6/04/2011

c.1927 Vega Regent Plectrum Banjo


Vega, out of Boston, made this wonderful Regent plectrum banjo in 1927. It's all original, save the tailpiece which is an adjustable vintage one from my parts bin, but I've still got the original 4-string no-knot tailpiece that came with it. This banjo is headed to my private collection as I've been looking for a good plectrum banjo for a long time!

...plectrum banjo, you say? History lesson!

The "plectrum banjo" is simply a 5-string banjo without the 5th string (ie, the short drone string), and hence no 5th-string bump and ledge, either. They became somewhat popular around c.1900-1920 because folks were removing the 5th string from their 5-string banjos and playing them with a pick instead, which suited the dance music at the time. The tuning was the same as standard 5-string tuning at the time, minus the 5th string -- CGBD low to high, that is.

When the tenor banjo got big around c.1910 and onwards, the plectrum banjo got left in the dust except for a few exceptional players -- notably Eddie Peabody and the like -- who made exquisite use of the plectrum tone to their advantage. Tenors, with their shorter necks and more piercing tone, were easier to play and cut through in a band situation quite a bit more.


My take on plectrums, though? They're a totally under-used resource. I love the tone of a 5-string banjo, as the long scale length and thin strings give a very distinct tonality to the instrument. Plectrums share that long scale and thin stringing, which makes them tonally more diverse than, say, a tenor banjo -- you can play with chords in first position for folkie strum-alongs, move to the middle of the neck for sublime dulcimer-like droning tones, and move up to the "mandolin range" of the neck for cutting lead work.

I'm keeping this fellowed tuned to GDAE an octave below mandolin, with 32w-22w-12-09 strings. This gives me octave mandolin/Celtic bouzouki fingering and tonality, but without the almost flubby/tubby/non-banjo tone caused by using this tuning on a shorter-scale tenor banjo with thick strings (46w-32w-22w-14 or so).


At any rate, this is a fine instrument -- three piece maple neck, bound ebony fretboard with pearl inlay, bone nut, original ivoroid tuners, ebonized headstock veneer, maple pot with Little Wonder style tonering, tortoise rim binding, original heavy-duty Vega rim hardware... etc. After the usual teardown/cleaning/setup work, it turned out to be a beautiful player, too, with "that Vega tone" which is synonymous with old-timey banjo sounds.


Ah, fret dress, too.


...and a bridge from my parts bin.



Friction tuners work plenty fine.


Nice heavy-duty heel and heel cap.


Note the setlist of old songs ball-pointed on the back of the head.


Vega markings. The serial dates it to 1927.





It's really a great-feeling instrument. I had a lot of fun with it earlier today at the weekly in-store jam. It flies between full-on gypsy jazz/swing and old-timey rhythm and lead work, no problem.




Astoundingly, it has all of its original hooks/nuts.

5 comments:

Jeff Brown said...

I can see why you want to keep this one, but please make a Youtube video so we can all hear it!

Jim Martin said...

I have one just like this.... all original and original hard case in pretty good condition. What is this thing worth?
Jim

Amy Sittman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amy Sittman said...

Hello, I had acquired the same banjo yesterday. After looking online for sometime I found this one posted. Its the only one I could find that doesnt have the star between the tuning pegs. It doesnt have the strings or skin. I am going the bring it to a luthier tomorrow to see what he has to say. Any suggestions? Do you know the value of this banjo? Thank you so much, Amy

Antebellum Instruments said...

The work you'll probably need if it hasn't been touched before = new head, fret level/dress, new bridge, strings, setup, and general cleaning of hardware.

Value = whatever you feel comfortable selling it at. That said, this is a mid-grade Vega and not a high-grade one and plectrums are just not very popular (sadly).