E.D. I don't remember the exact date that I went to Vega in Boston, and spoke to, I think, a Mr. Nelson, who was the president of the company.
There was no Seeger model, at that point, as I recall, but he was making a banjo for Scruggs, I believe. I wanted the 5th peg up one fret, well into the 6th (from the 3rd fret), so that I could easily capo an F#. This, because the Tarriers did a song, "Lonesome Traveler", that modulated up to that key, which
was when the banjo came in. All the long neck banjos at that point had been elongated, to add the three extra frets. I believe Seeger came up with this idea originally. I wanted a three piece neck so it wouldn't warp, made of clear maple, with an ebony fingerboard, the usual white edging along the fingerboard, with very simple round position markers on the fingerboard. From
living in New York and constantly visiting hock shops on third Avenue, East 3rd Street, and the Bowery, I got use to looking everywhere for some cool hidden away instrument. At Vega, I saw this obviously older Tubaphone rim hanging close to the ceiling, and it did have bluish abalone on the back. The rim hadn't been set up yet, with a metal-brackets-holder-ring, etc. When the banjo was completed they apologized for having drilled two extra holes for Scruggs cam pegs, but they had the holes nicely filled and covered with diamond shaped veneers the same color as the maple of the neck, hardly noticeable, and I thought it added character, so I wasn't disappointed at all.
About the string gauge, the most important thing was to have a reasonably heavy 4th string, but not so heavy that it was dead. This gave those low notes in C tuning a wonderful clear resonance, and was essential for the kind of music I was playing, as I saw it. The rim was old, and I felt it would have a better sound than the new ones. Also, in the putting together of the
rims of this older vintage, the screws that held the bracket holder metal rim only went through the metal rim, they never went into the wood of the rim.
On my banjo, I don't think they had the machining tools or the screws to handle it that way, so they drilled right through the rim to the inside.
Later, I discovered that the Tubaphone system is basically made with metal poured into a mold, obviously, and, therefore, almost no variation from one banjo to another. Unlike the pre-war Martin guitars, which used different woods, even aged differently I suspect, and all wood varies anyway, and much thinner bracing, so the old ones are remarkably warmer and louder. I never
played a Vega that didn't sound the same, old or new. In the later years, the newer ones had a much thinner and looser fitting piece of metal to hold the bracket holders, and I never liked that, but they sounded the same.
To make mine sound less echoey and more homogenous, I used to fool around with all kinds of bridges with wide feet, glued popsicle sticks to them, I carved one, and eventually ended up with a 3 footed Grover, and always kept a washcloth inside it to keep it mellow and less echoey. If a banjo doesn't have that piece of wood that goes through, though, you've had it. I used skin heads until, when I was making a movie with the Tarriers, and it was raining very slightly, and the bridge just sunk into the head bringing the strings to lie on the frets, therefore, totally unplayable. And then, after I replaced one skin head myself, all that was enough. I went to reliable plastic, not too tight, and fooled around with the bridges. Bridges make an extraordinary difference on any banjo. One of the best sounding bluegrass bridges I ever heard was aluminum. But, I always liked the homey sound of the Tubaphone construction which I found much richer and less echoey than the White Ladies, so I stuck with that, until I wanted to really make that bluegrass sound, and then I got a Mastertone.
B21 Was the Tubaphone pot a 'presentation(?)' model.
E.D. No, it was just there, as I described.
B21 What kind of strings did you use on your guitar?
E.D. Medium gauge D'Angelico's, tuned down a half step.
B21 I'm a recording engineer and am always trying to get acoustic instruments to tape with the best/most interesting sound.
E.D. Me, too. What I'm planning to do on this next CD, in order to get a nice natural concert-hall reverb sound, is to take the whole thing, when it's done, and play it through speakers in a great sounding room, record that on a separate track and use THAT for the sense of reverb. Should be an interesting experiment. And we'll only have to rent the room for an hour or so.
I hope this works for you,
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