I am a tenor banjo player and play in the Dixieland style. When you play a four string banjo, inevitably folks find out and want to tell you about their old banjo that was their grandfather’s and has been under the bed for years. I have come to cringe when this comes up. I also have a banjo that was my great grandmother’s. It was not a very good banjo then and 80 years has not done it a lot of good! I keep it for sentimental reasons and strum it once in a blue moon. I also have seen many like it! So I kindly engage in the conversation and encourage them to pull it out and learn a little. I also offer to help get them started.
Well, a little less than a year ago, this exact situation came up with a customer (Jon.) He said that his step father had played a banjo that he bought new. Jon had inherited the banjo and had made some attempts at trying to play it but lost interest. He said that it was in some disrepair and would I be willing to look at it and see what it might need. Of course I said I would and he said he would bring it by in the next couple of weeks.
Well he comes strolling in with a case a week or so later. I was of course curious but not overly anxious to tell him that it would cost $500 to repair and would be worth $100 when he was done! Well I opened the case and immediately recognized the Vega Vox! I was not up on Vegas at the time so I did not know if it was a prewar or a 60’s era or whatever. I told him that I was sure it would cost some money to be repaired as it would need to be shipped out of state to be handled properly but would be worth it in the end. He asked me to take it home and find out what it was and what it might be worth. I said that I would be happy to and did just that.
I did a quick search and found the mugwumps serial number listing and dated it at about 1930. Prewar!! I could not find any recent sales and really still do not know how much it is worth but I knew it would be worth shipping out and having it repaired. The head was ripped. Someone had put a Mylar head on it and tried to make it sound like a 5-string Gibson by over tightening the head. (there was a 5-string instruction book in the case) I did not notice it at that first inspection but the tailpiece had weakened and cracked under the stress (weak point on old Vega top tensions.) The strings were on it and the action was in the stratosphere! The neck looked odd, maybe warped but I am not a very good judge of that. The banjo was filthy and the metal work was in pretty bad shape.
I called Jon and told him that it was easily worth fixing and was a very special banjo and I guessed that $1000 would cover shipping it to someone who knew what they were doing to get it playable again. I told him that I was reluctant to do anything to it knowing that it was rare. He told me to hang on to it for a couple of weeks and would let me know when to bring it in to return it. Well about 3 weeks later, he came in and said that he had checked with all of his siblings and nobody wanted it and I was welcome to it if I was interested. I of course was and thanked him profusely and promised that I would get it playable and learn at least one song on it and play it my act in January at the local folk festival and tell the story in exchange. He said “sure, whatever.”
Shortly after, I left my job to take a sabbatical to spend time with my family and study for the CPA exam. I certainly did not have the money to get this fixed, so it sat for a few months. Then I discovered the banjohangout! I also met a gentleman that goes by the name “mainejohn.” He encouraged me to try a few things to get it playable. He suggested just cleaning a bit with a damp rag and putting on a new head and really figure out what I had. I thought that might be a good idea. I did not have the money to send it off and I would like to fulfill my obligation and play it in January. Well I called around and spoke with some folks about it and decided to take the plunge. I took that banjo apart (not completely) and cleaned it without going nuts. This is when I discovered the broken tailpiece. I contacted Vinnie Mondello and he put me in touch with Paul Poirier who repaired the original tailpiece and replated it. While that was being done I got the banjo cleaned up and put back together with a new head. After a few weeks the tailpiece showed up and within an hour the banjo was playable!!
The action is a bit high, but I think a shim in the neck will fix that and a calf skin head will be put on because I am very curious to hear what this sounded like in 1930! I also think it will help the action as the skin head will give a little more deflection at the bridge which will help. Also, the “high crown” head that I sourced from StewMac is not high enough and the tension ring does not quite go flush with the neck and prevents the action from being where it should.
Other than missing a few screws to hold the resonator on, the repaired tailpiece and the missing flesh hoop for the skin head, it appears to be 100% original!! This is a true time machine!!
Here is the dilemma. I was not expecting to like this banjo. I have never been a big fan of old banjos or instruments for that matter. While they have lots of “cool factor,” they rarely knock my socks off sound wise. Instruments made today are quite good. My plan was to play this in the festival in January and sell it in February to fund a family vacation. Well, I am REALLY enjoying the sound of this thing!! I see what all the fuss is on the old Vegas. I have played several 60’s era Vox models and was not at all impressed. After installing the skin head and shimming the neck, I will have less than $200 in an instrument that would normally be unobtainable for a guy like me!
Well I still have 6 months before the festival in January and I have “Me and My Shadow” almost under my fingers. I will use that time and decide the banjo’s fate. I am not a plectrum player (but becoming one fast), I already have a Wildwood plectrum on permanent loan from my father-in-law that was his father’s and it is excellent. Of course I have my beautiful OME tenor that I love and much of the time I play mandolin (you can see me on YouTube “tenorbanjoguy.”) I could really use the money for the vacation but I really am enjoying the banjo now. I will likely find another way to fund the vacation and I have time to decide whether or not if this is a “keeper,” however; I am curious as to how much it would really bring though…6 comments
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Playing Since: 1994
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