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American Banjo Makers

The history of this well regarded Boston company starts with two separate companies. The actual Vega Company was formed in 1889 in Boston, Massachusetts by Julius and Carl Nelson with John Swenson and John Pahn as the skilled craftsmen making guitars and later mandolins on a small scale.



Albert Conant Fairbanks, a player and maker started making simple inexpensive 5-string banjos in 1875.

He was born in 1852 in Sterling, Massachusetts and in 1880 he was living in Chelsea, Suffolk, Massachusetts with his wife Emma and son Curtis after whom one of his banjos was later named (The Curtis Electric).

Fairbanks and Cole

In 1880 A C Fairbanks joined forces with William A. Cole, a banjo player and teacher, for a partnership that was to last for another 10 years. William A E Cole, born in Vermont in 1854 was a music teacher, and his brother Frank was a cabinet maker. There were two younger sons and two daughter in the Cole household, but William and Frank are best known in the banjo world. The company was Fairbanks & Cole. The models produced during this partnership were the Imperial, Expert and Clipper as higher grade instruments, and Class A (with 9 grades of finish), Standard, Champion and Acme as cheaper grades. The Clipper was later dropped from the range as too expensive

In 1883 David L. Day joined the company as an errand boy, and despite such humble beginnings, rose to become General Manager and is widely regarded as the one responsible for the successful design range of Fairbanks and Cole, Fairbanks and Vega banjos. David Day was born in 1865 in New Hampshire, although his father was born in Surinam, and was a porter in a carpet store. In 1880, they were living in Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts. It is likely that at 18, his first job was with Fairbanks. How he acquired a mastery of banjos is not known, but he would have learnt a lot from both Fairbanks and Cole.

After a disagreement with Cole, Fairbanks continued on his own as A.C.Fairbanks and Company in 1890 with Day staying as manager. Some time during the period 1890 to 1895, the Electric tone ring was designed, probably by Day rather than Fairbanks although Fairbanks had the patent. The range of banjos was Electric, Curtis Electric, Imperial Electric, Columbian, Senator, Special and Regent. Cole also went solo, producing his own banjos and the Eclipse tone ring. Fairbanks left the company in 1896. His name continued on the banjos, but Fairbanks was no longer part of the company. The company was run by David Cummings and Frank Lodge with Day as General Manager. In 1901, the Whyte-Laydie was introduced. It was an evolution of the Electric sharing the same tone ring and was a new banjo for a new century. The wood was unstained maple where all the other banjos were stained dark as was the fashion, and this gave it its name. It was available as No. 2 and No. 7 with light or heavy ornamentation.

Back to Vega

The Vega instruments were highly regarded, and with success came the inevitablity of moving to bigger premises which the firm did in 1898. At this point they started wholesaling instruments besides those that they manufactured. Vega remained in these premises (which were the old Standard Band Instrument Co. at 62 Sudbury St.) until a further expansion in 1917 when they moved to their more famous address - 155 Columbus Ave.

Back to Fairbanks

In 1904, a fire razed the A.C.Fairbanks & Co building to the ground and the manufacturing rights were sold to the Vega Company. They started manufacturing and selling banjos under the A.C.Fairbanks label to add to their range of instruments.

Back to Vega

For a while, Vega sold banjos under both the Vega and Fairbanks brands i.e. two lines sometimes converging. In 1908, the famous Fairbanks Whyte-Laydie was re-designed by David Day (always experimenting with innovations he inverted the scalloped tone ting) and in 1909, the equally famous Tub-a-phone tone ring and banjo was produced originally as a 5-string or plectrum. Tub-a-phones were available as No.3 and No.9 with light or heavy ornamentation. In 1910, Vega were marketing banjos as 'FAIRBANKS BANJO, MADE BY THE VEGA COMPANY BOSTON MASS.' but on October 10, 1919 Fairbanks died and shortly after they dropped his name from the stamp. Banjos were simply stamped 'The Vega Company' From 1913, the firm started using style designations instead of names:













simple brass rod tone ring


5 String




Mandolin Banjo






Little Wonder tone ring












Whyte Laydie tone ring






Mandolin Banjo






Tu-ba-phone tone ring










Mandolin Banjo


It would have been around this time that Tenor Banjos first appeared, as the Tango craze hit America between 1910 and 1914. Fairbanks-Vega tenors tend to be 16 or 17 fret short scale open back versions of the 5-string range.

David Day left the Vega Company in 1922 to work for the Bacon Banjo Co. which later became Bacon and Day. After Day left in 1922, Vega redesigned their range mostly as the Vegaphone and (the new) Vegavox range. The Vegaphone was available (in order of ornamentation and cost) as the Professional, Artist and Deluxe. As Vega redesigned the range, the tenors became a little longer at 19 frets and acquired a flanged resonator.

From 1949, Vega concentrated on Guitars and had already produced the Electrovox electric guitar in the early 1930s together with a pedal volume control. It is said that the compay produced over 40,000 guitars during the 1930s. Other models followed in the 1940s - the Duo-Tron and Supertron.

Manufacture continued up to 1970, when the company was sold to the Martin Company of Nazareth PA who seem to have retained the name and manufactured banjos (including the Vegavox) for most of the decade and of course dropped the guitar side. In 1979 it changed hands again to the Galaxy Trading Company of South Korea. Deering Banjos purchased the name and have been making modern versions of some of the Vega range since the mid-80s.


Courtesy of Banjolin

banjolin June 12, 2008