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, 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'.