The Vega Instrument Company – Creators of the Cylinder-back Mandolin 

Photo credit: http://www.sprucetreemusic.com

The Vega Instrument Company was established in Boston in 1881 by brothers Julius and Carl Nelson, with John Pahn and John Swenson. They previously worked for guitar maker Pehr Anderberg, who made guitars for local instrument companies such as John C. Haynes. The Nelsons bought out the other associates at Anderberg, establishing Vega as a cooperative. The company primarily made guitars and mandolins, the latter of the Neapolitan bowl-back variety.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Vega went on a merger roll, buying A.C. Fairbanks Banjos in 1904, and Thompson and Odell in 1905. They continued to produce banjos under the name A.C. Fairbanks by Vega, then as Vega. Vega also ventured into brass instruments and purchased Standard Band Instrument Company in 1909.

In 1913, Vega took a creative turn in the production of mandolins. It introduced a “compromise” between the bowl-back and the Gibson-introduced flat-backs – the cylinder-back mandolin. The cylinder also applied to the other mandolin family instruments, and there was a limited number of cylinder-backed guitars produced. David L. Day, chief acoustical designer with Anderberg turned general manager at Vega, developed the cylinder and had it patented in 1913. The cylinder was found to increase the internal volume of the instrument. After the decline of mandolin production in the 1920’s, Vega focused on producing high-quality arch top guitars in the 1930’s.

Photo credit: http://www.musicemporeum.com

By the 1940’s and 1950’s, the overall quality of Vega instruments declined. It’s most notable instrument at the time was the long-necked banjo, which Pete Seeger played, as we as other musicians of the 1960’s folk revival. C.F. Martin purchased Vega in the 1970’s to capitalize on the popularity of its banjos. Martin licensed the Vega name to various American and international instrument makers, until Deering Banjos bought up the Vega name in 1989. To this day, Deering produces a line of Vega banjos.

The Vega name continued to appear on mandolins up to the 1980’s, until Deering Banjos acquired it. The mandolins were mostly low-end instruments made in Japan. One such instrument that is currently listed on Reverb.com is a metallic-looking Gray burst A-style mandolin with an asking price of $145.  There are, however, many vintage Vega mandolins listed. The instruments  include at least four banjolins, a mandolin and lute mandolin with cylinder backs, and vintage bowl and flat backs. The cylinder backs have asking prices in the early $1,000’s. It is not known if any other instrument maker has made, or attempted to make, an instrument with this unique design feature since Vega discontinued them in 1925.

Sources:

Ayars, Christine Merrick. “Contributions to the Art of Music in America by the Music Industries of Boston, 1640 to 1936.” H.W. Wilson, 1937.

http://www.mugwumps.com

http://www.4stringbanjos.com

http://www.reverb.com

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Thompson and Odell, Publisher and Instrument Manufacturers 

Photo credit: http://www.picclick.co.uk

Ira H. Odell started up a music publishing  company and music store, in partnership with Charles W. Thompson, sometime between 1872 and 1874 (different accounts vary), in Boston, Massachusetts. Ira’s son, future mandolin pioneer Herbert Forrest Odell, was an infant around the time of the business’ establishment. Thompson and Odell were originally in partnership with another man by the name of Woods, and their business was located at 121 Court Street. By the time they moved their business to 578 Washington Street, Woods had departed. They published tutorials and sheet music for piano, fretted instruments, brass band and orchestra.

Thompson and Odell began manufacturing instruments in 1888, beginning with mandolins and guitars, later adding banjos.  The Artist was the brand name of the fretted instruments. Their mandolins were the Neapolitan styled bowl back, later given the demeaning name of “tater bug” after the Gibson flat backs were introduced. The company was also the “ghost manufacturer” of J.F. Luscomb banjos. Charles Stromberg, a Swedish immigrant, was employed at Thompson and Odell and, a year after Thompson and Odell’s dissolution, started up his own line of banjos.

Thompson and Odell was incorporated in 1891, but a year later Odell left the business. The company gradually ceased publication, and around or prior to 1900 Carl Fischer bought up their catalog of publications. Thompson died in 1903, and about two years later the company filed for bankruptcy. Vega bought up the fretted instruments arm of the company in 1905 and carried on the Artist brand of instruments. That very year, H.F. Odell started his own music publishing company and his own trade journal, Crescendo, also bought up by Vega after his death. 
Sources:

Ayars, Christine Merrick. “Contributions to the Art of Music in America by the Music Industries of Boston, 1640 to 1936.” H.W. Wilson, 1937.

http://www.mugwumps.com

http://www.4stringbanjos.com

​“All the Rage: Mandolin Orchestra Music from 1897-1924,” The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble

What music did mandolin ensembles of more than a century ago perform? Whatever was popular at the time; waltzes, fox trots, mazurkas, marches, rag, classical, folk. 
The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble took a time trip to the golden era of mandolin orchestras with a sampling of music unfamiliar to most modern listeners by composers all but forgotten to this day. The title song of this album was composed by Charles Brunover (1877-1948), a Wisconsin-born mandolinist, guitarist, teacher, and composer.(1)  It is a march with the possible connotation of it being a football fight song. 

A waltz bearing the name of the ensemble that started the stringed instrument craze, “Estudiantina,” was credited to Emile Waldteufel (1835-1912), a French-born classical composer of Jewish Alsacian heritage. (2)  It was actually composed by Paul Lacome, but arranged by Waldteufel for orchestra. 

The only female composer represented on this album is Kate Dolby, whose birth date is unknown but died in 1944.  She had only one song to her credit, a galop called “The Flying Wedge,” which was originally composed for banjo in 1917.(3)

H.F. Odell*, who was profiled here previously, composed the track “Laughing Eyes,” and arranged two other tracks for mandolin ensemble; “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice,” composed by Camille Saint-Seans (1835-1921) and “Gallantry,” by Albert W. Ketelbey (1875-1959), an English-born composer of light orchestral music who also worked in vaudeville. (4)

These are just six of the notable tracks off this album, released in 1998. Paul Martin Zonn was the conductor for this recording. The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble released six albums between between 1995 and 2006, then disbanded in 2009 when its most notable player, Butch Baldassari, succumbed to brain cancer.
*In correction to the previous article, H.F. Odell was Herbert Forrest Odell, not Henry Forrest Odell.  The article also misidentified Odell as the composer of the Saint-Seans and Ketelbey compositions when he arranged them for mandolin orchestra. 

(1) composers-classical-music.com 

(2) Griffiths, Paul. The Penguin Companion to Classical Music. Penguin UK, 2004

(3) composers-classical-music.com 

(4) McKanna, Tom. “Ketelby, Albert William. “ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online edition).

The Pizzitola Strummers; Keeping the Mandolin (and other fretted instruments) alive in the jazz era

​A November 1941 article in Etude magazine by George C. Krick (“The Future of Fretted Instruments”) declared that interest in the mandolin, banjo, and guitar was alive and well despite the popular belief that those instruments were “dead” and “on their way out.” Krick cited the many urban areas that had instructors of fretted instruments. These instructors included Albert Bellson, Chester W. Gould, and A.E. Patton. He also cited a Holyoke, MA-based teacher and musician, Joseph Pizzitola, who he praised as directing “one of the best mandolin orchestras we have been privileged to hear, and he deserves great credit for keeping the mandolin before the public.”(1)

For the greater part of the 20th century, Pizzitola ran his own music school on the second floor of 81 Suffolk Street in Holyoke, which was above the former Victory Theater. Pizzitola taught mandolin, banjo, guitar, and accordion. He employed other instructors, who included luthier Frank Lucchesi, accordionist Marian Kelly, and bandleader Bob Ezold. Pizzitola was a licensed agent/instructor for Gibson, and he served as president (years unspecified) of the American Guild of Banjoists, Mandolinists, and Guitarists (AGBMG). 

Pizzitola formed a professional ensemble of his advanced students and named them the Pizzitola Strummers. The Strummers played concerts in the Pioneer Valley and beyond, including town halls and Masonic lodges. They appeared on Boston’s WBZ radio as far back as 1927 and 1928. Anywhere in the country where the radio signal could be picked up, the Pizzitola Strummers could be heard, as newspapers such as the Detroit Free Press and Reading (PA) Times listed long-distance radio station programming. The Strummers especially played the AGBMG conferences. For two years in a row (1930-31), the banjo-heavy ensemble won first prize for Best Banjo Group. (2)

By the 1940’s, the accordion was incorporated into the ensemble, therefore, they were renamed the Pizzitola Plectro-Accordion Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra continued to perform throughout the Valley and upstate New York.  They made their television debut in 1957 on the defunct Springfield Channel 55 with their own bi-weekly program. (3)  Pizzitola’s reputation as an accordion instructor superseded that as a stringed instrument instructor, as more accordions joined the orchestra.  Interest inPizz stringed instruments resumed in the 1960’s, and Bob Ezold was one of the instructors to go to for guitar, banjo, and mandolin.  New Orleans-based musician Spider Murphy, who grew up in Holyoke and later graduated from the Berklee School of Music, studied all three instruments under Pizzitola and Ezold, beginning in 1963 when he was six years old.  Spider’s father and three of his aunts took lessons with Pizzitola 40 years earlier. (4)

The Pizzitola Music Studio became incorporated in 1963, and it opened studios in Springfield and Northampton. The incorporated status was dissolved in 1978, sometime after Pizzitola’s death. Ezold, after Pizzitola’s death, kept the strummer tradition going by forming the Valley Strummers. The Strummers are still performing to this day under the direction of Ezold’s son, Bob Jr., and regularly perform at the Holyoke Senior Center. 

(1) Krick, George C. “The Future of Fretted Instruments.” Etude, November 1941.

(2) http://www.mandoisland.de

(3) Berkshire Eagle Tribune, January 30, 1957.

(4) http://www.spidermurphy.net