1920s Stromberg Deluxe

 

Charles Stromberg & Sons are mainly known for the fine archtop guitars they produced between the 1920s and 1950s. (They should not be confused with Stromberg-Voisinet, which became Kay and is known for much cheaper instruments). Although the firm was active for half a century, Stromberg instruments are best remembered as pinnacles of the jazz age; their guitars of the 1920s and 1930s embody both the look and the sound of countless early jazz ensembles. However, the company produced more than just guitars: banjos, mandolins and drums were also on the menu, and they were all built to the same high standards.

Charles Stromberg immigrated to Boston from his native Sweden in 1886 at the age of 20. He worked for many years at Thompson and O’Dell, an instrument manufacturer that was acquired by Vega in 1905. In 1906, Stromberg left Vega to found his own custom instrument company with his sons, Harry and Elmer; Harry left the family business in 1927, but Elmer would continue to work with his father into the 1950s. Charles already had a formidable reputation as a luthier, and Stromberg & Sons attracted a steady stream of commissions for custom instruments as well as customers seeking repairs.

The trio were innovative with their banjo designs early on. Their Cupperphone tone ring, which would become a staple of their tenor banjos in the 1920s, was first used in the previous decade on open-backed banjos of various kinds. Elmer applied for a patent for the design in 1926 and was awarded it two years later. The Cupperphone ring itself rested on 41 hollow tubes, which resulted in a heavy but very loud and clear banjo. The system was adapted to both archtop and flat-top designs, though archtops appear to be more common.

Stromberg advertised at least two standard models, the Deluxe and the Marimba (or Mirimba), but in reality, each banjo was uniquely decorated. Many Deluxes had gold plating, though some (like this one) have nickel – and some have a mix of both. Engraved hardware, carved heels and a penchant for rhinestones may make the banjos appear gaudy to modern eyes, but none of these features were uncommon on high-end banjos of the time. Because the dominance of the tenor banjo was relatively short, Stromberg did not produce many; estimates top out around 1000 in total. By the early 1930s, customer requirements shifted to guitars and Stromberg began focusing on archtop guitars.

All the features of this particular banjo can be found on other Strombergs. The neck, rim and resonator are all rosewood, and the side of the resonator is covered with sparkling Pyralin that must have come from the company’s business in drums. While the ornamentation is not particularly flashy as these banjos go, the attention to detail in the engraving, carving and marquetry is exceptional. Structurally, the most interesting feature may be the 20-fret neck, an oddity of some Stromberg tenors that gave players one more fret than competing banjos. This banjo is mostly original, though the red paint inside the resonator is probably a later addition, and it remains in excellent condition.

 

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