Ca. 1931 Vega Arched Model

 

Gibson found commercial success with its early guitars, but the company’s arched tops and backs had very little influence on other brands. It took three decades until other companies began to mass-produce carved-top guitars. That first competition was largely due to the decline of the banjo and the guitar’s rise to the preeminent spot in jazz rhythm sections. Suddenly, in the early 1930s, Epiphone, Martin, and other companies entered the archtop market to compete for jazz players’ favor. Vega was not among that first wave of carved-top builders; they waited until around 1934 to introduce a line of “modern” archtops. Perhaps they were hoping for a revival of the banjo market, which had been enormously profitable for the company in previous decades. Their first step toward a modern archtop guitar world came around 1928, but it was really a modified flat-top design: the cylinder models.

Vega had been building cylinder-backed mandolins since the early 1910s; they were officially called “lute” mandolins, the “cylinder” term being a modern description. The backs of these instruments were molded into curved ridges that ran the length of the body, which increased the size of the sound box and the volume and projection of the instrument. This construction technique was probably appropriated from the Howe-Orme mandolins and guitars built in the 1890s; it’s likely that the same Boston-area luthiers contributed to both companies. Howe-Orme arched the tops and backs of their instruments, while Vega only arched the backs of their mandolins. Probably to compete visually with Gibson archtops, Vega molded the tops of their cylinder guitars as well as the backs.

Early cylinder guitar model were labeled A, B and C depending on woods and trim, and they were fitted with trapeze tailpieces. The line had been changed somewhat by 1931 and all models were henceforth fitted with pin bridges. A catalog still shows three basic models, but with significant differences between them. The cheapest was actually the largest, the “Extra large Auditorium size” Orchestra Model featuring a mahogany back and suspended pickguard for $80. The imaginatively-named Arched Model featured a figured maple back and came with a concert-sized body for $125 or grand concert for $135. It also featured a slotted headstock, but for whatever reason Vega did not fit it with a pickguard. The most expensive guitar in the Vega line was the arched Cremona model, featuring f-holes (including one through the suspended pickguard) and a maple back for $200 (grand concert) or $220 (extra large grand concert).

The guitar pictured above is the middle model with a grand concert body. With a $135 list price, it was more expensive than any Gibson flat-top model and in between the price of an L-3 and L-4. It was also in between the price of a Martin 00-42 and 00-45. It was an expensive guitar, but not really what players were looking for. Its sound is somewhere in between a flat-top and an archtop, quite loud and pleasant but lacking the strong mid-range that was selectively picked up by radio and recording equipment of the time. This particular guitar is all original; the neck has been reset, but there are no replacement parts.

 

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