1930s Vega Mandolin

The mandolin was hugely popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it was eclipsed by the tenor and plectrum banjo in the early 1920s. The archtop guitar supplanted them both in the early 1930s, and mandolin sales never recovered until recent times. Most of the big mandolin manufacturers survived by concentrating on other product lines; Gibson, Vega and Martin all shifted back to guitars.

Vega continued to build some mandolin-family instruments in the 1930s, but the lineup was greatly reduced. The cylinder-back models disappeared, probably early in the decade, and only a flat-top/flat-back model plus a couple of electric mandolins appeared in catalogs by 1939. Surviving documentation on Vega products during the period is scarce, however, and a few instruments have appeared that defy explanation – including this one.

The top is carved and sports f-holes, which suggests an attempt at a more modern design. Vega had previously produced mandolins with f-holes, but they all had flat tops. Vega also produced some archtop electric mandolins, but they had laminated tops. This particular instrument is the only example of an acoustic carved-top mandolin I have seen from the company. It does not appear in any catalog that I have seen, but all the details are trademark Vega: the neck profile and headstock shape, the thick black pickguard, the shape of the f-holes, and the choice of hardware. Even the curve of the top as it rises to meet the fretboard extension recalls the same area on Vega’s cheaper carved-top guitars like the C-20.

Dating Vega mandolins is always an exercise in speculation and interpolation, since there is no known list of serial numbers. The rounded pickguard and art-deco font on the peghead suggest that this mandolin was built sometime well into the 1930s, probably in the second half of the decade. Its design may have been intended to replace the defunct cylinder-back line. Despite the carved top, this was not a high-priced instrument; the plain teardrop-shaped body and flat mahogany back would have made it less expensive to produce than a fully-carved model, and the modest trim also help keep the price low. However, this is still an excellent-sounding instrument, the equal of Vega’s acoustic archtop guitars in terms of clarity and volume.

There is one repaired crack in the top and the tailpiece and bridge are later replacements, but otherwise the mandolin is in fine, playable condition.