1931 Vega Artist

The Vega Company dominated the banjo market for the first three decades of the 20th century. Their Boston factories produced some of the finest instruments available, and in large quantities; even Vega’s lower-priced models are highly respected by players today. However, in the mid 1930s, the company underwent a significant shift away from banjos and began concentrating on guitars. This was in keeping with musical trends of the time, but the speed of Vega’s transition seems remarkable in hindsight. Documentation from the 1930s and 1940s is sketchy, but almost all of Vega’s surviving literature from that time focuses on guitars. While the company did produce some exceptional acoustic archtops, and while they were also pioneers in the field of electrification, their banjo production barely registers. This might have made sense later in the 1930s, but scarcely any Vega banjos show up from after the first few years of that decade.

The company’s stalwart Vegaphone line – which traced its roots to the Tubaphone line before 1910 – was trimmed down significantly by 1949. Originally comprised of the Professional, the Soloist, the Artist and the Deluxe, only the first two remained by that point. The Soloist was gone by 1954, leaving only the Professional. Perhaps this made more room for the more expensive Vegavox line, though those banjos were not produced in great numbers either. It’s not clear when the Vegaphone Artist and Deluxe were discontinued, but I have not seen examples of either model dating to later than 1932. It’s possible that the Great Depression forced Vega to rethink their core product line. There is evidence of a shake-up at the start of the 1930s with the introduction and fairly quick withdrawal of the Moderne and Crescent, two models that were intended to offer a lot of bang for relatively few bucks.

The higher-priced Vegaphones and Vegavoxes were revamped around 1930. The ornate pearl inlays that dominated earlier headstocks were becoming old-fashioned, and models such as the Artist received single-piece pyralin veneers that were inked and engraved. This decoration was eye-catching and new, but it also was less expensive to produce than pearl inlays. Interestingly, my banjo’s headstock veneer is different from the one pictured in a 1931 catalog, but then Vega frequently changed their veneer engravings during the 1930s. The resonator, which used to exhibit flamed maple pieces arranged with octagonal symmetry, was now covered in golden pyralin and edged with pearl and gold flake. An interesting addition was the Grover “clamshell” tailpiece, engraved with the “Vegaphone” name and machined for use with both loop-end and ball-end strings. Other elements of the Artist remained recognizable: the gold-plated hardware, the carved heel, and the engraved fret markers were held over from earlier incarnations.

While this model was produced in large numbers in the 1920s, Artists bearing this combination of cosmetic features are rare. They were introduced around 1930 and may have been withdrawn as early as 1932. This particular example is worn but intact; its gold plate is largely gone, but the inlayed fretboard and carved neck are still works of art.