1925 Vega De Luxe

 

In some ways, this 1925 Vega De Luxe is comparable to a Gibson L-5 of the same year. Both models would eventually be joined by more expensive instruments in their manufacturers’ catalogs, but for that year, both were top-of-the-line instruments by top-end builders. Both are considered among the finest instruments ever built in their own styles, and both are classic icons of early jazz. While a 1925 L-5 will set you back well into five digits, the De Luxe is worth only a fraction of that. However, it was not always so: the Gibson originally cost $250, while the Vega cost $375 – incidentally, the same price as the most popular configuration of the Ford Model T.

Vega had been one of the premier banjo builders since they bought the charred remains of the A. C. Fairbanks factory and all of its designs in 1904. Under the direction of former Fairbanks manager David L. Day, Vega introduced arguably the first modern tone ring (the Tu-ba-phone rim) in 1909. In 1923, they modernized their banjo line for the emerging tenor and plectrum market by updating the Tu-ba-phone construction with long scale necks, geared tuners, and full resonators. The resulting Vegaphone models were hugely popular with professional players and available in up to five levels of trim (depending on the year). Although Vega created the more expensive Vegavox series in 1927 with top-tension adjustment and deep-dish resonators, many players continued to select the older Vegaphone sound.

Vega added the Ultra De Luxe to the Vegaphone line in 1927, but at the time this banjo was built, the De Luxe was the highest level of trim offered. In some ways it’s a very traditionally-decorated banjo, with a quilted maple pie-plate resonator, floral carving on the heel, and engraved pearl inlays. Additional engraving on the tension hoop and the 28 individual flanges added to the complexity, and each of the fret markers is differently engraved. There’s even an abalone end cap and gold hardware hidden from view by the resonator. The only large area of plastic is on the side of the resonator; as the ‘20s wore on, the De Luxe would gain more and more of the material until it became less of an Edwardian throwback and more of an art-deco showpiece. All the Vegaphones including the De Luxe were given four-piece flanges in 1928, which simplified the assembly but gave the banjos a more mundane appearance. Before the Vegavox line stole the show, the De Luxe was featured in a number of print ads – sometimes in (limited) color to show off the gold plate. There is no question, either, that sonically it gave serious competition to high-end offerings from Bacon, Paramount, and other major brands.

This particular banjo has survived in remarkably good condition. Most of the gold plating still clings to the hardware, and the ink is still fresh in the engraved pearl. There is some buckle rash on the back of the resonator, but the neck remains straight and the original frets show little wear.

 

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