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Thread: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

  1. #1

    Default Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    Hello.

    New member here, and while I already did some searching for this in the forums, I couldn't find much.

    I recently received from my family a Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo. It's in a sorry state of disrepair, but nothing structural seems wrong. Would someone here know about how old it is, and what I'd be looking at in terms of getting it playable again?

    It's open-back, and the cross-brace says Vega "Fairbanks Banjo", No. 9, Style X, The serial number is #39341. I'm guessing c.1919?

    The head, tailpiece, and maybe bridge (I have the original) need to be replaced, as do several missing hooks. The neck needs to be cleaned and the machine heads gone over. The body and neck appear to be intact. Beyond that, I have no idea what else it would take.

    TIA
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  2. #2

    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    Some more pics:
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  3. #3
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    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    Mr Peabody,

    You have a very desirable Vega Style X Mandolin Banjo, the serial number indicates manufacture in 1918 according to the latest serial number research. It was Vega’s top-of-the-line Mandolin Banjo and contains their best tone ring, dubbed “Tubaphone”. Although Mandolin Banjos are much maligned by modern players the one you have is truly the exception. Most other Mandolin Banjos are poorly made and horrible sounding affairs. When yours is properly restored and in the hands of a competent player it will fit right into a Ragtime ensemble and can be used for keeping a crisp rhythm in an Old Time jam. Forget it for Bluegrass use, you’ll likely not be welcome in those circles.

    As for restoration I would contact banjo expert Bob Smakula in Elkins WV. http://www.smakula.com/
    He will be capable of replacing the missing hooks and parts, resetting the neck if needed, and making it playable again.

    Here is a page from the Vega catalog that describes your instrument.
    Can you share any of the family history of the banjo?
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    Mark
    Mark Lynch

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  5. #4

    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    Wow! Thanks very much Mark! I could tell this wasn’t an average piece but this info helps a lot.

    The ad you posted mentions a gold-plated tailpiece. Is that something a restorer or luthier would commonly have, or a reasonable facsimile?

    The instrument was one of a pair of mandolins owned by my late grandfather, who emigrated to Boston from Poland in 1921. The other mandolin is a traditional Strad-o-lin, probably from the 1930s-40s. He and my grandmother were performers at the time in the Yiddish theater scene in Boston. He played 4 or 5 instruments, all self-taught. This Vega would likely have been used in those productions for Yiddish, Russian and Polish music.

    Thanks again!

  6. #5

    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    Also, is there a hardshell case that would fit this particular instrument? The original case is basically destroyed, and a new one is necessary if I'm going to be moving it around for repairs.

    Thanks

  7. #6
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    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    You might have to improvise for a case, perhaps find a tenor banjo case and move the accessory compartment to accommodate the peg head.
    I notice that in addition to any missing hooks and nuts, you appear to missing a shoe, which is the piece that attaches the hook to the banjo rim. Bob Smakula usually has a few in stock.
    As far as the tailpiece is concerned, Vega may have used several versions over the years, and they all may be hard to find. You might have to settle for something that works rather than something that is "period correct." You can check with Bob about that also.

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  9. #7
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    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    To my knowledge there are no modern mandolin banjo cases. I’ve been fortunate to buy some original orphaned cases. MB’s are ripe fodder for conversions into the more popular Regular or 5-String banjo. The pots are harvested and a new neck is attached which leaves behind the MB neck and the case. Most Vega MB’s have a 10-1/8” pot but your Style X is usually larger, either 10-3/4” or 10-15/16” (measured across the skin diameter), this means that finding the larger case is more difficult but not impossible. The smaller Vega MB with the 10-1/8” pot will fit into a shaped F style mandolin case. Restoration of your original case might be another option.

    The Style X Mandolin Banjo was available with 8-strings like yours and also with 4-strings, both had the larger pot and Tubaphone tonering. The 4-string was made in very small numbers based on surviving examples. The 4-string version has a shorter violin length string scale at 13” and was intended for a playing the lead or melody in the band and as a doubling instrument for a violinist. The 8-string version has the usual 13-7/8” mandolin scale length.

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    Here are a couple of photos of the 4-string Vega X in my collection. It is particularly well suited to playing lead in a ragtime setting.

    Notice the modern Hennig compensated bridge. As with a regular mandolin a compensated bridge is very important so that it plays in tune. Many restorers use a regular banjo bridge but this is a poor practice because unlike a regular banjo you can’t just slant the bridge to adjust the compensation. Mandolin string gauges prevent this. Elderly may still sell Hennig bridges or buy direct from a Hennig.

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    Mark Lynch

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  11. #8
    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    Quote Originally Posted by MarkELynch View Post
    To my knowledge there are no modern mandolin banjo cases...
    Gold Tone makes mandolin banjos and ukulele banjos in Asia, and also sells cases and gig bags for them.

    Here's their "case" page. Gold Tone instruments generally have resonators, so the cases may be large for open-back instruments. However, as discussed above, yours may have a larger-than-usual diameter, so could be a decent, if "loose," fit. You might try corresponding with Gold Tone to determine how the interior dimensions of their cases compare with your instrument.

    Good luck!
    Allen Hopkins
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  13. #9

    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    Thanks Allen,

    The diameter of mine seems to be about 10-3/4". So it definitely doesn't fit into a standard case. But I'll get in touch with them and see what would fit. Mine is open-back... and HEAVY for a mandolin. Unfortunately, the original case is water-damaged and the curved bottom is basically smashed. Beyond help.



    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    Gold Tone makes mandolin banjos and ukulele banjos in Asia, and also sells cases and gig bags for them.

    Here's their "case" page. Gold Tone instruments generally have resonators, so the cases may be large for open-back instruments. However, as discussed above, yours may have a larger-than-usual diameter, so could be a decent, if "loose," fit. You might try corresponding with Gold Tone to determine how the interior dimensions of their cases compare with your instrument.

    Good luck!

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  15. #10
    Registered User Timbofood's Avatar
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    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    Mr. Peabody,
    I’m going to send this to a Vega Fairbanks banjo friend, he is very wise in many things (most) Vega. Maybe he will chime in, I know he is in contact with Mr. Smackula so my bet between the two you should be able to get this sorted and back in the music making arena!
    Timothy F. Lewis
    "If brains was lard, that boy couldn't grease a very big skillet" J.D. Clampett

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  17. #11
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    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    Goldtone must make one, mine is in a nice heavy duty Goldtone gig bag.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

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  19. #12

    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    Much obliged Timbofood! I'm hoping to get a suitable case from Gold Tone and be able to ship it to him if all works out well.


    Quote Originally Posted by Timbofood View Post
    Mr. Peabody,
    Im going to send this to a Vega Fairbanks banjo friend, he is very wise in many things (most) Vega. Maybe he will chime in, I know he is in contact with Mr. Smackula so my bet between the two you should be able to get this sorted and back in the music making arena!
    - - - Updated - - -

    Sending for info as we speak. Thanks!


    Quote Originally Posted by pops1 View Post
    Goldtone must make one, mine is in a nice heavy duty Goldtone gig bag.

  20. #13
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    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    Just had a return message from my friend, he concurred with the “See Mr. Smakula” opinion.
    And he’s the most informed guy on that kind of thing I know so..
    Timothy F. Lewis
    "If brains was lard, that boy couldn't grease a very big skillet" J.D. Clampett

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  22. #14
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    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    Mr Peabody,

    Yes, this is why I recommended Bob Smakula in posting #3, he is The Expert on anything banjo related, Bob is expecting to hear from you.

    Did you notice the Vega Style X currently for sale in the Cafe Classifieds?

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    On the case, since it is part of the family history of this instrument you might think about having it restored or at the very least locating a period correct case. Bob might even have one.

    Check out Steve Kirtley’s case repair webpage. http://www.stevekirtley.org/caserepair.htm

    I looked through the GoldTone link posted above, which case did you think was suitable? I didn’t see a good fit.

    Mark
    Mark Lynch

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  24. #15

    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    No luck with Gold Tone. I thought their HPBMB bag for their Mandolin banjo would fit, but they say they don't really have anything that does. Just an oversized banjo case to fit the body.

    Reaching out to Mr. Smakula next. Thanks to all for your help.

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  26. #16

    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    I've had good luck with eBay over the years, if you are patient and don't mind checking every week for a couple years -- amazing vintage stuff does show up from time to time.

    If you need one in a hurry for shipping, probably best to get a new banjo case and stick some foam in the empty end.

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  28. #17
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    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    Jeff has some great suggestions! I looked for about a year on EBay and finally found a case for my Vega X which has an 10-15/16” pot. More cases were made for the more common Vega MB’s with the 10-1/8” pot (Styles K, Little Wonder, L, and S) than the larger pots typically on the Style X’s but if you look long enough, as Jeff suggests, eventually one will show up. You might find an oversized MB case intended for a later model with a resonator. Here is the case I found on ebay. I also posted a want ad on www.Banjohangout.org with this dimensioned photo.
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    Also, the Hennig compensated bridge I mentioned earlier.
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    Mark
    Last edited by MarkELynch; Apr-26-2021 at 5:02pm.
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  30. #18

    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    Thanks again Mark. The resonator case idea looks good and if there's that little of a difference in clearance, I can work with that.

    I have the original bridge, but I don't know how usable it is.

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    The main problem with this mandolin is the head by the tailpiece area. It's come away. You can also see the case damage a bit.

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    Now just waiting to hear back from several people. This is all new territory for me, as I'm a guitar player. I do have a Fender FM-53S SB, but I don't imagine it's taken very seriously around these parts.


    Quote Originally Posted by MarkELynch View Post
    Jeff has some great suggestions! I looked for about a year on EBay and finally found a case for my Vega X which has an 10-15/16 pot. More cases were made for the more common Vega MBs with the 10-1/8 pot (Styles K, Little Wonder, L, and S) than the larger pots typically on the Style Xs but if you look long enough, as Jeff suggests, eventually one will show up. You might find an oversized MB case intended for a later model with a resonator. Here is the case I found on ebay. I also posted a want ad on www.Banjohangout.org with this dimensioned photo.
    Click image for larger version. 

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    Also, the Hennig compensated bridge I mentioned earlier.
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    Mark

  31. #19
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    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    The original tailpiece would have been engraved and gold plated (or silver) to match the engraved tuner cover on the back of the peghead. Finding a suitable old replacement tailpiece shouldn’t be too difficult but it is less likely you will find an engraved gold plated one from a Style X Vega. There is some variation in the engraving and plating on the several I’ve owned or seen, here are some photos of one of them.

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    Another style that will fit but this one is not from a Style X.

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    Hey, where did this come from?

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    Mark
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  33. #20
    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Question about Vega Fairbanks Mandolin Banjo

    Quote Originally Posted by MrPeabody View Post
    ...The main problem with this mandolin is the head by the tailpiece area. It's come away....
    You'll need a new head, for sure. (Banjo head, that is!) If you're going to be dealing with Smakula, he has an amazing variety of such in stock, generally.
    Allen Hopkins
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