Ca. 1930 Vega 202

The Vega Company is primarily remembered for their banjos, but their mandolins are similarly regarded for their high quality of construction and sound. Vega began by building traditional bowl-backed mandolins, but around the turn of the 1910s they introduced a completely new design. While mandolins existed with flat or canted tops and flat backs, Vega took the unusual step of pairing a flat top with a back that was arched down the center. This created a design described in Vega literature simply as a “lute mandolin” (to differentiate it from the standard bowl-back mandolin) but which has become unofficially known as the “cylinder back”.

The closest previous analog was the Howe-Orme line of instruments that featured a linear arch in the top, and the proximity of the two Boston manufacturers probably played a role in Vega’s design. Vega received a design patent for the cylinder-back mandolin shape in 1913; it is often said that this is when the design was first put into production, but the first cylinder-back mandolins actually predate this by at least a year. Production seems to have tapered off around the start of the 1930s; Vega continued to build flat-back and electric mandolins into the 1950s, but the cylinder-back design probably did not survive long into the age of the archtop guitar.

Some cosmetic changes occurred over the years, but for the most part, the mandolins remained largely the same throughout their production. At various times, finishes were natural, a dark central shade, a brownish sunburst, and the reddish sunburst seen on this instrument. The cylindrical arch, which was held in shape by bracing, was applied to a variety of related instruments including mandolas, mandocellos, mandobasses, and tenor lutes. The mandolins were by far the most popular and diverse group in the line: they came with mahogany, maple and rosewood backs, and in at least three levels of ornamentation.

This is the model 202, the least expensive cylinder-back mandolin offered. It has a mahogany back and relatively simple decoration, but the construction is the same as on the higher-priced models. The arched back was intended to give “a resonating quality not found in other mandolins”, according to the catalog. The overall design of the instrument does create a full, rich tone, which lead all cylinder-backed instruments to be desirable among players. The mandolins’ 13 7/8” scale, longer than most mandolins of the time except for Gibsons, also contributed to their considerable volume.

Vega must have felt the cylinder-back design to be a success, since their first archtop guitars (late 1920s) had a cylindrical arch on both the top and back. By the mid 1930s, though, these had been discontinued in favor of a more conventional carved top and back, and the cylinder-back mandolins seem to have been discontinued with them.