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.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Stromberg-Voisinet Tenor Banjos

There's something you notice in this ad from Stromberg-Voisinet - other than the fact that they were electrifying guitars and banjos (!) in 1929, and that's the fact that I've only ever seen these four types of instruments - guitars, parlor guitars/tenor guitars, tenor banjos and banjo ukuleles, but never seen an S-V wooden uke or mandolin. This, even though they started life as the Groeschel mandolin company at the turn of the 20th Century. If you're interested in how Henry Kuhrmeyer offered electric guitars and banjo ukes, read on at Vintage Guitar Magazine

This ad, which was originally sent to me by my friend Chris Jameson, prompted me to look for tenor banjos with the Stromberg earmarks and decorative features, including a three-lobed headstock, decorative pearloid, purfling, resonator decals, and a recessed resonator attachment, and they appear to be very common, and were likely a big seller for the company. Most interesting is that they're like big versions of the banjo ukes they produced.

For example, here's their tenor version of the "Rose". This brand, Howard, was sold by Wurlitzer, but clearly, Stromberg-Voisinet supplied the instruments for Howard; an example of a double-jobber.

Note the same russet-stained walnut, the rose decal, the same chrome recess that holds the attachment screw, and the five-piece neck, in common with the Rose banjo uke. The family lineage is pretty clear in these full-size tenors.

You'll also notice the floral/foliage designs on the metal ring around the pot and on the resonator and bezel ring look very much like the designs on the pot of the Stromberg-Voisinet Crocodile-skin ukuleles.

Also, notice that three-lobed headstock, which is a fairly consistent feature of S-V banjos.

You can also find, in the fretboard MOP marker, the S-V diamond logo.

When the company became Kay, they apparently continued to use the necks/headstocks,
hardware and
flanges that they had in stock, and then began to develop other headstocks and flanges, so you'll see these headlock and flange designs on Kay banjos from the 30s and even beyond. Here's a flange design common to both Kay and S-V productions.

Here's a Clarion - which uses the same lousy decal that we saw on the Clarion banjo uke - it's even affixed sloppily, just as we saw on the Clarion that Allen Harris had for sale some months back. Clearly, the folks at Clarion were more concerned with moving their instruments out the door quickly, but the name can't disguise the origin of the instrument: same headstock, same flange, same company.

These tuners, very simple and inexpensive looking, may have been fitted at Clarion's request. You'll notice that Grover geared tuners, including the excellent pancake tuners, are apparent on the other examples shown elsewhere in the entry.

Here's a version of the Rose decal again, and this Clarion almost looks like a cheaper version of the Rose made for Howard/Wurlitzer above - three-piece instead of five-piece neck - with a sunburst finish on the resonator.

Here are a few additional banjos, all show the trademark headstock and other S-V features.

Conqueror - not one I've seen before, but very nice inlay work on the headstock script.

As you'll see, its a tenor banjo version of the banjo uke Style 1 "Black Beauty". It even has the same kind of turned resonator.

Even though the pot on this banjo uke is chrome-clad, you'll see the Style 1 purfling still makes its way into the mix, but around the resonator outer edge.

Here's a Stromberg-Voisinet banjo sold under its own name - note the label from the inside of the pot, which offers instructions on how to use the S-V coordinator rod, which replaces the dowel seen on the other banjos in this entry. It's very similar to the coordinator rod patented by Gibson, as you can see in the second photo.

This one has an interesting resonator back decal.

Geared tuners, five-piece neck.

Below is a Stromberg-Voisinet with a Wilson Brothers decal in the resonator - just as we've seen before in this blog with the Wilson Brothers-labeled style one and style four ukes.

This banjo has the same resonator assembly and pot with chrome ring that we saw on the 7" Wizard banjo ukes.

Another unique resonator decal on this example.

Finally, I've thrown in some pictures of a Stromberg-Voisinet Key-Chord, a sort of push-button banjo from the 20's, built for the person who played guitar and didn't want to lean the fundamentals of tenor tuning. Oddly, it seems more difficult to get good at this instrument than it does to get good at a tenor, but hey, they must've sold quite a few of them to make them worth building. The mechanics of this instrument are interesting. I'd seen one deconstructed once...

Here's the panel of chord buttons. You depress the chord you want, and a template descends on the machinery of linkages, depressing the string and pressing it against the fretless fretboard. I've never played one, but there have been three on Ebay in the last two years, including one that never seems to move that's for sale right now. So you have a shot at it! :)

I realize there's nothing TRULY uke oriented here, but I couldn't resist showing the big brother of our little banjo ukes since the family resemblance is so strong - and the same situation of misidentification or no identification follows these particular S-V instruments as well.

OK - I realize this entry may feel a bit like your uncle's slides of his trip down Route 66, so next time - I'll be back on ukuleles and the blog will be a bit shorter. ;)

That's it for now. Until next time, keep on strumming'


  1. I am new to the uke and keep discovering all these wonderful websites devoted to the instrument. This is fascinating stuff and the photos are excellent

  2. Thanks, Tom. Glad you found the blog and liked it.

    The photos are mostly Ebay photos, but I crop them mercilessly so that you can see the details. :)

  3. Fantastic reading, John!

    Those were boom years, eh?



  4. I don't see how they did it, Chris, but I guess costs were lower, and I bet a higher percentage of people were making their own entertainment. Not many radios had been sold by then, and either you read, played cards, went to the movies, or played music.

  5. There's a Concertone Tenor Banjo at a local music store. It's got a perloid fretboard/headstock and in fairly rough shape. I asked them if it was for sale (It's on the salesfloor with no tags) and he said, in a very smug and smarmy fashion, "mmmm yea, that's no where near playable" Taken aback I just sort of left. What I should have said "okay, then how much is it, if it's not playable it should be cheap, right?". Music stores like that don't usually get my repeat business.

  6. :) There's a place down the street from me, Carmine St. Guitars, where there are nice, new instruments in the front, used and restored instruments toward the back, and then, there's the workshop beyond, all visible, and lots of wreck instruments waiting to be either restored or stripped for parts. Everytime I walk in and see an old uke I can restore, I ask how much, and the guy always says, $75. The exact opposite of your place. I wish I could give them more business, but you can only work on so many ukes. :)

  7. My father has The Keycord "Rose" one, he believes it was made in the 1930' there any way to find the value of the instrument or does anyone know?

  8. Value of all of these is determined very imperfectly. Basically, it goes to rarity, demand, and what the market shows. Right now, the tenor banjo market is depressed and you can get good top-make tenors in the hundreds.

    For the Keykord (I've been misspelling it!) even though its relatively uncommon, demand for it tends to be low. I don't hear or see anyone on the banjo forums wondering where to track one down.

    The last three on eBay, selling over the last year and a half, had two in good playable condition and one that needed to have it's mechanics fixed. The most recent didn't sell but the owner was asking $599 with a Buy it now and no auction, so that's not surprising. The one prior to that, which sold in 2010, went for about $390 and that was after three tries without bids or failures to make the reserve, and the one that wasn't working sold for around $350 with no reserve.

    So, depending on who's out there, if they're Stromberg/Kay collectors, and whether or not they see the auction or the post, I'm estimating $300-400. If you don't put a reserve on it, though, clearly it will go for less.

  9. Hello. I have a clarion with the pearl headstock as you have pictured but it says "clarion." it id mother of pearl all over. What model etc is this?

    1. Tom-

      Sounds interesting. Please post some photo links so I can get a look at it.


  10. I have an SV 4 string tenor. Having a hard time finding a repair shop near Vero Beach, Florida. Needs strings and pins. Maybe want to re chrome while I'm at it. Has original skin from 1930's. Was my grandfathers. Dad had it in his garage - was going to throw it away. Over my dead body! Any leads on a restoration co. in my area:

    1. Hi - sorry that I missed you question. Sadly, I have no ideas about folks in your area. I'd guess you have some good luthiers over in Orlando, but I don't know about over near you. Maybe Daytona? Be curious to see what you eventually did!

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  12. Hi- I just picked up a very old tenor banjo and am looking for info. The headstock decal is pretty much worn off, but the resonator decal is in very good shape, which lead me to your page on a google search. The headstock shape is very similar to the SV's you have posted here, I would like to send a couple of pics, if you might be able to help.

    1. Please do send pictures. If you can - please post here, if not, email me at

  13. Hey! I've recently decided to part with a KeyKord tenor banjo.. not unlike one you have pictured here. Just curious what demand is like or if you've kept up with the market. All the best!