1930s Vega Triumphal
Between the beginning of 1935 and the end of 1936, the electric guitar and lap steel went from an obscure novelty to the new standard of chic for the performing musician. From then until the end of the decade, changes came frequently to most manufacturers’ product lines. Spurred by the desire to create ever more deluxe instruments and the conflicting need to produce affordable instruments in an economy wracked by depression, a number of brands became structurally simpler and simultaneously more visually ornate.
Vega is an excellent example. Its first lap steels, built around 1936, had cast aluminum bodies similar to contemporary National-Dobro and Rickenbacker products. This might have been trendy at the time, but it was economically counterproductive. Vega’s Boston factory had many skilled woodworkers who produced archtop and flattop guitar bodies, but the factory needed to outsource the casting work for the new steels. Within a year or two, the cast body had been replaced by a wooden one with a thick brass top; the nickel plate over the brass and silver finish on the sides gave the illusion of a metal body (from afar, at least). Eventually, big metal parts were discarded altogether and all Vega’s steels were made from wood bodies.
Thus, the Triumphal model was born. It was introduced around 1938 and continued to be built until the end of the 1940s, if not a few years later. Most are striking for their natural-finished bodies built of solid flamed maple; prior to about 1941, however, they were finished in opaque black. I suspect that my steel is made of pine rather than maple – if so, it would be another concession to economy. The top is inlayed with pyralin stripes that vaguely recall a National New Yorker’s skyscraper appearance, though the rosewood fingerboard and colorful dot markers more closely resemble the aesthetics of a contemporary Epiphone. The face of the peghead was originally white, but the finish over it has aged to a strong yellow (the golden star logo originally stood out more than it does today).
Dating Vega electrics from the 1930s is never easy; few catalogs are freely available and no known serial number system has survived for anything other than Vega banjos and mandolins. This 1941 advertisement touts the “new” natural finish on the Triumphal, so that puts an end bracket around the date of manufacture. The 1939 catalog does actually use the “Triumphal” name (it’s called an “Advanced Model” instead), so I suspect that it was introduced when the finish was changed. Later Triumphals carry a script logo on the headstock instead of the star, and I believe this was changed at the end of World War II. The Triumphal sold for $93.00 with a case and cord in 1939 (I have what is definitely the original case and possibly the original cord), and a 7th string was optional for $7.50 extra. I have never come across a 7-string Triumphal, or even a picture of one.
The guitar has an average amount of wear, but everything is original except and the grounding wire (which is a welcome later addition, and is only visible with the back removed). The knobs appear to have gold markers molded into them, but in fact these are brass tacks (factory original) that have been driven through the plastic. The handrest, bridge, control plates and Grover tuners are plated with chrome rather than nickel; this was a significant upmarket feature at the time.
The electronics are fairly ordinary except for their output, which is surprisingly strong for the era (and stronger than any other Vega I’ve played, including instruments with the same pickup). This may be due to the lack of a tone pot to lower the signal; the tone control is a 3-way switch, much like a contemporary National instrument. One setting is very bassy, and must have sounded like pure mud through a contemporary amp; the second setting is probably devoid of tone caps and resistors, and the third setting rolls off some of the bass for a more piercing sound. The center “normal” setting is by far the most useable, but still rather bright; it sounds excellent through its matching Vega DeLuxe amp, which is short on treble no matter where you set the tone control. Later Triumphals featured conventional tone pots that rolled off the treble frequencies.