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.

Monday, December 17, 2012

William Lange & Co., Part II

Just getting ready for two holiday performances this week; tonight (Monday) I'm playing uke and singing with Margaret Gianquinto for her "Old Fashioned Christmas" evening at ZirZamin, and on Friday, I'm playing with Patsy Monteleone at the Ukulele Cabaret at Jimmy's 43. There are a lot of Christmas tunes involved... as 'tis the season.

So, as much for me as anyone else, I need to cleanse my palate and talk about something that isn't Christmas related for a few minutes. Warning - this post is 'geekier' than normal...

Back in September, I wrote about the different lines offered by the New York City-based William Lange and Co.; Lange, Lange Solo, Banner Blue, White Swan, and Langstile. All of these lines, with the possible exception of the White Swan (which seems to have been limited to one or two models), seems to be complete lines of ukes, with modest flush-backed resonator models, open resonator and flanged resonator models topping the ranges.

But, Lange also made instruments for other manufacturers, notably Bruno NY and Vernon for Bruno, Henry Stadlmair's Avalon, Montgomery-Ward's Concertone, Wizard, Sears's Supertone, Blue Boy, El Beco, Tourraine, and others. Looking at a few, you'll see some definite Lange signature marks.

Avalon - Henry Stadlmair & Co. at 117-117 East 23rd Street was founded as an importer of foreign-made instruments and a retailer of domestic-made instruments. They specialized in guitars, Weissenborn Hawaiian guitars and other stringed instruments, and eventually, when the uke craze hit, they started selling ukes and banjo ukuleles under the name "Avalon" - one of which is at the top of this entry.

Some of these were made by Slingerland and perhaps others, but the vast majority of those you'll see with this imprint are Lange-made instruments.

Basic, open-backed models, they do appear in some nice finishes for an inexpensive instrument, with green and aquamarine two-tone finishes often appearing, besides the more common blond and black. They follow a very basic Lange design seen used by other retailers and brands.

P'MICO - the "Progressive Musical Instrument Company of NY" P'MICO didn't make their own instruments. Lange made this one for the company, which was their May Singhi Breen signature model. Note it's nearly identical to the Avalon above and the Bruno below; the difference is that it has a closed back with grommeted "Portholes" on the sides of the pot...

Bruno NY - Bruno, based at 351 4th Avenue in New York City, probably never made any banjo ukuleles; every time I've seen one with the Bruno stamp on it, it's clearly one that's been made by another manufacturer. Their Maxitone line are fun to play, and with their metal pots, they're pretty punchy.

Many of these seem to have been made by Chicago-based Richter and Co., though its possible that some which show headstock and pot variations come from other manufacturers. However, these photos of "Vernon", "Bruno", "Avalon" and "P'mico" headstocks side by side show the clear lineage of these brands as Lange-made.

Also, note the identical neck and pot construction between the models, very similar to other ukes Lange built for other manufacturers, as you can see in the Avalons and Brunos above. You'll also notice that all of the ukes on this page, from Avalon above to Wizard below all have identical hardware in the pot, as well as shoes and hooks. All have 16 tension hooks.

Vernon - a line offered by Bruno NY, the Vernon is a virtually identical instrument to the Bruno, but it's more of a budget model, with no inlays and the nameplate actually tacked onto the headstock.

Wizard - Some bloggers and collectors believe this is a Lange-made design. There are a good number of these out there. While I'm not 100% sure these photos actually show a Lange-made instrument, I believe they do.

There's good reason to to think that it is a Lange. The Wizard model depicted above has no sound holes and an open back. But, the model in the multiple photo clearly has soundholes and it resembles the design of the P'mico above with side grommeted soundholes and a closed back. While the headstock isn't seen on other Langes the way the Avalon/Bruno NY headstock is, my vote is still for these being Langes. The only fly in the ointment is the slotted diamond frequently seen on Stromberg-Voisinet headstocks, but then again, you also see that diamond in the more ornate Lange-made fretboards, so it doesn't bother me that much. I agree that these ukes are Langes.

And here's a uke that Simon Worthy put forward in our last entry, identified by the eBay seller as a Lange..

I didn't believe this was a Lange, with that slotted bezel ring and odd headstock. Were there designs put forward by Lange that have no relation to any other models or lines of Lange-made ukuleles?

Also - the resonator being attached by a button in the center back just doesn't seem to match what we see on every other Lange. The fretboard looks a bit like a White Swan's, but I felt pretty good that this wasn't a Lange.

Then Simon showed me this one. ID'd by the website as a Lange, I felt was VERY unlike any Lange I'd seen. Look at all that Pearloid and the shape of the resonator.

Odd. But it is similar in the bezel ring to the one above, as you can see clearly here...

And then, there is the clincher - the name "Lange" inlaid in the headstock - crudely, but distinctly. But what's with THIS headstock. Different from the one above and all others...

The whole thing was a puzzle and Simon and I have been going back and forth on this. Until now, I've remained unconvinced that this ukulele is a Lange. And then I found this one yesterday...

This uke has the same strange, externally slotted bezel ring, which I'd never seen before, but which is present on both of the above examples. Also, the headstock is more like that we've seen on other Langes, but still not a standard Lange form.

But, this last uke - with a very similar slotted bezel ring and pot, seems to lend weight to the idea that Lange made some very different, one-off or limited run instruments.

The inlaid Wm. Lange in the headstock certainly seems to lay this one to rest.

And finally, a few more Lange-made ukes:

Blue Boy - Actually not an instrument manufactured on contract, but made by Lange as a Paramount sub-brand. Blue Boys have some variation in models, and can be resonator backed or open-backed, as in these photos.

The uke in this YouTube video is missing its resonator, but you can see the attachment points.

Here's an Orpheum deluxe model...

And here's three shots of a "Super Paramount"...An AMAZING presentation model, which you can see on the headstock was a gift to the "King of Jazz" Paul Whiteman. That's his logo on the headstock; he was one of the few bandleaders to have a logo those days... And what do we find on the bezel - the clincher - the externally slotted bezel ring seen in the above one-off Lange models. OK, I'm happy to admit being wrong when the weight of evidence is so overwhelming. :)

In conclusion: Langes are mostly readily identifiable, fitting into several standard headstock shapes and pot designs, until they don't. The Orpheums, Paramounts, and the occasional odd Langes display an amazing variety and artistic flair, all with a high-level of craftsmanship. If you can find one in good condition - which isn't so often, sadly as they mostly offered low-to-mid-range, reasonably priced instruments, you may want to grab it. If you find one of their higher end ukes and you can afford what the seller is asking, pounce.

I want to thank both the Banjo Ukulele Haven and the comprehensive German site Banjoworld for many of the photos I used in this post. They are great sites that provide a wealth of information and you should go visit them.

That's all for now. If you got this far, you deserve a holiday gift. As I find additional examples of Lange-made ukes, I'll post them.

Until then, keep on strummin'...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Weathering The Last Two Months...

Since I last posted, I've had two freelance contracts to finish up, a hurricane that did this to my next-door neighbor's house (another neighbor's house should be on the right, but it's now sadly in the Atlantic Ocean), a week-long blackout, a nor'easter, Halloween cancelled, Thanksgiving, a new cabaret premiere, and several job interviews. For someone without an official job, I'm a busy guy...

Because of that, I've been quiet here since September. I have a second post on William Lange & Co. ukuleles yet to finish, but until then, here's three recordings

The first is an impromptu duet of a favorite song of mine. This was played by my buddy Ben Mealer and me back in October: "If I Had You"

The second and third were made two weeks ago by Daro Behroozi, with Daro on clarinet, Brad Lail on washboard and me on uke and vocal. As a trio, we don't have a name, but we recorded seven tunes on one afternoon, and it was a great deal of fun to play with these great musicians. I hope that you enjoy it: "I'm Confessin' That I Love You" and also I Can't Give You Anything But Love.

Until next time...

Saturday, September 1, 2012

New York's William Lange and Co.

Big three-day Labor Day weekend here allows me a little time to report on William Lange and Co. banjo ukuleles. This company, which was located in Manhattan in a few locations (it outgrew it's home several times) started life as Rettburg and Lange and by 1897, they purchased the Buckbee Banjo Company and specialized in banjos. By 1920, they had become William Lange & Co. and had moved to a factory located at 225 East 24th Street here in New York City.

Lange was justly famous for creating the Orpheum and Paramount lines of banjos and other top-quality instruments. I was lucky enough to get to play two Paramount Style L resonator-backed guitars in the early 1980's at Eric Schoenberg's great shop in Cambridge - the Music Emporium. These were built for Paramount by Martin as flat-topped guitars with a large, wood-flanged and grommeted resonator back. They were crisp sounding, loud and clean, a real treat to play.

I believe that Paramount did not make many five-string banjos, and the fact that there are a more than a few conversions floating around shows how highly valued they are for their workmanship and ornament. As a dedicated four-string player, I can't say I'm in any way enthusiastic about five-string conversions.

So - onto Lange's banjo ukuleles. Unlike most manufacturers which specialized in one or two market segments, Lange offered everything from budget instruments to the very highest quality ukes. Like many other manufacturers, they created their own lines of instruments and also built for other brands. Let's start with their own model lines: Lange, Langstile, Banner Blue, White Swan and Paramount.

Lange banjo ukes have some variation, but the basic model is pictured here. Stained walnut with an open, non-flanged, ivroid-bound resonator, featuring a back with painted rings. The pot has a chrome ring brace around the middle, and the 16 hexagonical shoes and tension hooks are fixed through this brace.

Small, brass, heart inlays dot the fretboard. The Lange uke headstock looks very much like their banjo headstocks. They're well-built, sturdy, slightly heavy instruments, very solidly made.

A variation on the basic Lange is the Lange Solo.

The distinctive difference in the Lange Solo is a large, flanged version of the regular lange resonator, with a ring purfling that runs along the outer circumference of the resonator body.

The ukulele features 14 tension hooks, two less than the Lange model.
The resonator flange - with large, double-x-shaped cutouts - is also unique among Langes.

The uke's headstock follows the basic Lange pattern, but the MOP inlay with the extensive fleur de lys and the Solo badge, in addition to the varaition on the fretboard inlays - they're MOP dots, makes the instrument distinct from a basic Lange. By appearance, the solo looks to be a cut above that instrument.

The Langstile seems to have been conceived as a cut above these two Langes and it is a very different design. The non-flanged resonator fits snugly - and the back-edge is bound in metal, uniquely among banjo ukes. Another model Langstile has a completely chromed resonator. Instead of 16 tension hooks, the Langstile features 24, and sports really elegant MOP fretboard and headstock inlay. The scale length is also nearly two inches longer than those on basic Langes and the Lange Solo, making Langstiles true 'longscale' ukes. Now, players are fond of calling these longscale ukes 'tenor' ukuleles, but they were never called that at the time and their tone is not very different from a plain old soprano ukulele. They are simply longer-scale instruments with potentially greater range, depending on the number of frets. And, the headstock is completely different from the Langes above, and the Banner Blue below, but it matches the White Swan uke, also seen below.

Paramount banjo ukes range from this basic model, which looks very much like a Lange with slightly more ornamentation, to a more ornate version.
This ukulele is different from other Langes in it's woodwork. Sandwiched heel, two triple pinstripes around the pot, a five-piece neck - all made out of contrasting woods which look like walnut, ebony and holly (or ivroid - its hard to say) and ivroid double-binding on the fretboard edges, this Paramount is definitely more ornate than the usual Lange.

But, with only 12 tension hooks and shoes (the lowest number offered on Lange products), and the basic, flush-backed resonator, this uke strikes me as disappointingly modest to be branded "Paramount". However, the more ornate version of Paramount banjo uke that I've seen makes up for this impression by featuring a large resonator and pearloid headstock. If only I had a photo to share with you.

Here's a White Swan headstock shot from Jake at the Wildwood Flower's great website. Also, a good group of photos of the White Swan from our friend David's great website, "The Banjo Ukulele Haven" White Swan As you can see, the White Swan follows the basic Lange/Paramount ukulele pattern of a pot with a chrome band that serves as the anchor point for the shoe and tension hook assembly. You can also see the typical open, non-flanged resonator common to several other Lange instruments. The difference is that the White Swan is overall painted white and it has intricate, twinned-swan mop inlays up and down the fretboard. Truly unique and distinctive looking, but I've never seen one in person.

Finally, here's an add for the Banner Blue. These come up for sale with some frequency, and, over time, the design changed drastically. It's Lange's most schizophrenic model.

Here's a Banner Blue from the "Banjo Ukulele Haven" site that looks just like a plain old Lange: clear finish, similar headstock, heart-shaped brass fretboard markers, 16 hooks and shoes, and a non-flanged overlapping resonator, with the typical Lange ring design on the back. Banner Blue is on the headstock in blue script - the only thing blue about it.

Here's one that's frequently seen - the 16-tension-hooked pot is chromed metal, with cutouts, in addition to a flush wood resonator back with the typical Lange rings.
Despite the headstock and ornamentation features it shares with other Langes, this is essentially a totally different instrument from the previous model. Which came first? It's hard to say. Period ads can help explain it, but so far, I haven't found anything that sheds light on this question.

Here's another - very different - Banner Blue. This one has with a pot without the chrome ring brace - and the flanged resonator has unique star-shaped cutouts.

The overall painting scheme described for the White Swan is evident here as well - only this time, it's black or dark blue, depending on the example you see. When in the order of design did this model fall? I have no idea. With only 12 tension hooks, is it possible this is a junior model in the Banner Blue line, or just a variation in the model offering?

Finally, here's a Banner Blue with a chrome flanged resonator with circular cut-outs, 16 tension hooks AND a pearloid fretboard and headstock. I've seen multiple examples of all of the above models, but only one of this single, pearloid-decked model.

That's it for now. We'll revisit Lange next time and run through those instruments made for other companies, such as Stadlmeier, Bruno, and others.

Until then, have a great Labor Day and keep on strummin'.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Update on Stromberg-Voisinet Auctions

August is my favorite month of the year. The horrible heat and humidity of July are over, and even though the days are getting noticeably shorter, the nights are cool and drier, and I take the banjo ukes out again.

And speaking of banjo ukes, an auction just ended on eBay this week that's notable because it's the highest price I've yet logged for a Stromberg-Voisinet ukulele. This "Buster Brown" is the less ornate model, as you can see - no perloid, no fretboard binding and the simpler resonator back. As you can also see, some alteration has been made to the dowel, but for what purpose I can't imagine.

This instrument just sold at the remarkable price of $600 USD. The last "Buster Brown" I saw that even approached this was one that moved earlier this year for $500 USD. Prior to that, all prices have been in the $250 to $400 range.

"New" Models
There has been a recent flurry of Stromberg-Voisinets offered at online auction, and a few stand out. First, one "Rose" model has been offered six times over the last three months. It's missing its resonator and has had a bad head repair - attaching the head to the rim with shoe goo or similar. This will be fairly difficult to sell, but that hasn't stopped the owner from asking for $299 initially and then dropping to $199.

It is still available as of writing. I post this because instruments with missing resonators come up fairly frequently, and occasionally, we see S-V ukes with split resonators. It appears to be an uncommon, but definite flaw; resonators were made in two or three pieces, and occasionally, the glue dries out or stress cracks the instrument right along the join lines.

Here are the two instruments worth noting from the last couple of months. Both are completely new models to me.

The first is the "Glee Club" banjo ukulele - according to the seller, it was offered by Bruno, NY. By the 20's Bruno wasn't actually making any banjo ukuleles; they jobbed out their work to several companies, including Lange in New York and Richter in Chicago. Apparently, they also commissioned instruments from Stromberg-Voisinet.

The seller posted this excerpt from a Bruno ad: "It has 8-inch heavy laminated maple shell (9/16" thick) in dark mahogany finish with fancy color wood inlaid strip around rim, 16 nickel-plated brackets, heavy U grooved nickelplated straining hoop, three-piece neck in dark mahogany finish, headpiece inlaid with fancy pearl ornament and name "Glee Club" in imitation ivory.

"Ebonized fingerboard with four pearl position dots, patented nickel-plated friction pegs with white buttons, heavy neck brace. Instrument fitted with quick-detachable convex extension resonator in dark mahogany finish with handsome inlaid ring of fancy colored woods, top edge of wood inlay and celluloid bound, Grover Presto nickel-plated tailpiece."

Interesting, as neither the illustration of the instrument nor the real instrument match the ad description exactly. There are only 12 brackets - nor is there a Grover 'Presto" anywhere in evidence - instead, it's the usual Stromberg-Voisinet shop choice - known now as the 'economy' tailpiece.

Despite the ad being at odds with reality, that inlay on the rim of the resonator is unique, and this headstock is the one that S-V seems to have reserved for their 7" pot models - along with that badge style that we've seen on Wizards. This example sold for $195, a very good price considering condition and rarity. It's exciting for me to have uncovered a new model at this point.

Here's another. An open-back model, blond with a dark double pinstripe - an 8" pot with 12 brackets, dark stained headstock and ebonized fretboard. It's missing any of the inlaid purfling all other S-V open backs we've seen so far have had. It's also the only 8" open back we've seen with 12 tension hooks.

OK, it's pretty basic - not a model we've seen before when I posted this entry on S-V open backs. The seller of this one has been asking $399 USD for weeks. But, with a large missing section of pot cap, $75 is closer to the mark - $150 with a nice vintage soft shell case the seller is also offering.

By now, you may be asking - hey, what's with all the steel strings on these ukes? I've been wondering the same thing. Ghastly, eh?

Anyway, that's what's new for this week. Next time, back to cataloging the NY manufacturers. Lange is next on the agenda, one of the most prolific manufacturers with a dizzying array of styles, we'll break Lange down into two entries, just so you don't get bored out of your gourds. :D

Until then, keep on strumming'...