Notes on playing the banjo uke (and the regular ukulele), as well as some of my favorite songs and videos, but mostly, you'll find information here on my particular obsession - the many models of banjo ukulele offered by Stromberg-Voisinet in the 1920's to 1931.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Deluxe is always better than regular...

When you go into a diner in NYC, you have a choice on the burger. You can get it plain, or deluxe, which means it comes with fries, a tiny eye-cup-full of coleslaw, a pickle, and lettuce, tomato and onion. Despite there not being enough coleslaw, ALWAYS get the deluxe.

In the case of Stromberg Voisinets, the same may be true. If you have a chance at picking up a regular Style One "Black Beauty" or one of these Style One "Deluxe" models, you may want to get the Deluxe. They go for upwards of a $100 more than a regular Style One these days, but you get a lot for that.

Features are fairly consistent on Style One Deluxe models. Instead of just stained maple, they appear to be made of maple, mahogany and walnut in various combinations, with each instrument slightly different. When they were made 1920-1930 or so, it's not clear if the choice of wood was the craftsman's or the buyer's.

The fretboard has ivroid binding, the headstock has a slightly more elaborate MOP inlay instead of the S-V diamond logo, and the wood is not stained, but rather clear lacquered so the natural grain and color comes through.

The pot and resonator are purfled as on the regular Style One, but the center of the resonator is always inlaid with a contrasting wood, usually birds-eye maple. On this particular example, you see a mahogany neck and pot, walnut resonator, and maple inlay. It's a great-looking variant of the usual "Black Beauty".

Here's a great example of a Style One Deluxe, which sold on eBay in January 2011 for an amazing $514.00. You can see the five-piece laminated neck that's also common to all in this model line.

This uke, posted by Rhinooooo – one of this blog’s readers, really caught my attention. It’s basically a Fancy Style 1 like above, but there are interesting variations. It's all walnut, and which also has a completely atypical purfling design on the pot and resonator back.

Also note that instead of the usual S-V diamond inlay logo, or even the deluxe version, this uke has an MOP star inlaid, and only has three MOP fretboard markers. So far, it's one-of-a-kind.

Here's another, darker variation, which appears to be mahogany, with a mahogany-stained maple resonator. This particular example went for $100 on Ukulele Underground in April of 2011.

Finally, here's a light maple Style One Deluxe, with a dark-stained resonator. This shows the fretboard binding and MOP markers as they appear typically. You'll notice that the fretboard in the top photo of this blog appears to show elaborate MOP markers - nope, it's those pernicious stickers again. Those should be outlawed. Play with your eyes shut if you really want to learn the neck. :)

That's all for now - I've got dozens of photos of these Deluxe Style Ones, but you get the idea. Nicer, better decorated, mostly well-taken care of by their original owners, they represent an upgraded version of the basic Style One.

Next time, I'll show you the Style Two, which is fairly different from what you've seen so far. In some ways, it may be the budget model S-V, but then, who can say? If you've seen anything on my little OCD blog, its that nothing's definite. :) Until then, if you get the burger deluxe, ask for extra coleslaw. And Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Crocodile Skin Ukes...

One of the strangest ukuleles produced by Stromberg Voisinet has to be the Style 1 variant covered with "faux crocodile skin".

The substance, referred to in a couple of places as faux crocodile (which it doesn't look like) and "Duralene" seems to be some sort of epoxy paste, applied to the resonator back, part of the pot and also, a large diamond on the back of the headstock - echoing the Stromberg Voisinet diamond logo. This was sculpted into a pattern of swirls and then painted a grey green and lacquered over with a sort of pearlescent finish that gives the instrument an organic, art nouveau look, like one of those Tiffany dragonflies. I've only seen two of these, one I owned and another offered by Elderly instruments over a year ago.

Other than this bold decorative adornment, the ukulele is a regular Style 1, but instead of sporting an ebonized finish, this version has a dark, russet-brown stain, nicely complimentary to the greenish crocodile skin.

Elderly's offering, seen here and above, had that mahogany-stained neck and pot. With broken neck dowel, it sold for $100.00.

Here, you can follow yet another restoration series, this one done by my friend Tim Caneulle (Two Trax on Banjo Hangout). The difference between Tim's restoration project and the Elderly instrument is that the Duralene comes more than half-way up the pot side instead of just being confined to the cap and this instrument has that uncommon six-mop fretboard inlay pattern.

I bought this from Tim in January 2011 along with that neat little no-name uke next to it in the final photo. I really enjoyed playing it, but it's now owned by my extremely talented buddy Ben Mealer, who really does it justice!

See Ben here: on his YouTube channel

Those are the only two examples I've seen of the Crocodile Skin Style 1. I expect Stromberg Voisinet didn't make a lot of these - and indeed, they're probably not for everyone. I think its one of the most interesting and unique instruments made during the banjo uke golden age of the 20s and 30s.

That's it for now. I've been busy with a new job for the last 2 months, but in the time, I've lined up several interesting ukes to show you. I'll share them soon, and in the meantime, keep strumming'.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Wizard, Clarion, Concertone and other odd ducks...

I hope that you had a great Labor Day if you're here in the states, and a great late summer weekend if you're not. I just got back from two weeks vacation, got an offer for a new job (which I was VERY happy to accept), and got home to find that you can survive a couple of weeks of not playing, but only just...

As promised, I'm taking a look at some of the instruments contract built by Stromberg Voisinet for various jobbers, department stores and other music companies. You see SV banjo ukes routinely come up under the following names: Wizard, Concertone (a Montgomery-Ward offering), Clarion, and Mayflower. There are occasionally others that are clearly SV-made ukes, but which have different company names on them; most recently, two SV resonator backed ukes have come up with a "Wilson Brothers Mfg." sticker affixed inside of the resonator and another couple I've seen have "Humphrey" in jagged black script on the pearloid headstock. Often, you will see Concertones and others that have *not* been built by Stromberg Voisinet, with William Lange, Slingerland and Lyon & Healy products figuring. Jobbers frequently placed orders with different companies to meet their demand.

The Concertones that I've seen tend to be simple, maple models, often openbacks. They're pretty plain looking, and occasionally, there's no ebony fingerboard, which is a feature I've also noticed on Slingerland-made Concertones.

Wizards tend to be as elaborate as Concertones tend to be austere. Take a look at this 7" pot model above. Now the plate is lost, but it clearly says "Wizard" in the oval ghost imprint of the metal nameplate. Walnut, headstock inlay is S-V, but, oddly, the head has no central lobe. Pot and turned, flanged resonator are unique to this 12-tensioner model, but the inlays, scalloped open flange, neck, heel, and resonator attachment are typical S-V. This example sold on eBay for $178.50 in September of ‘10.

As you can see in this particular example - which is in much rougher condition - the nameplate is missing, but the details are identical to the above model. However, we get some nice shots here of the interior and some repair work - just click on any photo to make it bigger.

And finally, here's a link to another 7” pot, scallop-flanged resonator model, this one on You Tube

After contacting the owner, I found that the instrument never had a "Wizard" nameplate on the headstock, perhaps indicating that this particular example was indeed sold by Stromberg Voisinet as one of their own instruments. Hopefully, you don't mind hearing "Hey There, Delilah".

Several 8" pot models made by Stromberg Voisinet were also offered as "Wizards", and these are unique in a couple of ways. This “Wizard” to the left is clearly an S-V-made model. The pot only has 12 tensioners, and also has typical SV purfling, though the resonator does not. Resonator is Type 5 – no decoration, in birdseye maple, rest of the instrument looks like maple.

A second model Wizard, identical to the above, but with the important difference that the resonator is three-piece and is not attached using the standard S-V method of a screw in a recessed chrome inset. The resonator is a two-piece back and note the lack of raised, ‘grommets’ around the resonator holes. Otherwise, it’s the identical instrument.

Here's another "Wizard" uke (although, looking closely at the photos, it might be the very same uke as the above being re-sold as so often happens on Ebay) which shares the different method of resonator attachment as the above example. With the three-piece resonator off, you can see the bolted-on threading for the screw. The seller took no photos of the pot or neck from the side, so we can’t see if there’s any purfling as in the above models. Sold for $125 on eBay, March 20th, 2011.

I've only seen two Clarions, and this example has a different logo from the other I've seen, which I don't have a photograph of. Sadly - this is a much altered instrument. The scraped and torn “Clarion” headstock decal partially covers the S-V slotted diamond inlay. The flat-backed resonator is homemade out of pressboard, attached with screws and tubes sunk into the pot cap. Tuning machines have large sink washers as spacers. The most notable detail is the 5 mop fretboard marker pattern, which I've never seen in any other SV uke. This was probably originally a resonator model: it moved on Ebay, 12/17/10, sold in the UK for 79 quid, if memory serves.

Let these last photos serve as a potent warning to those of you selling anything on Ebay; neutral background tones, please - and if these photos were posted by the knowledgable and very nice Alan 'Uke' Harris, my apologies to him for being a littttle cheeky, here. ;) I'm going to go flush my corneas of all that blueness, and in the meantime, I'll assemble some crocodile skin for you...

...until then...strumming.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Open Backs Galore

When I think of August, I think of visiting the seaside or taking a vacation, and that inspired me to put together a post on the instrument that was probably intended to go on the road with you, the little open back uke.

I've dubbed these Stromberg Voisinet ukes as Style O, which I reckon makes some sense, since they ARE open. There seem to be three basic models:

1. This is the simple, open back 8” maple model with flame maple neck. Uniquely for S-V ukes, the headstock MOP inlay is a slotted circle in this model only. The above example, with the painted vellum, and the below example, were both Ebay finds; the Uke above moved in July for $114.50 and the below example, in similar condition, moved in November of 2010 for $91.99.

If you click on the group of photos here, you can get a better look at that slotted circle inlay unique to this model.

2. This brown-finished 8” uke (below) was bought for $60 by Pukulele Pete from Ukulele Underground at a flea market in Maine; why can't I ever find these flea markets? The original vellum was labeled “USS Case”, a destroyer that was present at Pearl Harbor; Pete believes that the ukulele may have been on board during the attack. Unlike the blond ukes above, this model has a more typical diamond headstock inlay.

The darker finish looks very nice - I'm a fan of stained finishes on banjo ukes.

Stromberg Voisinet made ukuleles and other instruments for various companies. I'm not fully clear on who offered the "Wizard" line of instruments, but Chicago-based department store Montgomery Ward is often identified as the seller. Either way, some "Wizards' are clearly William Lange products, and others are clearly Stromberg Voisinet.

A good example of Stromberg Voisinet-made "Wizard", is visible in this video on You Tube I'm including it because of its very close similarity to the above blond maple ukes. This instrument was owned by banjo uke seller, restorer and unmatched expert John T at John T's Banjo Ukes

As you can see in the video, it’s very similar to #1 above, with a maple pot and neck sporting signature S-V purfling around the pot. Also typical S-V headstock with black veneer facing and S-V slotted diamond inlay. Note that although this is an 8” pot, it only has 12 tension hooks instead of the 16 displayed on the examples above.

3. Finally, we come to the Style O Junior model - which as you might expect is a 7" pot model with 12 tension hooks.

This first example features a plain maple neck and pot, which - though not visible - has purfling, an ebony peghead face, and flame maple pot cap on back. This example sold on eBay for $104.00 in August of 2010. The example immediately below has been restored and altered, but its similar to 7” model at top. Flame maple neck and headstock are unique differences. The headstock design, which looks like a sticker, is actually an elaborate MOP inlay added by a luthier. Though that addition looks GHASTLY to me, my taste is clearly off since this uke moved for $245 on Ebay in October of 2010.

I wish these open back instruments were a bit more common as it would be good to get a sense of what was offered. Pukulele Pete's brown-finished open back only emerged last week, the first I've seen of that particular model. I'm watching what else emerges, but for now, there seem to be three basic styles, blond maple, brown-stained maple, and the junior 7" model. Plus that Wizard.

OK, enough time on the web for you. Next time - I'll delve into the Wizards and other jobbers, and until then, grab your open back uke and head to the beach already!

Friday, August 5, 2011

"The Rose"

An instrument that everyone who owns has dubbed "The Rose" this uke sits at the top of the line of Stromberg Voisinet banjo ukuleles. Before I get into this model, just note: I've added some photos of some of Slingerland's rarer models, the Maybell 023 and the 028, to an earlier post on some of these instruments.

Onto the Rose. That's probably not its real model name, but what else do you call something that looks like this? Still somewhat modest aside of that rose decal, The Rose is the most richly decorated S-V model, and has the most extensive resonator. Appears to be mahogany, neck is five-piece and white celluloid binding is present on resonator back edge. I'm always on the lookout for this particular model: it sounds great and looks great.

Here's a classic example of "The Rose", played by my friend, the VERY talented musician, performance artist and playwright Meghan McGeary. She says that it’s from 1930 and it was purchased from Misurgia in Brooklyn, NY. As in other examples, there’s no diamond headstock inlay.

And here's another shot, of that great decal.

Another “Rose” is in the collection of English banjo-uke wiz and great all-around musician Matthew J. Richards, who is a member of the George Formby Society and I believe keyboardist/musical director for the Society's Blackpool conventions. His is slightly different from the above example. It has the rose decal, the five-piece neck and the white binding on the resonator back edge, but also has pearloid (mother-of-toilet-seat) fretboard and peghead laminate, as well as white binding along the fretboard and neck. A lovely instrument, great sounding; see him playing the “Rose” on his You Tube channel

Here's some of the variation I keep prattling on about in Stromberg Voisinets. Same mahogany top-line model as above, but with pearloid fingerboard and head, white binding, rose! A birdseye maple inlay is here instead, a similar back decoration as you've seen previously on Style One models.

Finally, you will note that there's no "Stromberg Voisinet" logo or maker's mark anywhere on any of these ukes. Truly, I'd never seen one before this "Rose" hit Ebay last month, selling in the UK for the relatively modest equivalent of $260.00. As you can see - Tada! - a logo. This is the only SV logo I've seen of the 50 or so examples I've cataloged. I hope that another emerges. And as you can also see, there's a cat with some taste.

Next time, I hope to post some video. But until then, have a good weekend and keep strummin'

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

More Slingerland Banjo Ukes

After about a week in Los Angeles, where I got to meet one of my idols, the incredibly talented and equally generous Tony Trischka, I've decided I may have to attempt the five string and take a rest from my four-stringiness. Hey, Tony said, "You can do it - it's easy to learn." He's the kind of guy that you completely believe, so now you know who to blame when I start posting links to me flailing while frailing and blathering on about the unmatched sonic beauty of pre-war Gibson Flathead Mastertones.

Here is Tony playing a piece I enjoyed singing along with this weekend, his "Shameless Pandering Medley"

OK, so let's talk ukes, pronounced by me as "yuke," by the way, not "ooke"; my orientation is more vaudeville than the islands.

We were looking at Slingerland Maybells, and I have a few more to show you.

Here's the Outfit #30.

You'll notice that, despite the fancy mop inlay, it has a kind of standard Slingerland headstock that matches the ones seen on all models 024, 025, O28 and the resonator-backed 023. This isn't always true with the Outfit #30, which - as you can see in the catalog in my last post, has a very banjo-like headstock shape. The reason, I believe, is that some of these Outfit #30s were actually built for Slingerland by Liberty once Slingerland acquired the company. Here's a look at a Maybell built by Liberty: this page is from Dave Schenkman's incredibly helpful and definitive site, which you should check out if you haven't already. Also, please note the decal on the back of the resonator, which has been present on all the Outfit #30's I've seen, in addition to all the Maybell 023s I've seen.

Here's a Maybell model 20 from the early 30s identifiable by the script decal and metal dowel hardware, instead of the usual embossed or branded logo and biscuit shim on the dowel, which you see in models built in the 20s. This one, which I refurbished more than a year ago, is now in the hands of Dave, the Cloverdale Kid, Laurice. Hello, Dave. :)

Next time, I'll have something on the Stromberg Voisinet "Rose" model, one of which just moved on eBay in the UK. Until then, consider five strings...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Who plays banjo ukulele?

And now that I have your attention.... Yes, it's a naughty photo, perhaps not appropriate, but funny when you consider someone thought the humble banjo uke was a nice artistic touch that covered this woman's...modesty.

Also - If you're like me, and I'm sorry if you are, you noticed that this is in fact a Slingerland MayBell Model #20. And that brings us to the reason for the post. Dave, the Cloverdale Kid, has asked for a post about Slingerland Ukes, so here we go.

Here are two pages from an early 30's Catalog, with several different models. Other models, from the 20's, were discontinued by the 30s; more on those below.

Here, on the first page, we've got the 7" MayBells, the model 20, with an open back and 12 tension hooks; the model 65, with 12 tension hooks and an overlapping, open-front resonator; and the model 18, with a flat resonator back and 16 tension hooks.

Here's the next page of the catalog, with the two 8" BU models Slingerland offered; the model 24, which had 16 tension hooks and came in an open back or arch backed flush resonator style; and the outfit 30, which you can see is a fully flanged resonator uke, very handsome.

I've had the good fortune to see and play all of these models in person, and own the model 24 and model 20 for a few years.

Missing from this catalog are a number of variant models that appear to have been discontinued prior to the early 30’s. They are:

Model 28: This 7” pot model has sixteen head tension hooks and the neck and headstock associated with the 8” Model 24. The examples of this uke that I've seen are open-backed, but not definitively sure this didn’t also come in a flush resonator version, knowing Slingerland's penchant for offering both versions. Also, at one point, a twelve tension hook version was made of the model 28, also with a three piece neck and pinstriped heel cap, as seen in these photos.

Model 23 or “02 3” (Slingerland often put an "0" in front of their models designations, such as the "065," sometimes seen on the dowel of model 65s): a rare instrument, this 8” pot-model has an overlapping non-flanged resonator, which attaches via a single central screw in metal dowel attachment as in the model 65 pictured above. Otherwise, it looks exactly like a Model 24, but with an MOP star in headstock. And, as you'll see in the next post, the resonator looks very much like that of the Outfit #30, though without the flange or - in this case - the green purfling around the resonator's outer rim. I've never played this model or seen it in person, but it does look pretty good with that nice Slingerland decal on the back.

Model 25: I have no photos of this open back 8” pot model. With sixteen tension hooks, walnut three-piece neck and pot veneer, ebony fretboard, heel cap and peghead face, as well as an ebony pinstripe around the pot bottom and the heel, its a very handsome instrument. It has an MOP star and the typical style 24 fretboard markers, and looks like an upgrade of the standard model 24.

Unknown Model: 1930’s model with headstock decal script. Mahogany neck and pot, and walnut extended resonator with gold perloid resonator rim. 7” pot with mop head inlay, ebony head and fretboard. Looks like the MayBell model 65, except that there are sixteen tension hooks instead of the normal 12 and the addition of the wire armrest. Could be a factory model, a custom job, or a home made hybrid of the model 18 and the 65.

Finally, a couple of notes about the Outfit 30. I've seen several different versions of Slingerland's big resonator model uke and despite the fact that it fits a basic profile, there seems to be some variation in the instrument. I'll post the pictures I have of the 30 later, and hopefully by then, I'll have more shots of some instruments with variations to share with you.

Until then, happy strumming.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Style 1...continued

I promised, in my last post, to show more of the Style 1. I'm going to start off with a sequence that shows the restoration of a Style 1, which gives you a great sense of what to expect if and when you're cleaning your uke, changing the vellum, or making other adjustments.

Here's the sequence, showing the uke in its worn condition, with finish heavily checked, and the process of cleaning, polishing and staining the wood of the uke with a new, ebonized finish. Note a unique feature of this particular style 1: there is purfling not only on the pot and on the back of the resonator, but also around the rim of the resonator, which I've only seen in this particular individual uke, though again, it's clearly a factory option.

It's interesting to note that this Style 1 has a small tone ring, set directly into the outer top rim of the pot. This isn't a standard feature, as the three style ones I've been able to work on do not have them, so it may have been an option available through retail order. Here's the finished uke, once more, next to a birdseye maple Slingerland MayBell model 20 in mint condition.