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Fairbanks and Vega Nomenclature--With Commentary

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Aug 1, 2022 - 12:00:32 AM
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Bill Rogers (Moderator)

USA

26299 posts since 6/25/2005

Fairbanks and Vega banjo names have been confused and misused by many modern makers who've copied some or all features of those classic banjos made before World War II (and I). This is a brief attempt to set some things straight.

Electric banjos had bracket shoes attached with bolts through the banjo shell. For far more detail and pictures, see my friend Hank Schwartz's  excellent discussion of the Electric and Whyte Laydie banjos' origins and early years:  http://hschwartz.com/FairbanksBanjos/ACFairbanksandco.html.

The Whyte Laydie did did use the electric tone ring, but did not have the shoe bolts through the shell. Rather, it used a metal bracket band to mount them. When Vega developed the Tu-Ba-Phone, those banjos too had a bracket band.  Around 1939, Vega stopped using a true bracket band and went to bolts through the shell to mount bracket shoes on both the Whyte Laydie and Tubaphone.  More on construction when we get to Deering.

Names and numbers: Electrics were numbered 0 to 6, depending on decoration. Whyte Laydies were numbered 2 and 7, the 7 being fancier.The WLs had maple necks without staining--hence "Whyte."  Tubaphones were numbered 3 and 9, again baced on fanciness.  They had, as a general rule, mahogany necks. There were some Tubaphone DeLuxe banjos made--even fancier. During the 1920s, several fancier models above the #9 were made for the dominant tenor banjo market. And so it went.  ... With the folk boom and its aftermath, other banjo makers and parts suppliers started providing copies of both the electric and tubahone tone rings, and makers would call their banjos using them "tubaphone" and "whyte laydie" for the most part.  A few makers, notably Goose Acres and Mike Ramsey used the term "electric" correctly for non-bracket-band banjos with the scalloped tone ring. Most called their scalloped-ring banjos "white ladies" or some variant spelling, but rarely did those banjos have bracket bands. That's pretty much where it stands.  When Deering bought the Vega name, it began making an openback bracket-band banjo with a tubaphone tone ring that it calls the "Vega #2."  The #2 designation, of course, was never used by Vega for a tubaphone.  And so the confusion....  A good number of folks know a lot more about this stuff than I do, and I hope some of them chime in.

Edited by - Bill Rogers on 08/01/2022 00:21:10

Aug 1, 2022 - 5:25:30 AM
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hbick2

USA

642 posts since 6/26/2004

You are pretty much spot on, Bob. I have always been irritated by makers who designate their banjos as "Whyte Laydies" or "Tubaphones" yet have shoe bolts going through the rim. What made it a Whyte Laydie was the bracket band, not the tone ring. The tone ring was essentially an Electric tone ring, albeit they are shorter than most of the Electric tone rings of the era.

The 0 to 6 designation is correct but realize that there were few Fairbanks Electrics that had a 2 or a 3 stamped into them. Most of the time we call them 2s or 3s because they match the existing numbered examples. To date, there have been no N0. 4's found. There were also a number of Special Electrics and Imperial Electrics and sometimes they were designated with both terms. In general, Special Electrics usually had a much taller tone ring than the Electrics and Imperial Electrics had an inverted tone ring. Remember, I said "in general".

One thing that is often confused, especially since some web sites have information that is incorrect, is the direction the tone ring's pointed. A Whyte Laydie tone ring POINTS UP, towards the head. The vast majority of Electric tone rings also point up. The exceptions are the inverted Electric rings that appear in some banjos. This tone ring was actually made differently that the standard Electric tone ring.

As a general rule, all of the Electrics had a full-spun pot, meaning that the outside of the rim was all metal. Most of the Imperial Electrics, and some others, had a half-spun pot, meaning that the bottom 3/4's or so of the outside of the rim was wood with the metal part being an extension of the tone ring. The Whyte Laydies had this same extension of the tone ring, but about half of the outside of the shell was occupied by the bracket band.

I have attached several photographs from my own collection that illustrate the above:

The Special Electric No. 1 shows the height of the "Special Electric" tone ring and the full-spun outer shell.

The Whyte Laydie shows the smooth inside of the shell, the Whyte Laydie tone ring and the bracket band on the outside.

The Inverted Electric is an Imperial Electric with an inverted tone ring and a half-spun outer shell.

The Upright Electric is an Electric No. 2 (not stamped with a 2) with a full-spun outer shell and a standard Electric tone ring.

I hope this clears a few things up rather than muddy the waters further.


Aug 1, 2022 - 5:33:31 AM

7079 posts since 9/21/2007
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*Electric truss with heavy wire.

Aug 1, 2022 - 5:43:58 AM
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jduke

USA

1170 posts since 1/15/2009

Interesting information, thanks.

Aug 1, 2022 - 9:19:35 AM

1963 posts since 5/19/2018

Harry - excellent info. Beautiful collection of instruments. Thank You for providing examples. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it displayed so clearly before.

Just to add more confusion to the issue, the Whyte Laydie and Electric tone rings came in several different variations. I’ve seen ones with small points between the scallops on early models and seen some early Whyte Laydies with what I was told was a double scallop. And an odd bird that I pulled of the Intermountain Guitar site, shown below.

I have photos of the variations somewhere, if I can find them, I’ll post them here.


 

Aug 1, 2022 - 10:07:26 AM

Jbo1

USA

1165 posts since 5/19/2007

Having seen the tone hoops in both "normal" and inverted, I've often wondered, do they sound different from each other? If so, is it a drastically noticeable difference?

One last question, can an inverted tone hoop be flipped, and vice versa?

Thanks.

Aug 1, 2022 - 10:09:17 AM
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103 posts since 2/4/2010

Trivia- As Harry mentioned most Electric 2 and 3 grades were not marked with this number stamp but I have owned a few of them with number stamps over the years. An easy way to tell the unmarked 2 and 3 models apart is that the the No.2 has a star at the fifth fret while the No.3 has a fancy asymmetrical engraved inlay. We can add an Electric No.7 to the list as I have a neck stamped with this number ( it's pretty much identical to other W.L. No.7s in the 22,000 serial number range). I've been searching for its original rim ( # 22138 ) for decades.

Aug 1, 2022 - 10:29:31 AM
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2488 posts since 2/4/2013

quote:
Originally posted by Jbo1


One last question, can an inverted tone hoop be flipped, and vice versa?
 


I have an inverted electric on my Clifford Essex Special XX and certainly in that case the tone ring can't be inverted as it's all one piece. Perhaps there are different versions.


Aug 1, 2022 - 11:40:36 AM
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rcc56

USA

4422 posts since 2/20/2016

Another note is that Deering's Vega banjos are not reproductions of pre-war Vega instruments.
While they share similar model names, the actual construction of the instruments is different, as well as the appointments.

Deering's Little Wonder model has no tone ring of any kind, while pre-war Little Wonders had a hoop and skirt tone ring.

The rim dimensions on Deering Tubaphones differ from the pre-war models in several different ways.  Also, Deering uses 24 hooks and nuts while pre-war models had 28 or 30, depending on rim diameter.

The Deering Vega models I have seen are pretty well made.  But they are built quite differently from early Vega instruments.

Edited by - rcc56 on 08/01/2022 11:48:41

Aug 1, 2022 - 11:59:58 AM

7079 posts since 9/21/2007
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quote:
Originally posted by GrahamHawker
quote:
Originally posted by Jbo1


One last question, can an inverted tone hoop be flipped, and vice versa?
 


I have an inverted electric on my Clifford Essex Special XX and certainly in that case the tone ring can't be inverted as it's all one piece. Perhaps there are different versions.

 


I'd be willing to bet that those two pieces can come apart and was flipped by some previous owner.

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Aug 1, 2022 - 12:29:32 PM
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Emiel

Austria

10178 posts since 1/22/2003

quote:
Originally posted by rcc56

Another note is that Deering's Vega banjos are not reproductions of pre-war Vega instruments.
While they share similar model names, the actual construction of the instruments is different, as well as the appointments.
[…]
The rim dimensions on Deering Tubaphones differ from the pre-war models in several different ways.  Also, Deering uses 24 hooks and nuts while pre-war models had 28 or 30, depending on rim diameter.

The Deering Vega models I have seen are pretty well made.  But they are built quite differently from early Vega instruments.


The Deering Tubaphones are closer to the postwar Vega models with coordinator rods than to the older models. Closer, though not identical…

Aug 1, 2022 - 12:40:17 PM

2488 posts since 2/4/2013

quote:
Originally posted by Joel Hooks

I'd be willing to bet that those two pieces can come apart and was flipped by some previous owner.


You're probably right about that. It did seem fairly well connected but I was probably making assumptions and not inclided to fiddle too much with my lovely vintage banjo. The hoop is at the top which wouldn't make much sense for an inverted electric. Seems to work quite nicely with this arrangement.

Aug 1, 2022 - 2:49:41 PM

hbick2

USA

642 posts since 6/26/2004

I don't know about the Clifford Essex tone ring, but I'm pretty sure none of the Fairbanks inverted rings can be disassembled. According to Hank Schwartz, they cannot. Here is one of his pages on Fairbanks tone

rings:http://hschwartz.com/FairbanksBanjos/ACFairbanksandco2.html

Check out Hank's web site for a lot more information on Fairbanks banjos:

http://hschwartz.com/FairbanksBanjos/FairbanksBanjos.html

Aug 1, 2022 - 5:47:06 PM

7079 posts since 9/21/2007
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quote:
Originally posted by hbick2

I don't know about the Clifford Essex tone ring, but I'm pretty sure none of the Fairbanks inverted rings can be disassembled. According to Hank Schwartz, they cannot. Here is one of his pages on Fairbanks tone

rings:http://hschwartz.com/FairbanksBanjos/ACFairbanksandco2.html

Check out Hank's web site for a lot more information on Fairbanks banjos:

http://hschwartz.com/FairbanksBanjos/FairbanksBanjos.html


CE truss assembly come apart. 

Aug 1, 2022 - 5:50:05 PM

7079 posts since 9/21/2007
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hbick2 ... sorry CE called it a "scalloped ring", I mistakenly used the Vega/Fairbanks term of "truss".

Aug 1, 2022 - 11:58:44 PM

Bill Rogers (Moderator)

USA

26299 posts since 6/25/2005

Essex scalloped rings tend to have flattened peaks, Fairbanks and Vega, pointed.

Aug 3, 2022 - 5:24:14 PM

1865 posts since 1/13/2012

quote:
Originally posted by Alvin Conder

Harry - excellent info. Beautiful collection of instruments. Thank You for providing examples. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it displayed so clearly before.

Just to add more confusion to the issue, the Whyte Laydie and Electric tone rings came in several different variations. I’ve seen ones with small points between the scallops on early models and seen some early Whyte Laydies with what I was told was a double scallop. And an odd bird that I pulled of the Intermountain Guitar site, shown below.

I have photos of the variations somewhere, if I can find them, I’ll post them here.


What you have pictured here is a double scallop. There seems to have been a run of them somewhere in the mid-20000 range (I would need to check my serial number cards). I have found that they generally do not sound as good as the standard scallop.

Andy

Aug 3, 2022 - 5:27:37 PM

1865 posts since 1/13/2012

quote:
Originally posted by hbick2

I don't know about the Clifford Essex tone ring, but I'm pretty sure none of the Fairbanks inverted rings can be disassembled. According to Hank Schwartz, they cannot. Here is one of his pages on Fairbanks tone

rings:http://hschwartz.com/FairbanksBanjos/ACFairbanksandco2.html

Check out Hank's web site for a lot more information on Fairbanks banjos:

http://hschwartz.com/FairbanksBanjos/FairbanksBanjos.html


The half-clad "inverted" scallop rings cannot be disassembled, as they are brazed together. They seem to have been an earlier design for use on Imperial Electric banjos that was eventually done away with.

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