1950s Vega D-100

Vega’s early electric instruments employed some cutting-edge features for the 1930s. Their guitars were fitted with sound posts and humbucking pickups as early as 1936, and Vega seems to have experimented with new pickups through the rest of the decade. The electric mandolin line bore similar features to the guitars but based on simple, teardrop-shaped archtop bodies. Vega’s electric mandolins of the 1940s and 1950s followed the same changes in pickups as the guitars, but the body styles were remarkably different. While the electric guitar line was based on archtop bodies (first built by Vega and then by Harmony), the electric mandolins built after World War II actually reverted to flat-topped designs.

Vega had greatly simplified its mandolin range since the heyday of its cylinder-backed instruments, so by the end of the 1940s it was only building one body style. This maintained Vega’s trademark two-point shape, but the top was now completely flat while the back maintained just a slight arch applied by the bracing. The resulting L-100 model recalls the 1920s more than the 1950s, and it’s not surprising that few seem to have been built. A stranger variation, the L-150, featured f-holes in the flat top and deluxe pearl fret markers, but even fewer of these can be found today.

The D-100 seems to have been more popular than either of its contemporary acoustic models, but that’s not saying much. It was simply an L-100 flat-top with a pickup snuck in between the soundhole and the bridge, along with volume and tone controls to complete the electric package. The pickup was appropriated from Vega’s contemporary Duo-Tron guitar line; the early ones had a wide white cover that gave them a better claim to the “soapbar” nickname than any P-90. The elevated pickguard and fretboard extension demonstrated the same high quality and attention to detail that had always characterized Vega instruments, but neither could hide the fact that this design was an anachronism.

It appears that Vega attempted to drag itself into the 1950s by creating the instrument shown above. Very few have surfaced: I have seen one other, modified with a second pickup, and have read about one other marked whose model number was marked with an “F” suffix. It’s possible that this archtop supplanted the flat-topped version, but it’s also possible that the two were offered concurrently. Both archtop D-100s I’ve seen had a later pickup style with a gold cover, so this may represent Vega’s last attempt to revive its electric mandolin sales. I have also come across an acoustic mandolin with the same body style, so it’s possible that they briefly offered the entire mandolin line with archtop bodies. All of this is speculation, as all the documentation I have seen references the more common flat-topped mandolins of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.

This particular instrument exhibits a strangely wide range of workmanship. There are no significant flaws that appear to be from the factory, though more recent repairs have resulted in imperfections in the finish and the binding (mostly confined to the neck). The body and neck appear to be traditionally constructed and pretty solid, but the original screw-on output jack necessitated drilling a large hole in the tail block that might have fatally weakened a lesser instrument. The hole was rather crudely drilled, and the same can be said about the holes for the volume and tone pots. Fortunately, any imperfect workmanship is hidden behind washers and knobs.

For all its quirks, the mandolin sounds excellent; even unplugged, it has surprising volume for a laminated body weighed down by electronics. The single-coil pickup is bright but not shrill, with reasonable output and not too much hum. It has four magnetic slugs inside the coil plus a fifth one, located off-center, which seems to serve no purpose. At first I thought it was intended to balance the treble strings against the bass, but flipping the pickup 180 degrees had almost no effect. The neck has been heat-straightened and the frets have been selectively filed to improve playability. The end result may appear jerry-rigged on close examination, but it works – the playability is excellent.