c.1921 Vega "Franken-Laydie" Tenor Banjo

When I bought this banjo I had no idea what lurked under a big, enveloping, oddball home-made resonator that I saw in the pictures of it. I knew that the neck was off of a Vega style R ("Whyte Laydie" tonering) tenor banjo and I could see a "sleeve" of metal at the upper part of the rim -- which made me hope that this was simply a style R tenor that had an ugly resonator put on it. Well -- sometimes you don't get what you expect!

This turned out to be a 1921 style R tenor neck mated to a different 1920s pot. It's essentially a thin-rimmed Vega "Little Wonder" tonering build being a hoop-in-a-sleeve construction but my guess is that this rim was actually made for a catalog-style mid-grade banjo by Lange. A second guess would be Oscar Schmidt. I've seen similar rims on instruments built by both those makers.

At any rate, my guess is that someone was cobbling 5-string banjos together with nice Vega rims (hence the missing original Whyte Laydie rim) and cobbled this together as a partser. It's a good partser with that nice neck on it, though, and I've done it some better by giving it a fret level/dress, new synthetic Remo Renaissance head, a cleaning, and good setup. It now plays perfectly (1/16" at the 12th fret) and has a bright, focused, and not-overly-loud sound to it. It's got enough sweetness to bang out chords but enough cut and zing to let it cut easily over guitars and mandolins in a jam situation.

The rim is a 10 1/16" diameter, though the 10 1/8" head I had on hand fit it just fine. Oh, the slight intolerances of old rims are sometimes a nice advantage.

The smaller pot mated to a shorter-scale neck (the scale on this is only 19 3/4"!) makes this an extremely fast player for melody work. It feels more like playing a mandola than a tenor banjo and it also makes a good candidate for higher-than-normal tuning. I have a set of 32w-9 tenor strings on this right now (my standard CGDA set) but with a scale this short one can tune up to DAEB without a capo and not put excess stress on the neck. That higher pitch gives you mandolin fingering with a capo at the 5th fret and also gives you easy access to the keys of D, A, and E with the open strings (which is ultra-useful for playing with guitarists and in Celtic or old-time sessions).

Being a style R neck, this has a pearl star inlaid at the headstock. The bone nut is also original.

Note the top of these interesting Grover tuners: they have threaded portions to allow some thumbscrews to tighten down and lock the string in place! Early "locking" tuners for banjo, eh? Unfortunately only two thumbscrews remained with the banjo so I removed them for the time being.

The bridge (5/8" tall) and adjustable tailpiece are newer (maybe 70s or 80s?) but they've both aged-in well enough to pass for originals at a glance. They came with the banjo.

The rim hardware appears original to the rim at least. Note the "sleeve" that's on this like a Little Wonder rim. This goes up and surrounds a "hoop" style tonering in the exact manner that a Little Wonder ring would have. Not surprisingly -- the tone is similar -- with that sort of sweet chimey, direct quality one gets of that style ring.

Ebony board, ivoroid binding, nickel-silver frets, and nice pearl position marks.

Here you can see the two-piece-with-center-line hard maple neck.

The friction pegs are original to the neck and have ivoroid buttons. They're Grover units and have a similar construction to fancy "Waverly" style uke pegs by which I mean they have a mid-section that encloses a spring inside which lets you turn them a little bit more smoothly than conventional friction pegs.

Someone had a strap button installed in the heel. Note the neck brace: it's the simple "hammer in the shims" type.

Here's the Fairbanks/Vega branding on the dowel.

The rim is maple as well. Because it's not as heavy as the original Vega pot would be, this tenor is actually pretty lightweight overall which makes it comfy in the lap.

There's the Whyte Laydie branding and the 1921 serial on the dowel.


Anonymous said...

Did you consider putting a 5-string neck on it and selling it for $150 more? Who buys 4-string banjos?

Antebellum Instruments said...

Lots of people, actually, buy 4 string banjos.

They're used in almost every other genre except... bluegrass... or old-time... and even then, the amount of true old-time bands using tenors and plectrums back in the 20s and 30s is staggering vs. the ones that used 5-strings.

I consider it pretty disruptive to history for folks to go about hacking up nice old tenors to put questionable modern 5-string necks on them. I mean -- there are any number of modern builders who make high quality reproductions (or, for that matter, improvements) of old desirable models -- why bother??