Of Vegas and Martins

Flanked by  interactive faculty at a northeastern banjo camp, the BRC founder proudly shows-off his Vega VIP banjo built in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, in 1975. Unbeknownst to most 5 string aficionados, the Martin Guitar Company manufactured  Vega banjos from 1970 through 1979. Note the classic “C.F.  Martin” decal photographed on the back of the Vega VIP peghead.

The BRC Archives contain all the serial numbers of these unique Vega-Martin banjos, as such data are generously available from the family-owned Martin Guitar department of history.

From its early Boston beginnings, the Vega Banjo Company made many splendid and now vintage instruments, including the Earl Scruggs signature model that he endorsed in the 1960′s.  After its Martin Guitar era, the Vega brand name ownership was sold overseas, and the instrument line fell into obscurity. Kudos to Greg Deering who rescued the Vega brand name from extinction in the early 1990′s and restored it to greatness. The two legendary  musicians in the camp photo are banjo godfather Tony Trischka and Grammy award winner Eric Weissberg.

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26 Responses to Of Vegas and Martins

  1. John Miller says:

    Hello, I have acquired a Martin Vega banjo S/n993 in great condition and don’t know anything about it. I can’t find the BRC archives mentioned in your writeup. I wanted to see when my banjo was built and what other infomation you might have available. I was looking for the BRC Archives that contain all the serial numbers of these unique Vega-Martin banjos. JM

    • Mid-Mo Banjar says:

      John- Thanks for your query. My BRC archives are old-fashioned paper files and not online. According to the data sheets that C.F. Martin & Co. graciously faxed to me years ago, your banjo SN# 993 should be a Pro-5 Model that was made in 1974 per Shop Order #2211. Martin purchased Vega in May of 1970, and made Vega banjos in Nazareth, PA, until 1979. After banjo SN #1752 was manufactured, a lot of parts were sent to Japan or Canada for assembly. Banjo SN# 1945 was the last Vega banjo made by Martin. The Vega brand name was then sold overseas into obscurity until Greg Deering rescued and restored the historic name to a quality instrument line- kudos to Greg. If you have a fax #, I can send you the data page depicting your instrument, or you can contact C.F. Martin for the information. The Martin Company is very responsive to customers` questions. Thanks again and enjoying pickin` your Vega. Barry

  2. Wade Pitman says:

    I have a Vega martin 5 string, I am looking for date it was made and model. The S/N#1876 THANKS!!!!

    • Mid-Mo Banjar says:

      Wade- In late 1976, Martin began shipping a lot of parts to Japan for assembly. Banjo SN# 1876 was probably one of the last instruments assembled in Japan. Your model listed in the records appears to be a FVIP which retailed in those days for $556, and the pre-fix letter `F` designated a `folk` music instrument. Check for the scrolled letters `VIP’ on the truss rod cover for “Very Important Player.” Hope this helps, Barry

  3. Vicki Morris says:

    I have acquired a mMrtin & Company VIP 5 String Vega Banjo. SN517. Excellent condition. Can anyone tell me about it – it’s worth for selling?
    Thanks

    • Mid-Mo Banjar says:

      Vicki- According to the Martin Co. files, your Vega VIP 5 stringer was manufactured in 1973. About a dozen years ago, I acquired a Martin/Vega VIP banjo SN# 1364 which was made in 1975. One of the guys in my band also has a VIP which is about 2 or 3 serial numbers away from mine, and we are both very fond of this quality mid range instrument. I travel with the VIP rather than haul my heavier Gibson Mastertone or Stelling around airports. The VIP should fetch about $1-1.5K on the market. Don`t be in a hurry to sell, as it is a great picker if you are so inclined. All the best, Barry

  4. Ed Jacobsen says:

    I acquired a Vega banjo in 1973 SN666 VW-5
    Any idea what it may be worth today?

    • Mid-Mo Banjar says:

      Ed- One of my banjo buddies has a Martin/Vega FW-5 “Folk Wonder” 5-stringer like yours that he brings to the Wednesday night sloe jam when hosted at my house. It is a nice entry level instrument that retailed for $280 back in the early 1970`s. My estimate is that it would be worth around $400 these days. Of interest, The Vega FW-5 banjos made in Boston in the 1960`s seem to have a $500 current market value. Hope this helps, Barry

  5. George Darby says:

    Barry,
    I have a Martin Vega with serial number 835. It appears to be decal and not stamped on the wood. The tailpiece has “Presto” stamped in the metal. It has VIP on the cover plate.
    It has the Martin Decal on the back of the neck head and inside the banjo on the wood.
    I thought it might be around 1973 manufacture date. I’m puzzled by the decal serial number since I have seen others punched in the wood. It has 22 frets. Any info would be greatly appreciated. Thanks, George

    • Mid-Mo Banjar says:

      George- Thanks for your inquiry. Your instrument SN 835 is one of fourteen VIP-5 banjos manufactured in mid-1974 per shop order #2193. My VIP-5 also has its serial number as a decal inside the rim, so preserve the marking for authenticity. There was a vintage 5-string Baldwin Model D for sale cheap on the West Coast a few months ago, but the SN decal had fallen off; and the instrument could not be dated. Most of my other banjos have stamped numbers, but the resonator on my 1928 Mastertone has its SN number hand-painted on it to match the stamped number on the pot. This was SOP in the Gibson shop in the old days. My Mastertone also has a `Presto` tailpiece which is a traditional tailpiece for the Bluegrass sound. The C.F.Martin decals on the back of the peghead and inside the pot are typical markings. All the best, Barry

  6. Mark says:

    Hi!

    I have serial # 888. Any info on the year and model would be greatly appreciated!

    Thank you,

    Mark

    • Mid-Mo Banjar says:

      Mark- Thanks for your post. Banjo SN 888 is a Pro-5 model manufactured in 1974 per shop order #2197. Martin built about 60 Pro-5 banjos in Nazareth from 1971-1974. Although I have not seen this model Vega/Martin instrument, it is my understanding that the inlays and peg head are similar to the VIP, but the banjo has a Pro/Scruggs body. Your e-mail suggests that you have a dreadnaught guitar just like mine. It sounds like you have fine instruments. All the best, Barry

  7. Rick B says:

    I have a Vega that my father had in the early 80′s. I don’t know the year or make. Did all Martin made Vega’s have Martin on the back of the headstock. Also, I believe he purchased this in the late 70′s. Can you assist in the make or year?
    RB

    • Mid-Mo Banjar says:

      Rick- Thanks for your inquiry. With the emblem “Martin” on the back of the headstock, it is likely that your instrument was made in Nazareth, PA, in the late 1970`s. Look inside the rim for another “C.F. Martin & Co., Est. 1833″ emblem, and nearby should be a serial number decal, usually 4 digits. If present, forward it to me, and I should be able to pinpoint the banjo model and year of manufacture. If there is no SN decal, send me a photo of the instrument. Barry

  8. W. Sayre says:

    My aunt gave me a Martin Vega banjo serial number 892 to see what it was worth since she is not internet savy and looking to sell it. The local music store said they would give her 120$ for it. I told her to leave cause i thought they were taking advantage of her because of her age.
    The number is painted on the bottom not pressed in the wood. I don’t know much about banjos because I’m a guitar man myself. Can you tell me what year this banjo was made and what my aunt could legitimately ask for it?

    • Mid-Mo Banjar says:

      William- Thanks for your post. Martin Vega banjo #892 should be a long neck open back Folklore Model manufactured in the latter half of 1973 per shop order 2198. This design of banjo retailed for $285 back then, and it was popularized by Erik Darling and Pete Seegar (who had his own Vega endorsed model for awhile). The long neck banjo is less popular nowadays with the surge in Bluegrass music, but I have two of them and value their mellow wife-friendly tone. Resale prices for this type of banjo vary widely from a couple of hundred to several thousand dollars depending on unique features. Your aunt`s banjo sounds like a stock model, so I would estimate that it would fetch $400-$700 on the open market. If someone could help her post it on eBay, it would probably get a decent price and a good home. Best of luck and thanks for your query, Barry

  9. John Whitaker says:

    I recently acquired a Vega VW-5 banjo, serial #1522. It came with the original Martin Warranty card and typed instructions for “Care of Your Banjo” dated 1/10/76. Do you know where and when this banjo was manufactured, and can you tell me anything else about it? Thanks, John

    • Mid-Mo Banjar says:

      John- Thanks for your query. Your model VW-5 SN# 1522 was one of the few and very last VW-5 banjos manufactured in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, by the Martin Guitar Company in 1976 per shop order #2285. After banjo SN# 1752, parts were sent to Japan or Canada for assembly. Like you, I have the original warranty registration and care instructions for my Vega/Martin VIP banjo SN# 1364 made in 1975. Enjoy your banjo and thanks for your post. Barry

  10. Fred says:

    My Vega VIP has the Martin decal on the back of the headstock. The inside of the rim has a R-D-136 in white. Can you tell me about it?

    Thanks very much. Fred

    • Mid-Mo Banjar says:

      Fred- Thank you for the detailed photos of your instrument. It has almost all the hallmarks of a stock model VIP banjo. In addition to the unusual R-D-136 serial number, the “C.F. Martin and Co., Est. 1833″ decal is absent from the inner rim. Of note, banjo SN 136 manufactured in 1972 was a Vega Vox I plectrum and not a 5-stringer like yours. In your e-mail, you mention being told when acquiring the instrument that it was a prototype design. Maybe, the “R-D” prefix stands for “Research and Development”. Although the genesis of your SN and date of manufacture are a puzzlement, it is no mystery that you own a lovely vintage Martin banjo. Thank-you for your kind words about my website, and all blessings to you and yours this coming holiday season. Barry

  11. Ken Callahan says:

    I too have a 5-string, open-back Martin/ Vega Banjo (decals on the back of the headstock and inside the rim with #344 stamped). I know nothing about banjo, I’m primarily a bassist and guitarist (with Martin BC40 fretless acoustic bass, Norman Blake sig 00028 guitar and A style mandolin), I bought it off eBay for $480 and I thought how could I go wrong! I love the funky old-time sound, it fits the music I play which is probably closest in style to piedmont blues. If you could tell me anything about it I would be most appreciative. Also, I read on your site, and I have seen the term before, about a “tone ring.” This banjo (although I have not taken it completely apart) does not seem to have one, at least not that I can see visibly. I have been wondering if there are ways to sculpt the sound even more towards that deep old-time appalachian/mountain sound, away from the metallic Nashville/Bluegrass sound. I have heard people talk about natural calf skin heads but I have never seen them. How much affect does the banjo head tension have on the overall sound? Can a “tone ring” darken or deepen the sound?
    Thanks for any help you can offer.

    Ken

    • Mid-Mo Banjar says:

      Ken- Thanks for your query. Vega/Martin banjo #344 was manufactured in 1972 per shop order #2140. The files designate it as a model VW-5, and about 60 were made that year. The “Wonder ” resonator banjo line appears in the 1963 pre-Martin Vega catalogue. This model continues to be offered in the 1970 Vega/Martin catalogue with photos, but also mentioned briefly that year under the heading “Other 5-String Folk Banjos” is the FW-5 “Folk Wonder” resonator banjo with a metal tone ring. Another more basic open back model without resonator or tone ring is also briefly mentioned without photos. It is my theory that this is the VW-5, and the “V” stands for Vega. Your banjo head probably sits directly on the wooden rim, and a metal tone ring would brighten the sound. There is some enthusiasm among luthiers these days to fashion wooden tone rings. I recently rebuilt a banjo and had a buddy of mine sculpt a wooden tone ring for it which was much fun, but I am not certain that it altered the tone much at all. A calf skin head is feasible, but it changes tension with heat and humidity. You might try a Fiberskyn head which I put on my open back long neck Ode banjo years ago to mellow the tone. Another trick is to stuff a T-shirt in the pot between the head and the connecting rod to further reduce overtones for a more funky sound. Try tensioning your banjo head to an A or G on the piano. I play mostly Bluegrass, so I like to tune my banjo heads to A or A sharp. You might want to try tuning to G. Good luck and happy picking, Barry

  12. R M Zawlocki says:

    I have 20 fret tenor (SN2422, Yes,20 fret,23 inch scale) and a 22 fret plectrum banjo (SN1167). Both have pie resonators,10 15/16 tubaphone tone rings, Vega Artist inlay necks and peg heads, Gibson type flange (one piece) held in place by the 24 shoes and three piece necks with/out caving. I purchased the plectrum about 5 years ago for $650 (with a Oettenger tailpiece). The tenor, I got a few months ago for about $600 and had 5 fret replaces for a total of $796. I also have 1950′s Vegavox 4 tenor. All of the banjos play and sound great. Any more info. about them would be great. Thank you, R M Zawlocki

    • Mid-Mo Banjar says:

      RM- Thanks for your post. Your tenor banjo #2422 was probably assembled from parts shipped to Japan or Canada. The Vega/Martin SN files only go up to #1945. In 1976, banjo parts above #1752 were mostly shipped overseas. Your plectrum #1167 was built in Nazareth, PA, in 1974 as one of 5 plectrum banjos manufactured via shop order #2229. My catalogues only go back to 1963 when a Boston-built tenor Vega-Vox IV listed for $870, and it was a beauty. It sounds like you have have marvelous 4-stringers, and thanks again for your query. Barry

  13. Tim says:

    Sir,
    Back in 1989 I purchased a Martin Vega VIP from my Uncle for 1500 dollars. Since then I have been told that it’s a good one or that it ain’t worth it, doesn’t matter to me I love the thing. However, I would like to know more about it. BTW if I am identifying the right part my tone ring is flat with a series of 3 hole then space then 3 holes all the way round. My uncle told me it was the kinda banjo played in churches and studios cause it didn’t bark like his Mastertone sort of more mellow.

    Thanks in advance,
    Tim

    • Mid-Mo Banjar says:

      Tim- Thanks for your query. It`s a small (banjo) world. Your instrument #1369 was one of fourteen VIP-5 banjos made in Nazareth, PA, per Shop Order #2247 in 1975. My own VIP is #1364, and the other 5-string picker in my band owns VIP #1359. This model banjo has a rich mid range tone that was admired by a faculty member at a banjo camp that I attended with my VIP-5. You are not the first correspondent to mention that the mellow VIP is well-suited to church performances. Vega marketed this 5-stringer emphasizing its unique “audio-sonic tone ring” made of bell brass- not unlike the Masterone. It is unanimous: all three of us are equally charmed by the Vega/Martin VIP-5. Again, thanks for your post and happy pickin`. Barry

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