1954 Vega E-400

Vega was a pioneer of electric instruments, offering some of the first electric guitars, mandolins, banjos and lap steels in the mid 1930s. However, that initial spirit of innovation did not carry over into massive success down the road. Vega continued to build electric instruments into the 1960s, but they never had the same appeal among player or collectors as the company’s acoustic guitars, mandolins and banjos. That wasn’t for lack of trying, though.

By the late 1940s, Vega’s Triumphal electric design was becoming distinctly old-fashioned. The laminated body with a veneer of highly flamed maple was visually attractive, but the single pickup (with non-adjustable poles) mounted near the bridge was not what most jazz players were looking for. Epiphone and Gibson had already introduced archtops with cutaways, but Vega’s 1949 catalog did not contain a single cutaway body. There was one significant innovation in that catalog, however: guitars that could be used as both acoustic and electric instruments.

Gibson was probably the first large company to offer floating pickups as standard appointments on carved archtops; their “finger rest” pickup – better known, unofficially, as the “McCarty” pickup after the company president who helped develop it – debuted in 1948. By the following year, Vega had introduced their Duo-Tron line of carved-top guitars with floating pickups. The catalog described in detail how the various models – which were really just electrified versions of Vega’s existing acoustic line – could be used for either acoustic or amplified playing.

Vega adjusted the Duo-Tron line over the next few years. By 1954, only the lower-priced, non-cutaway D-26 featured a carved top – and that body was built for Vega by Harmony. The mid-priced E-201 and E-202 featured carved tops (again by Harmony) but had the pickups screwed to the bodies and were not technically part of the Duo-Tron line. That left the high-end Duo-Trons: the E-300 (one pickup, chrome hardware), E-400 (two pickups, chrome hardware), E-450 (two pickups, gold hardware) and E-550 (three pickups, gold hardware). Each was available in a sunburst and natural finish and each had a cutaway body built by Vega, but the catalog glossed over the fact that they had laminated bodies. The acoustic tone of these guitar is therefore limited compared to their carved-top predecessors, though it’s doubtful that many players cared in the 1950s.

If they were more clearly designed to be amplified, the new Duo-Trons were still well-built instruments. This was reflected in the price tag; my E-400 listed at $370, only a bit lower than its competitors from Gretsch (Country Club, $385) and Gibson (ES-350T, $395) and higher than Guild (X-175, $285). The soapbar pickups are unique to Vega but may have been manufactured by Franz, the company that built later pickups for Vega (among others). Despite their large footprint, they have a bright, twangy sound.

This particular guitar is all original; aside from some finish checking and a few shallow veneer cracks, it’s in very clean condition. The tailpiece-mounted control box is a unique Vega feature, and it makes a sturdier platform for floating controls than most pickguards.

 

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