1920s Vega Tenor Lute


The tenor guitar was developed as a means for tenor banjo players to double on an instrument with greater sustain and a less aggressive sound. Most major manufacturers were building tenor guitars by the end of the 1920s, often marrying existing guitar bodies to banjo necks with a minimum of alteration to either. However, the instrument’s basic design was not obvious from the start. Earlier in the 1920s, two different forms were tried: the tenor harp and the tenor lute.

The tenor harp is a misleadingly named instrument; you’ll never see a red-headed Marx Brother playing one. In essence, it’s a banjo with a wooden head. William Lange’s banjo works built them under the Paramount name, fusing a banjo rim with a permanent (non-removable) resonator and a piece of spruce where the tone ring and skin head would normally be. The tenor lute is no more accurate in its nomenclature: its tenor banjo neck is married to a mandolin-style body, either carved or flat. The technical difference between the tenor harp and tenor lute is ambiguous: Epiphone’s circular-bodied tenor lutes are closer in design to Paramount’s tenor harps.

Several other manufacturers created instruments somewhere on the small-bodied tenor spectrum. Bacon sold teardrop-shaped tenor lutes that were probably built by Regal. The Regal brand itself had the Octofone, a multi-purpose instrument that usually held eight strings (hence the name) but could be “tuned and played like a ‘uke’, tenor banjo, mandolin, tenor guitar and other plectrum instruments” according to advertisements. Weymann sold banjo-shaped tenor harps similar in design to Paramount’s. Gibson produced what was probably the only carved-top tenor lute design, built in two levels of trim but both featuring a mandola body married to a tenor neck.

Vega got in on the action as well, in 1926 according to this article from March of that year. Like Gibson, they attached a mandolin-style body to a tenor neck. Vega’s tenor lute used their popular cylinder-back body, an innovative alternative to carving that enlarged the sound box and provided greater volume and projection. A 1928 catalog shows a cylinder-back design in two levels of trim, the standard Tenor Lute for $60 and the Artists’ Special for $90. This example is the former; the latter featured ornate banjo-style inlays in the fretboard. Both models had mahogany backs, an indication that they were something of an afterthought while Vega’s mandolins were available in multiple combinations of wood and trim.

In reality, all tenor lutes and tenor harps were minor experiments for their manufacturers. Gibson built their design for only one year, yet their tenor lute is one of the best-documented examples due mainly to the interest of collectors and the survival of company records. Like Bacon and Paramount, Vega’s tenor lutes have slipped into obscurity, regarded more as a historical curiosity than anything else. To be fair, they’re not as impressive to the ears as the company’s own tenor guitars. They have small soundboards, and the strings exert far less tension than a mandolin would experience, so the sound is sweet but not particularly loud.

This example is in very good condition. A hole was once drilled through the headstock, probably as a means of attaching a strap; this has since been filled. There is a repaired crack in the top, a result of the shrinking pickguard pulling apart the spruce at the grain boundary. The bridge and tailpiece cover are replacements, but the tailpiece itself is probably original. Aside from these minor repairs and modifications, the instrument is fairly clean overall and plays well.