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, 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!


  1. Hi, I've also seen "Wizard" banjo ukes with one of the unmistakeable Slingerland headstock shapes.

    1. That's very interesting. I've never seen that before, but it makes perfect sense, as Wizards were clearly made/supplied by other manufacturers.

    2. Hello,
      Just curious about the first banjo listed with painted vellum. I am going to look at an identical one this weekend. I see a slight variation in the painting but not much. Is this painted by Stromberg or an artist? How do you know if they are suppose to be open back and not missing a resonator?

    3. Thanks SBEW for the info. Other Chicago-based companies offered painted or transfer equipped vellums, notable Regal and JR Stewart, so I think we can conclude S-V did this as well.

      The way to tell if it was built as an open-back model is easy. If there is a hole in the dowel, it should have a resonator. The hole, with a threaded brass cylinder inside, is where the single screw that held the resonator in place for both Tenor and Banjo Uke models would go. If there is no hole in the dowel, it's a real open back.

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