12/30/2015

1925 Vega Special #2 5-String Openback Banjo




What a surprise it was to find this one -- and mostly original, too. I'm having a week off but I did manage to squeeze a couple of my own projects in during the wee hours -- including the Gibson lap steel a few posts back and this banjo.

The serial number places this one at 1925 and its build certainly comes from that time. Vega (of Boston) wasn't making that many 5-strings at the time, so it's somewhat rare to find Vegas with original 5-string necks these days -- and they're so much in demand that there's a healthy (if frustrating) market in converting old Vega pots to 5-strings by adding repro necks. My position on that: what's the point? New rims in the Vega style sound just as good. Why rob an old pot of its original neck?

This is an interesting instrument in that it's pretty plain in the style of something like a Style N tenor (click here to see the neck on one of those) or Style K banjo mandolin. The difference, however, is that this one plays and sounds a lot like a Little Wonder model as it has a fairly substantial nickel-plated brass hoop tonering on the top of the rim that (to my ears) sounds just like the hoop-in-sleeve Little Wonder rings. It's also got a full 26" scale length and standard 11" rim.


This came to me with nearly all its original hardware save head, bridge, and one hook/nut (which I've replaced with a vintage hook/nut of the same size). My work included a fret level/dress, swap-out of the 4 headstock pegs for geared Gotoh UPT pegs (using the original buttons), cleaning, a new Remo Renaissance (branded "Elite") head, install/compensation of a couple of old all-maple bridges, and general setup.

It plays spot-on with 1/16" action at the 12th fret, a good straight neck, and a sturdy, confident feel. What else would you expect from a Vega, though, anyway? These lower-end Vegas are great banjos in the same way that Martin's bottom-rung 15/17 series 30s-50s guitars are just as excellent as their high-profile models, though different. Quality control was quite high on these.


The headstock veneer and fretboard appear to be stained pearwood and the neck seems to actually possibly be poplar (when I was reaming for the new pegs it was greenish) rather than true maple. It's stained a medium/walnut brown and probably would've matched the maple rim better when made, save that UV has darkened it more over time. The finish is that smooth, plain Vega french polish that feels so quick under the fingers.

This is 100% not a mated banjo as all the details (including the chiseled heel) are right and I've seen a number of Vega tenors of this period and grade with the same looks.


The 5th "pip" is not original, though I've recut it lower so that the 5th string rides over the 5th fret. This way if you capo "across" the neck at frets 6, 7, 8, etc. your 5th will keep in relative pitch with everything else rather than going sharp.


Excuse the simple shim at the end of the board -- the neck is almost perfectly angled, anyhow, but I like to be sure it won't drift after settling. I usually darken them but wanted to get the pictures taken before the sun went down (it's still dark early over here).


This bridge is slightly under 1/2" for 1/16" action at the 12th fret. I also made-up another 1/2" bridge (compensated, too) for slightly higher action (ie, for dedicated clawhammer folks).

The tailpiece is an original No-Knot style and I've strung the banjo with 9s to keep it safe for the long haul. A lot of folks use 10s but I don't trust old necks with them.




I was happy to be able to reuse the original ivoroid buttons on the new 4:1 geared pegs. The 4:1 ratio really helps for quick tuning, though I didn't want to swap the 5th peg out as it's recessed a bit better than your average 5-string from the time and would need a bit of recutting of the "shoulder" near it to install a modern 4:1 peg.




There's the "No. 2 Special" script...


...the factory blurb...


...and the matching rim/dowel serials. Note the always-excellent Vega-style neck brace which is the best of the neck braces of this type made. They're reliable and non-fussy.




These tuners are lightweight and look great.



Can't argue with the quality Vega hardware and the nice tortoise binding on the rim's bottom edge.

Note the faint lines of washers: the last owner of this mounted the interior washers on the outside to, I suppose, get the hooks to run over the edge of the (torn) old Remo head better. I hate to say this, but I simply bend the hooks a little instead as it's far more practical/stable to have those shoes mounted flush to the rim.

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