I’m guessing they were stickers) to the tops of these guitars, as they had done with previous instruments.

By this point, they were closely associated with singer Carmen Miranda, accompanying her in the studio and in a number of films produced in the US. A 1950 Vega brochure reproduces a photograph of Bando da Lua with Carmen Miranda taken to promote the film Nancy Goes to Rio, released that year. In the photograph, both my tenor and its matching 6-string sibling can clearly be seen. Both guitars are also clearly visible in two scenes from that film as well.

So, it turns out that this guitar is a piece of Hollywood memorabilia as well as a great instrument. Someone probably removed the moon sticker years ago, but thanks to its imprint in the finish, the guitar can still be positively identified.

 

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