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.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Oscar Schmidt Ukes, Old and New

Well, I mentioned that I'd quit my job, and naturally, you would think I might have more time to post, but you'd be wrong. I have three clients, added about a month ago, and I'm back to a full work schedule. Ah, well. Happy to be busy with clients I really like.

This post is going to be a look at Oscar Schmidt - the defunct "real" one and the current "fake" one.

I feel it's kind of important to do this because Oscar Schmidt was a company that introduced hundreds of thousands of Americans to music. They built cheap, durable instruments including autoharps, guitars, ukes and banjo ukes under the brand names of Stella, La Scala and Sovereign, and built no-names for several department stores and
music stores. Like many others in the 20s and 30s, Doc Watson received a Stella as his first guitar. But Oscar Schmidt went bankrupt, like many firms, in the 30s. They sold off their Stella, Sovereign and La Scala lines in 1939 to Harmony, which continued to sell Stellas door-to-door until 1965, but Oscar Schmidt had ceased to be long before that. Gone.

So, why is there still a company called Oscar Schmidt out there? Caveat Emptor. DO Not confuse the Oscar Schmidt that operated out of Jersey City with the current manufacturer of the same name: The fact is, the name, lying unused, was picked up by US Music Corporation, and there are now all kinds of Schmidt ukuleles out there, all of them new, many of them quite good, but none of them having ANYTHING to do with the old firm.
The fact that their website implies that the company founded in 1871 is the same as the current firm should give you a lesson in "Classic Brand Marketing". Look at the new Pabst Blue Ribbon (not the same company as the old one, just the same trademark), or Gretsch guitars and ukuleles (a sub-brand of Fender, and not the same as the original firm out of Brooklyn, NY). Both brands died out decades ago and then, were bought up or taken over by other firms so they could acquire a brand with a ready-made reputation. It's all about a marketing short-cut, and it works. I don't know how many times I've had a knowledgeable musician tell me about how Oscar Schmidt ukes have a great heritage because their shop has been in operation since 1871. Not. remotely. true.

OK, enough rant. What are the earmarks of Schmidt banjo ukes? They're pretty recognizable.

Headstock - headstocks are like fingerprints - and Schmidt's was a three-pointed headstock similar to the one that Martin has always used on their ukes.

Neck and heel - Schmidt's have a very distinctive square heel. No one else did this, to my knowledge. This is a great indicator you've got a Schmidt banjo uke. Where the headstock and neck meet, the carving forms a letter 'v' with curved sides. MOP markers are on the fifth, seventh and tenth frets.

Pot - depending on the model, Schmidt's pots vary in features, but the construction is almost always light and on the thin side. In the very cheapest of Stellas and Schmidts - those with only eight tension hooks, that pot laminate is about a third of an inch in thickness and reinforced with two chrome bands.
Very light - and you'll notice, often no longer circular after 80 years of being under tension. On Sovereigns, when clear-finished, the thicker pot has two dark double pinstripes and a chrome tone ring that wraps over the top of the pot and halfway down the side - very similar to a Bacon Silver Bell. You can find a Sovereign in the second and third photos from the top in this post. Sovereigns and the better model Stellas have 12 tension hooks. All Schmidts have basic hex-shaped shoes.

Finish - variable, but distinctive. Schmidt commonly used crackle finish, which was a fairly unique choice, as pictured in this Sovreign here. They also used clear finishes commonly, and frequently used paint. Russet red is very common, but so is black, with green and blue being rare, but wonderfully bright. Pearloid is uncommon, but is seen on the fretboard sometimes and rarely on the headstock.

Resonators - not that common, but when present, they are open resonators without a flange. On resonator models, Schmidt used a unique circular design on the back - pictured here and on the Green model below.

Dowel - on Stellas and Sovereigns, often the brand is cold-stamped into the dowel (as you can see in the third photo in this post), but not always. And on Schmidt no-names, there's...well, no name. I have never seen a La Scala, but one assumes that they were likely branded on the dowel, as well as the headstock.

Often, you'll see the brand-name Stella embossed into the headstock and painted. Sometimes, you'll see the brand-name, Sovereign, on a headstock plate. What you will NEVER see is the name Oscar Schmidt on the headstock. They never branded their instruments with the firm's name.

How are Schmidts to play? I've only played one, the thin pot, banded model. Bottom line, this one was not great. The neck was slightly twisted and the pot was out of circular, and it was poorly set up with very high action. I long to play one that's in good shape or well restored. I had a Stella guitar years ago and, though clearly not a Martin, it had a great feel and distinctive twangy tone to it and was a joy to play. I expect one of the instruments that you see here, especially this "Emerald City" belonging to Jake at the Wildwood Flower, must be a lot of fun to play.

That's all for now, as it's getting late. Until next time...keep on strumming.


  1. Great post, John! I've never actually seen one in the flesh.

  2. Very interesting, informative - another great post! Thanks! And I'm so glad to hear you're back up to speed on the work!

  3. Thanks, Lesley, and thank you, Chris. Despite not being a great instrument, it was that Stella that got me thinking four years ago that I wanted to get back into banjo ukes; I hadn't played one since 1981.

  4. Dear John B,

    Hard guy to get in touch with. Probably cuz you're in your car, waiting to move it!! Please contact me at I have a question about After You get What you Want.....Thanks so much. You are a phenom!
    p.s. Is the photo from Agnes of God?

  5. My grandfather made instruments for Oscar Schmidt in Sicily and then in New Jersey, for years. I recently inherited one of the Stella banjo ukes that he made. I am thrilled to see the discussions about these old timey instruments. I treasure this creation of my grandpa.