|The Vega name represents the “best of the best” among open-back banjos, with the Pete Seeger 5-string long necked model among them. The Vega name was inlaid in large capital letters on the peg head.
In the 1960s everybody who was anybody, played a Vega banjo.
Vega was owned by the Nelson family for almost 100 years, before being sold the the CF Martin Company in 1970.
The Vega Pete Seeger model 5-string banjo came into being during the early 1950s because of requests Vega received from players who wanted an extended neck banjo just like Pete Seeger was playing.
Pete had a homemade long neck that he originated in 1942 to extend the range of the banjo for singing certain tunes. He explains the development in his Incompleat Folksinger, p. 42.
“Well, it was like this. It was payola. About four or five years ago the Vega banjo company of Boston called me to say they'd received several requests to make banjos with especially long necks (an idea I got in 1942 when trying to play "Viva La Quince Brigada" in the C minor position [i.e. first position, C tuning], which was a bit too high to sing).
“Vega asked, "Could we officially call it 'the Pete Seeger Model'?"
"It would be an honor," says I.
"Would you like us to pay a royalty on each one sold?"
"No, I'd rather not get involved. (After all, how many such requests could there be, at $295. a piece?)
“However, in 1959 Vega called again. "We thought you'd be interested to know that we've sold over three hundred of the Pete Seeger models."
"Holy mackerel. I did some rapid arithmetic and began to wonder if I shouldn't have asked for a royalty.
"By the way, which model of out banjos do you yourself play?" asked Vega.
"Oh, I have an old Tubaphone with a homemade neck."
"Good heavens, that will never do. Could we present you with a Pete Seeger model?"
"I'd be delighted."
“Thus so easily is the human race corrupted. The banjo arrived last week, and is a beaut, quite the nicest I ever had.” ("Incompleat Folksinger, pg.442.)
Above Pete is using the Vega Pete Seeger model presented to him by the Vega company. It's large name is prominent as is their star on the peg head. After 1970 when he asked that his name be removed Pete reverted to his no-name banjo with a plain face peg head.
Pete, one of the truly great human beings on the planet, donated his Vega to "Sing Out" Magazine for a fund raiser.
Vega began producing the long-neck model in 1955 or 1956, as unofficial custom instruments, before they secured Pete’s approval to use his name.
The earliest mention of the Pete Seeger banjo is on a company price list dated Mar. 1, 1958 as “Pete Seeger Model, 5 string, extra long neck, 3 extra frets, no resonator, on special order...295.00." The Vega Pete Seeger banjo entered production in 1958. (In 1970 Pete asked that his name be removed from further production runs. So Vega Pete Seegers were produced for only 12 years.)
Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio wrote that he was one of the first to buy the Pete Seeger model 5-string banjo from Vega late in 1958 or early 1959. It can be seen on the Kingston Trio’s lp cover “Tijuana Jail” which was issued in April 1959.
The early Pete Seegers had a traditional calfskin head.
But these were awful to keep taut with the change in humidity, resulting in a dull plunking sound. So one had to keep tightening the head. It was hard to maintain the tonality of the banjo.
Left a Vega Pete Seeger from 1963, when many were still sporting calfskin heads. They're easy to spot because they always showed the jaggedy worm trails across the skin. The slightly rough surface also picked up dirt easily, and couldn't be cleaned. Calfskin heads did not develop "windows" like on plastic heads like ours, when the surface coating was worn off with nails or finger picks. Wear on a calfskin produced a hole, though that must have been rare.
This banjo also shows the way carrying straps were attached, resulting in a long neck whose only support was the player holding it.
By 1962 plastic heads – that did not change in tension with the weather – were standard for banjo players.
The original tuners were the “straight-through” type with oval plastic knobs.
By 1963 these were being replaced by high end Grover Rotomatic “guitar-style” angled metal tuners above, which offered a 12:1 gear ratio.
The fifth string had a separate tuner half way along the neck.
The earliest 5th string peg was a “friction” non-geared type of tuner, which was a nightmare to get to exact tension as you always ended up tightening too much or backing off too much. My Harmony had one; it was a nightmare. I hated to change capo positions.
Geared 5th string pegs, like those for the other strings, and shown here, were available, which were wonderful to tune the 5th string quickly to exact pitch. I couldn't believe the heavenly difference of a geared tuner on the Vega.
The fifth string runs through a plastic covered guide pin.
When players use a capo it only works on the four long strings.
The fifth string needed a separate capo, of which many varieties existed, none as efficient, quick, and easy to use as the one we installed on our banjo: the Vega Pittman 5th string sliding capo.
This means when you capo up on the long strings you don't need to re tune the 5th string. You just slide the spring loaded wire capo up the same number of frets and off you go...
The capos for the upper four strings, have changed over the past fifty years.
Our original capo from the sixties - and the one used by the Kingston Trio (you can see it on Dave Guard's banjo) - is the plastic bar type with an elastic band. As the elastic weakened and no longer held the bar tight to the strings you just moved to the next tension hole.
In the seventies the plastic barrel on a swinging gate clamp type capo came into use. It was a beastly heavy contraption and put more weight were you didn't want it - on the neck.
Both these early capos, had hard plastic barrels that, while holding down the strings behind the fret actually pulled them so detuning them slightly, so one always had to retune after a capo move.
In the nineties the clamp became lightweight and used a rubber, instead of a plastic material, for dampening. This acted like a finger, pressing down the string, but with the softness of flesh that greatly reduced the stretching and detuning of the string. Retuning is less needed after a capo move.
The best musical invention of all time has got to be the electronic tuner. Heavy units became available in the 1980s. You couldn't carry them around. They wouldn't fit into a banjo case and were extremely expensive.
Today no musician is without one of the cheap, small clip on portable tuners. You clamp it on the head between the tuning pegs and it picks up the vibrations through the neck sending the needle bar across the scale. You tune the peg till the needle holds at the centre arrow where it also give you a readout of what the note is you are setting to.
The swivel and tilt adjustments of this tuner are invaluable, as is the extremely bright display.
In the old days being slightly out of tune was something that came with the banjo. We used a tuning fork which was cumbersome. We tuned by ear mostly so the banjo tuning drifted - across the board and between strings. Some days the banjo just did not sound good. So we would play something else - like the record player...
It is nothing short of fabulous to have a banjo - or guitar - kept in symphonically accurate tuning for every song. It is like hearing an entirely new instrument...
The standard finish was described as “shaded mahogany.” A “natural blond maple finish” was also available.
The early Pete Seegers had a wooden dowel underneath, to secure the neck to the rim. In 1962 this was changed to two metal coordinator rods.
The early Vega banjos, including ours, used a 7-ply maple tone ring. In 1960 the Pete Seegers were using 5-ply maple. In 1967 the tone ring was made with 10-ply maple.
The armrest gives the Vega Pete Seeger a unique look. Many have been replaced and lost.
YEAR STARTING SERIAL NUMBER
1965 125889 - My banjo. We get married. Once is enuff...
1970 129120 - Vega bought by C.F. Martin in May, 1970
1970 129683 - Pete requests his name be removed
New Series, M1 1972
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 hard shell, plush lined case was another $60.)
In 1967, the price was $385.
And in 1968, the Vega Pete Seeger model was listed at $456.
In March 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.")
Vega Banjo Sales (1950-1970)
(all banjo types, not just Pete Seegers)
1950 – 75
1954 – 77
1955 – 146
1956 – 215 - The Weavers at Carnegie Hall with Pete Seeger’s “Darlin Corey” banjo intro
1957 – 154 - I hear the Vega banjo for the first time, and am enthralled but have to graduate to make money to buy one.
1958 – 135
1959 – 305 – Probably due to publicity surrounding introduction of Pete Seeger model
1960 – 538 – The Kingston Trio – the most popular recording group in America at the time - featured the Pete Seeger Vega model on their album covers, starting with “At Large” which they issued in June 1959.
1961 – 1439 – “Folk Era” in full swing
1965 – 1081
1966 – 960
1967 – 883
1968 – 555
1969 – 563 - I bought my Vega from Mose Scarlett who wanted to concentrate on his career with a guitar.
1970 – 366 – sold to CF Martin
A special thanks to "The Vega Pete Seeger Banjo" by Pete Curry, for Vega manufacturing information.