6/18/2016

1924 Vega Little Wonder Tenor Banjo



A customer of mine called me up the other day and told me she was on the hunt for a better tenor banjo. She's a Celtic player and uses octave mandolin (GDAE) tuning, but was playing a lightweight old openback with a smaller rim, no tonering, and a skin head. Those attributes make a fine instrument for playing at home, small jams, and recording use -- but not something you want to bring to a session if you want to be able to hear yourself over the din. She'd borrowed a Vega tenor from a friend of hers for a while and fell in love, so when she called-up asking about what to look for, I said something to the effect of, "Find a Vega if you like a Vega. You won't be happy, otherwise."

I spotted this tenor for her on eBay, sent the link, and a week later she walked in with it. In person, it's actually even more interesting than on eBay -- it has a big 11 3/4" rim which, coincidentally, is perfect for supporting the lower-pitched GDAE tuning. The rest is standard "Little Wonder" specs for Vegas from the 20s -- hoop-in-sleeve tonering, multi-ply maple rim, gobs of heavy-duty nickel-plated brass hardware (all-original), a shorter 20 7/8" scale length, ebony fretboard, two-piece maple neck, and tasteful, elegant, trim. I like to harp about how Vegas, especially, are the Martins of the banjo market -- traditional and simply beautifully-made.


Work included a fret level/dress, much cleaning, adjustments, setup, and a new head install. The bridge is also from my bins and I compensated and fit it for the stringing/tuning. I like to steer folks away from a wound A in this tuning as it never sits quite right to the ear, I think. I gauged a set at 42w, 28w, 18, 12 and the tension and feel seems to be just right for this instrument. It has a ton of volume and depth and also, thankfully, plays perfectly with 1/16" action at the 12th fret.

The head, interestingly, was from a stack of really odd-sized heads a friend of mine gave me years ago. They're all older (80s?) and hadn't been used but had a bit of shelf wear. The new owner of this instrument lucked-out that I could get this banjo re-headed with a synthetic on-the-spot, as why else would I have an oddball 11 3/4" Remo on hand?


The original bone nut is still going strong.


A bound, ebony fretboard with pearl dots is nice under the fingers. I added some black side dots, too.


Perhaps the "coolest" feature is the original, semi-translucent, celluloid pickguard and its adjuster brackets. How wonderful is that?

The owner was skeptical of using the guard at first, but after adjusting everything correctly and getting it off of the head, she realized that it's a very useful item, indeed -- to allow pinky-planting while not sapping tone and response.


I compensated the newer Grover 2-foot bridge for the 2-wound, 2-unwound stringing. Note the bit of leather under the strings at the tail to help cut down on overtones -- a necessity on such a "wide-open" big rim.




Original geared pegs are nice to have, huh?


After being sold from Cagan's Music, this found its way down to Sandy Hook, CT, and then moved on up here when my customer bought it.





This has a whopping 30 hooks on the rim. Also -- don't you guys love that tortoise binding on the edge of the rim? I always liked that touch from Vega.



An original No-Knot tail came with the instrument and I adjusted the "prongs" just a bit to allow for bigger-gauged ball-end strings to be loaded.


There's the 1924 serial number and also a bit of muting-foam peeking out from behind the dowel. I use the stuff in just a small pad on most banjos to add just a bit of overtone damping. To my ears, clean notes are a priority in group play.

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