"The Vega Pete Seeger Banjo"
The following information was assembled by me in preparation for a book about the Vega Pete Seeger -- an instrument that has been virtually ignored by banjo historians. Walter Scott and I had planned to work on this book together. But as you know, Walter is no longer with us. Walter and I did exchange some e-mail over the past year, however, and his input is noted in what follows.
The Vega Pete Seeger, Part 1 Posted by Pete Curry on 2/9/2002, 10:51 pm
The Vega Pete Seeger model 5-string banjo came into being during the 1950s as a result of requests that the Vega Company received for an extended-neck banjo like the one Pete Seeger played. As Seeger explains in his book, "The Incompleat Folksinger":
Thus so easily is the human race corrupted. The banjo arrived last week, and is a beautquite the nicest I ever had. ("Incompleat Folksinger, pg.442.)
This entry in Seeger's book is dated Spring 1960. (It should be noted that Seeger later donated this instrument to "Sing Out!" magazine, to use as a prize during a subscription drive.) If his recollection is correct, Vega probably started working on the Pete Seeger model in 1955 or 1956.
First Standard Production Models
As of this writing I have been unable to determine exactly when the first official "Vega Pete Seeger" models were produced. But we have some clues.
On Bob Gibson's second and third LPs, "I Come For To Sing" and "Carnegie Concert," both released in 1957, the cover photos show him with a long neck Vega open-back banjo with a squared-off peghead, side tuners and "block and dot" inlays on the fingerboard. Similarly, I have seen photos of Peggy Seeger playing a long-neck Vega with the same inlay pattern (eg. in Pete Seeger's book, "How to Play the 5-String Banjo," Third Edition Revised, 1962, pg. 52), which probably dates from the same period.
So the question is: Were Bob Gibson's and Peggy Seeger's banjos official "Pete Seeger" models or custom instruments made by Vega before the company secured Pete Seeger's permission to use his name on a long-neck model?
In an article about Peggy Seeger published in the book "Artists of American Folk Music," the author says: "One of the ideas gleaned from her half-brother [Pete] was that of playing a long-neck banjo. Her first banjo had been an old S.S. Stewart that she shared with Mike [Seeger]. Later, however, she switched and acquired the first long-neck Vega Pete Seeger model."
Given their peghead shape and inlay pattern, which differ considerably from those commonly associated with the Pete Seeger model, I believe that these were custom and not official "Pete Seeger Model" instruments. (According to Walter Scott, Peggy Seeger's banjo utilized a high-end Tubaphone pot with ornate abalone rim trim. Based on that information alone it is safe to assume that her banjo was not an official Pete Seeger model but an earlier, custom instrument.
The earliest Vega literature I have found that mentions the Pete Seeger model is a company price list dated March 1, 1958, which lists the following available models: "Ranger, Tenor or 5-string; Ranger, special, with heavy notched hoop and gear pegs; Little Wonder, with gear pegs; Professional; Vega-Vox I; Vega-Vox III; Vega-Vox IV; Pete Seeger Model, 5 string, extra long neck, 3 extra frets, no resonator, on special order...295.00" This seems to indicate that the Pete Seeger Model was not a standard production model as of that date.
In a letter he wrote to Mandolin Brothers, Dave Guard says he purchased his "Pete Seeger model Vega banjo 99836 brand new in 1959" (note: this instrument can be seen as early as the EP "Tijuana Jail" which was released in April of 1959). Author William J. Bush says in his June 1984 Frets Magazine cover story about the Kingston Trio that Dave purchased this instrument in "late 1958." And while not stating his source, author Neil Rosenberg says in his book "Bluegrass--A History" that the Vega Pete Seeger model was introduced in 1958.
According to Mike Longworth at the Martin Guitar Company (which purchased the Vega Company in May of 1970), Vega's records were very sketchy and did not include specific information as to when the Pete Seeger model was introduced. But given the sources mentioned (Guard, Vega literature, Bush, Rosenberg), I believe that the Vega Pete Seeger model became a standard production item in 1958 (but after March 1), and that Dave Guard was one of its first purchasers--either in late 1958 or early 1959.
The Vega Pete Seeger, Part 2 Posted by Pete Curry on 2/9/2002, 10:57 pm
The first Vega Pete Seeger model banjos utilized a wooden dowel stick to secure the neck to the rim, a carry-over from Vega's earliest days. (Actually, Vega was originally a guitar and mandolin manufacturer. They did not get into the banjo business until they purchased the A.C. Fairbanks company in 1904. And up until the mid-1920s, Vega banjos carried the inscription "Fairbanks Banjo made by The Vega Company.")
Basically, the Vega Pete Seeger model was a Vega "Tubaphone" with an extra-long neck. (In the early days, Vega spelled this brand name "Tu-ba-phone," with hyphens to show how it was to be pronounced. This was to make sure their banjo would not be associated with a "tub.") This model remained virtually unchanged from its introduction in 1909 until the 1950s--and the basic design of the Tubaphone "pot" lived on for quite a few years more in the Pete Seeger model.
The heart of the Vega Tubaphone is its tone ring which consists of a square brass nickel-plated tube with round sound holes along its inner surface. The complete tone ring assembly also featured a round steel rod (over which the head is fitted) which was attached to the top of the tube via a "spun German silver band extending down outside the tube."
Another important Tubaphone (and Whyte Laydie) design feature that was carried over to the Pete Seeger model was the famous Vega bracket shoe band. This device eliminated the need for drilling bracket shoe screw holes in the rim. Here's how it worked: First, the bottom outer face of the rim was milled away the approximate thickness of the bracket shoe band to allow the bracket shoe band to be slipped on, flush with the upper, unmilled portion of the rim. Before the bracket shoe band was mounted, however, the bracket shoes were mounted to it via flat-head screws that fit flush to the the inner surface of the band via countersunk screw holes. Voila! No unsightly screw heads and washers on the inside surface of the rim. More important (according to early Vega literature), the "tonal integrity" of the rim was preserved (i.e. by not having bracket shoe screw holes drilled through it).
Opinions vary about which Vega instrument had the better sound, the Tubaphone or the Whyte Laydie. However, it is instructive to note that the Tubaphone is described in the 1923 Vega catalog as having "the clear crisp tone quality and great carrying power of the Whyte Laydie," but as being "more resonate, especially in the upper register." Having played both models, I agree with Vega.
Like its predecessor the Tubaphone, the early Vega Pete Seeger model banjos had 28 brackets. This number was later reduced to 24--a change that occurred sometime before the switch from dowel stick to coordinator rods which took place in late 1962.
The earliest Vega catalog featuring the Pete Seeger model that I have is dated Feb. 1, 1960. According to this catalog, this model was fitted with a "5 Star calfskin head." However, it goes on to say: "Plastic head optional at same price if desired." The January 1962 Vega catalog shows that plastic heads had become standard by that time.
Given the vagueness of this data, there is no way to know how many early Vega Pete Seeger models left the factory with a calfskin head. The fact that most early Vega Pete Seeger model banjos in circulation today have plastic heads tells us little in this regard since virtually everyone who had a calfskin head on their banjo in the 1950s switched over to plastic by the early 1960s.
(Younger players may not know that a calfskin head, when properly mounted and tightened, has a surprisingly bright sound. All of Earl Scruggs classic recordings of the late 1940s, for example, were performed on a Gibson Mastertone with a calfskin head.)
In late 1962, Vega started using two metal coordinator rods rather than a wooden dowel stick to secure the neck to the rim, a practice that the Gibson Company had pioneered. While many Vega Pete Seeger enthusiasts (myself included) say this change had little effect on the sound or structural integrity of these instruments, at least one critic disagrees. Mugwumps publisher Michael I. Holmes had the following to say on the topic in a posting he made at the Banjo-L Internet message board:
"There is actually a difference. It's not the rods per se, but the changes that went along with them, either immediately or shortly thereafter. I'm not sure exactly when, perhaps at the same time they went to the co-ordinator rod design, but Vega introduced a pair of [my sunburst model #102,471 has 4] adjustable Allen head set screws which were intended to bear against a thin metal piece attached to the bottom of the neck. This arrangement was intended to stabilize the neck when the coordinator rods were used to adjust the action by pushing the neck away; it also allowed for slight side to side adjustments if the neck didn't hit the rim squarely. I believe they failed to understand what the purpose of the 2 rods was, and the consequent reshaping of the neck bottom often requires that the neck not touch the rim firmly, causing a noticeable loss of tone and volume. The neck should be firmly attached to the rim first, and the the coordinator rods used to slightly distort the rim to adjust the action if necessarythe operative word being slightly! When Martin took over Vega production, the first thing Mike Longworth convinced them to do was eliminate the Allen screws and recut the neck bottoms to fit properly."
Still quoting Holmes: "Another difference is that in later Vegas the shoe screws go through the rim, also changing the sound. And they experimented with different "variations" to the Tubaphone tone rings themselves, none of them for the better." (Source: banjo-l, 18 Nov. 1999.)
[Note: I am aware that Martin did some experimenting with the Vega tone rings--such as changing the round sound holes to "dog-bone" shaped sound holes. I have no knowledge of Vega making any such changes.--PC]
The early Vega Tubaphone rims were made of 7-ply maple. I have no data on rims of the earliest Pete Seeger models. But according to the 1960 catalog, the rim at that time was 5-ply. Between 1967 and 1968, the rim was changed again, to 10-ply.
Another key difference between the early Tubaphone banjos and the Pete Seeger model is that on the latter, the bracket shoe screws went through the bracket shoe band AND the rim, thus making the bracket shoe band merely decorative. (This was probably a cost-cutting move on Vega's part, since the bracket shoe bands could then be thinner and thus less expensive to produce.)
The Vega Pete Seeger, Part 3 Posted by Pete Curry on 2/9/2002, 11:02 pm
In all the Vega catalogs I have, the standard finish on the Vega Pete Seeger model is described as "shaded mahogany." Unfortunately, the back of these instruments were never shown in the catalogs, so I have no way of knowing if this is the same as what is described as a "sunburst" finish today. By the early 1960s, a "natural blonde maple finish" was also available as an option.
Note: The natural blonde maple finish was standard on the Vega Pete Seeger Xcel Custom model. According to the 1963 Vega catalog (in which this model debuted), the Pete Seeger Xcel was a "custom-built Seeger model with 5th string peg moved up between the 9th and 10th [sic.] frets." (The 5th string peg on the Xcel was actually located between the 8th and 9th frets. This error was corrected in later catalogs.) According to the 1963 and later catalogs, the Xcel also featured "Rotomatic side machines" and a special geared 5th string peg."
From the earliest models onward, the standard tuners on the Vega Pete Seeger model banjo were of the "straight-through" variety with oval plastic knobs, which I believe were manufactured by the Elkinton Company (aka Elton). These precision-made, permanently sealed pegs with their distinctive off-set gear casing, tapered string posts and felt washers offered a smooth-operating 4:1 gear ratio. (The current Waverly V-2 pegs are a close equivalent.)
As an option, Vega offered chrome right-angle (or "guitar-style") Grover Rotomatic tuners, which were standard on the Xcel Custom model. These tuners offered a 12:1 gear ratio but required the drilling of an additional hole in the back of the peghead for the guide screw. While the first mention of these tuners is in the 1963 Vega catalog, they were available earlier--either as a factory-installed option or separately, for customer change-out.
Note: It was common for banjo players in the 1950s and 1960s to experiment with different tuning machines. Dave Guard, for example, tried virtually every available type, as a review of all "Guard Era" Kingston Trio album covers will reveal. It has also been said that Vega would honor any tuner request if it meant the sale of another big-ticket Pete Seeger model!
The most common 5th string peg on the Vega Pete Seeger was of the so-called "friction" (non-geared) variety. This was either a "non-name" (probably made by Elkinton) peg with a white plastic button to match the pegs on the other four strings, or an all-metal peg carrying the Grover brand name. By 1968, a Kroll brand geared 5th string peg was available from the factory as an option.
The standard tailpiece on the Vega Pete Seeger model was the "flip-top" Presto type. This tailpiece covered the string ends (saving many a sweater from pulls!) and made changing strings a relatively simple matter.
A small but interesting detail about the Vega Pete Seeger from at least 1960 on was the original armrest and the unique way it was mounted--via two thin, curved and slotted flanges that were mounted to four of the brackets. This armrest/flange arrangement gave the banjoist more latitude in positioning the armrest. It also contributed to this banjo's distinctive appearance. (Unfortunately, armrests tarnish, wear and show "brassing" rather quickly And many Pete Seeger model owners replaced the stock armrest with a new one that was not designed to be mounted in this fashion. In the process, a lot of these original armrests and mounting flanges have been lost.)
On all Vega Pete Seeger model banjos (excluding those made by Martin), the Vega name was inlaid in the peghead in large capitol letters. There was a slight variation in these letters, however. On some instruments, the letters have "serifs" (little extensions or "feet," as per the letterforms used on the U.S. one dollar bill), while on others they do not.
This type of variation (like the way Martin guitar pegheads "evolved" from square to rounded corners) is usually due to the over-use of a cutting form. However, this variation can be found in both early and late instruments, with no apparent rhyme or reason.
The Vega Pete Seeger, Part 4 Posted by Pete Curry on 2/9/2002, 11:10 pm
Dating Vega Pete Seegers
Fairly accurate and complete Vega dating information has been assembled by various persons over the years, which makes dating any Vega banjo an easy process. All that is required is an instrument's serial number. The starting serial number for the Vega Pete Seeger model years are shown below:
Original Vega Prices
The earliest information regarding Vega Pete Seeger prices that I have comes from a Vega Company price sheet dated March 1, 1958, where the Pete Seeger model (special order only) is listed at $295. By January 1962, the price was $340. In 1963, the price was $360. (a hardshell, plush lined case was another $60.) In 1967, the price was $385. And in 1968, the Vega Pete Seeger model was listed at $456. (All prices shown are list.)
In Mat of 1970, The Vega Company was purchased by the Martin Guitar Company of Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Martin produced various banjo models under the Vega name, including a Vega Pete Seeger model. According to Mike Longworth at Martin, the company produced 101 of these instruments, whose name was later changed to the Vega Tu-Ba-Phone XL. (According to Longworth, the name switch occurred at Pete Seeger's request, who "felt the instrument should stand on its own merits.")
Like Vega before them, Martin also produced an economy long-neck model, called by both companies the "Folklore" model.
While the original Martin Vega Pete Seeger/No. 2 Tu-Ba-Phone XL instruments were of comparable (if not better) quality than those made by Vega of Boston, most enthusiasts believe that the quality of later instruments showed a decline, most notably in the way the tone ring was constructed. (See discussion of Vega rims above.)
Interestingly, while Martin used the same style block letter Vega name inlay style on some of its other instruments, the logo on the Martin Vega Pete Seeger/No. 2 Tu-Ba-Phone XL consisted of a capitol "V," followed by a the lower case letters "e-g-a."
In 1979, Martin sold the
rights to the Vega name to a Korean firm called Galaxy Trading
Corporation which, to my knowledge, did not produce any long-neck
And so it was a company that had been owned by one family--the Nelsons--for nearly 100 years faded into history. But for as long as quality open-back banjos are prized, the Vega name will represent the best of the best--with the late-coming Pete Seeger model among them.
I always assumed that Vega was a fairly large company--at least as far as banjos were concerned. But recently I came across some of their banjo production figures which tell quite a different story. Here's what these figures reveal:
In 1950, Vega produced 75 banjos total (all models). In 1954, they produced 77. In 1955, they produced 146. In 1956, sales jumped again, to 215, possibly due to the success of the album "The Weavers at Carnegie Hall" which came out in late 1955 and opened with Pete's Seeger's great 5-string banjo introduction to "Darlin' Corey," which prompted many early folk revival artists to take up that instrument.
For 1957, Vega banjo sales were 154; for 1958, 135. In 1959, however, sales more than doubled, to 305, possibly due to the introduction of the Pete Seeger model in 1958. For 1960, sales were 538, probably due to the continued success of the Pete Seeger model and the fact that the Kingston Trio, the most popular recording group in America at the time, were by then featuring Vega banjos prominently on their album covers, starting with "At Large" which came out in June of 1959.
For 1961, Vega's annual banjo sales were an amazing 1439 instruments--no doubt due to the fact that the "Folk Era" was in full swing by then and everybody who was anybody was playing a Vega banjo. The Vega Company also introduced the Earl Scruggs model in 1961, which enjoyed some popularity not only in bluegrass circles but also on the folk scene (eg. with Dick Weissman who is shown playing one on the first Journeymen LP).
In 1965, with the rise in popularity of bluegrass and with it a growing demand for resonator-back 5-string banjos (a style which Vega never had much success with), Vega banjo sales declined to 1081; in 1966, to 960; in 1967, to 883; in 1968, to 555; in 1969, up slightly to 563; but in 1970, sales were down to 366. In May of that year, the company was sold to The C.F. Martin Organization.
So how did they stay afloat during the early to mid-1950s? A look at their company price sheet for 1958 tells part of the story: To supplement their slow by steady banjo business, the company also sold Electric Spanish Guitars, Cutaway Electric Guitars, Carved Guitars, Solid Body Electric Guitars, Flat Top Guitars, Electric Flat Top Guitars, Electric Hawaiian Guitars, Amplifiers, and Baritone Ukuleles (anyone remember the Vega Arthur Godfrey model?). So when we hear stories of customers such as Pete Seeger and Erik Darling stopping by the Vega office and being greeted by the president--who was always more than happy to put a banjo together for them--we now have a better understanding of the size of the company they were dealing with.
The Vega Pete Seeger--Addenda
Please add the following to the Vega Pete Seeger article series:
1) According to an e-mail message from Walter Scott that I overlooked when writing this article, Peggy Seeger's long-neck banjo utilized a Tubaphone "De Luxe" model pot. Per the 1923 Vega calalog, the bottom edge of the rim on this model was "inlaid with heavy mother of pearl...". Otherwise it was the same as a standard Tubaphone. Also per Walter, the serial number on her instrument was 99181 which, according to the serial number lists I have, was made in 1955.
2) According to Wyatt Fawley (who has probably seem more disassembled Vega banjos than anyone else on the planet), the Vega catalog I quoted from was in error in one detail regarding the construction of the Tubaphone tone ring assembly. Says Fawley: "Vega's tone ring sheath was nickel plated brass rather than German silver. The early Electrics were German silver, but beginning with the Whyte Laydie, all of the half spun rings were sheathed in brass and nickel plated."
3) And one detail I forgot to mention: the original Tubaphones (and other early Vega models) featured closed end bracket nuts. The bracket nuts on the Vega Pete Seeger model were of the open end variety.