Ca. 1939 Vega Electric Tenor Banjo

In some ways, Vega makes a perfect microcosm of the evolution of early electric instruments. Horseshoe magnets around the strings gave way to under-string pickups, though hand rests on some models kept up the appearance of the older units. Humbucking pickups gave way to simpler, single-coil units and the magnets were made smaller and lighter. Finally came adjustable poles, albeit long after the competition, and shortly after, the manufacturing of pickups was outsourced to the Franz company. Early models – particularly electric mandolins and banjos – were still offered but sold in ever decreasing numbers due to lack of demand.

Much of this story has to be reconstructed from surviving instruments; new catalogs were published infrequently, and many changes were not captured in print. Even when new literature was produced, pictures and descriptions were not always updated. Vega’s 1939 catalog shows features their Electric Banjo (Tenor or Plectrum) with a single tone knob, while the description mentions the second tone control that had already been added (“one for brilliant Banjo tone and the other for Guitar tone quality”). Publicity photographs of various bands in the same catalog show banjos with the later under-string magnets; this suggests that the two pickups were then both in production, since the dual tone control was only used with the horseshoe pickup.

The second-generation banjo retained the dual humbucking coils but placed the magnets inside the body. The pickup was mounted on a cast-aluminum plate that was screwed onto the top of the banjo’s body. (A similar plate/pickup fixture was incorporated into at least one lap steel, though most steels used a differently-shaped brass plate that was chrome plated.) The banjo’s construction changed a bit from the earlier version; the back no longer came off, since the plate and all the wiring could be removed from the top. Two sound posts still supported the top, which served both to carry the huge weight of the structure and stiffened the hollow body against feedback. The adjustable bridge and white pickguard were removed, but the later versions were given a metal arm rest.

Vega electrics of all sorts – including banjos – appear to follow the same serial numbering scheme as guitars and mandolins. Unfortunately, unlike Vega’s conventional banjos, there is no reliable list of these serials for dating purposes. In all likelihood, these second-generation instruments were only built for a few years; by the early 1940s, it appears that Vega had moved on to their cheaper and less complicated single-coil pickups along with natural-finished bodies.