1954 Vega Westerner

Guitars built today consist mainly of copies or near-copies of classic models; this is so common that all the old brands are overtly recycling their own designs from decades past. This “copy era” began in the early 1970s when Japanese factories began producing guitars that rivaled Gibson and Fender instruments (among others) in appearance and quality. Previously, guitar builders might have taken strong inspiration from others but they generally added their own twist; for example, the Guild CE-100 was clearly based on the Gibson ES-175, but the pickups were very different and the guitar felt distinctly like a Guild.

Still, some models betrayed more inspiration than others. Vega’s engineers usually followed their own muses, even when building around bodies by Harmony. This particular model, however, is easily the closest that Vega ever came to directly copying a competitor’s product. Introduced by 1954, the Westerner was Vega’s first attempt to create a guitar with a solid body (excluding lap steels). The mahogany body was finished in natural except for the gold top, clearly showing inspiration by the Gibson Les Paul. While later Vega solidbodies would stray further from Gibson designs, the Westerner’s appearance remains faithful enough to fool a lot of people at first glance. Unconfirmed sources indicate that only approximately 40 were built before Gibson threatened a lawsuit; Vega quickly started altering the design to avoid legal action, and they may have even destroyed some guitars that were not yet sold. Although the Westerner was probably intended to mark the beginning of a successful new product line at Vega – they were given their own serial number format, for one thing – Vega never built solidbodies in large numbers.

The Les Paul comparison comes mainly from the gold top, control layout and access cavities. Beneath these superficial similarities, however, the Westerner is actually a very different guitar. For one thing, it lacks a maple cap on the body (granted, so does the Les Paul Custom). Additionally, the Westerner’s body is flat on top. The separate bridge and tailpiece are somewhere in between the trapeze of a ’52 Les Paul and the stop tailpiece of a ’54. The bridge saddle floats on a pair of felt-lined feet, much like the bridge on a contemporary Guild M-75. The pickguard and neck are closer to those found on large Vega archtops, and the pickup selector is a rotary switch instead of a toggle. While the pickups do look a lot like Gibson P-90s, they were made by Franz and are closer in design to most Fender pickups.

The overall package is constructed well, and it is something of a compromise between a Les Paul Standard and Special (even if the Special did not yet exist when the Westerner was introduced). It was priced accordingly: $215 plus $39 for a case in 1954, compared with $235 for a Les Paul Standard, $189.50 for a Telecaster, and $197.50 for a National 1104. Many early off-brand solidbodies have a reputation for being cheaply built, but the Westerner is clearly a major step up from the Harmony, Kay and Danelectro guitars that sold for half as much.

My Westerner was acquired as something of a project, needing wiring repairs, a new pickguard and truss rod cover, and having been stripped of a coat of green paint (which, fortunately, did not affect the original gold underneath). The bridge bases were replaced to avoid a neck reset, and the wiring was replaced due to crumbling insulation (a common problem on ‘50s Vegas). The output jack was changed from an obscure screw-on type to a conventional ¼”. However, the pickups, bridge saddle, tuners, tailpiece and knobs are all original.