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, June 29, 2011

Collecting Information on Stromberg Voisinet Ukuleles

I’ve collected images of all the different types of Stromberg-Voisinet ukuleles that I’ve been able to find. Since there’s no S-V catalogue online anywhere, I’ll try to see if model types emerge from the various images I’m able to amass. I’m breaking the types down into smaller models with 7” pots and 12 head tension hooks, and the larger 8” models with 16 or 12 tension hooks.

The ukuleles are remarkably consistent in features, with the exception of obvious optional choices. Headstocks are all the same shape, and while inlays are not present in every case, most appear based on a slotted diamond. MOP fret markers usually run on frets 5,7,10 and 12. All pots have a laminated pot cap. Models were made of maple (often ebonized), flame maple, mahogany or walnut. Resonators are sometimes made with inlaid or multiple types of wood veneer. Walnut construction and birdseye maple inserts appear on the fancier resonators. All are attached with a single screw in a chromed central recess on the resonator back, except for some examples of the 12” Wizard, which lack the recess.

Resonators fall into six basic types:

1. non-flanged arch-back with a shallow lip;
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2. A non-flanged flat back with a deeper lip and binding;

3. A turned and beaded version of Style 1.;

4. A flanged version of style 1. with a deeper lip and a chrome flange with a scalloped, open edge;

5. A flatter, flanged resonator with circular holes, which was featured on the Buster Brown model;

6. And finally, a deeper, fully-flanged resonator with binding and ‘hard candy’ cutouts, and either a rose decal or multi-piece/inlaid back.

An inlaid checkerboard purfling is consistently used when there is pot decoration. Overall, S-V instruments are understated though handsome.

Please note that while I assign resonator type numbers from 0 (for open-backed model) to 6, these terms are my own to differentiate between the Stromberg Voisinet examples that exist. Because of the lack of catalogue or markings on the models, we don’t know what each model was called, so I'll be offering names that players and collectors may be using. My designations are there simply to keep track of the various models offered and should not be taken as official. At some point, perhaps a Kay historian or a relative of a Stromberg Voisinet craftsman may come forward to shed light on these wonderful instruments, but in the meantime, my imperfect system helps me and I hope that it helps you.

Model styles show small variation within type, but retain a set of distinct characteristics in common. Though there seems to be a plethora of models out there, within model style they are – again – remarkably consistent.

Right now, after more than a year of cataloging types, I find there are 12 distinct model styles. Ten models were built by Stromberg Voisinet for sale by themselves and occasionally by other companies (Montgomery Ward Concertone, Wizard and Clarion). Two models – the Wizard/Concertone 7” chrome resonator model and the Wizard 8” 12 tensioner Buster Brown variant – so far, appear to have been offered by other companies exclusively and not by Stromberg Voisinet, but will be included for completeness in future posts.

Hello - and first post on Stromberg Voisinets

Hello and welcome. Just what the world needs: another blog. And - it's also another blog about ukuleles. Well, I, like you, haven't got time to read these things, so my aim here is to make this blog as useful as possible. I'm interested in banjo ukuleles, but I'm almost obsessed in collecting information on Stromberg Voisinet banjo ukes. I've had three of these instruments over time, and find that there's a bit of a mystery to them.

The company only existed under the Stromberg Voisinet title for about 11 years, and it's general manager - Henry "Kay" Kuhrmeyer - bought the company and changed its name to Kay in 1931. In the face of post depression-era markets, Kay also wisely changed the firm's design and production philosophy, and produced larger numbers of cheaper instruments. This was highly successful for Kay, but it meant that the gems they produced - like Keychord tenor and parlor guitars, as well as their fancy little banjo ukuleles - disappeared and became collectors' items.

On top of all this - there seems to be NO catalog of produced instruments, so all information on Stromberg Voisinet and the instruments they produced comes from lore that's passed from player to player, from collector to collector. That, and just looking at all of the instruments one can.

And so, taking that empirical approach, I'm going to post the information I've got on Stromberg Voisinet banjo ukulele, with any background that I can find. I may also post a few songs or videos, just so it isn't all poor archeology work. ;)