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 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'...

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.