Fairbanks/Vega Tu-Ba-Phone #9 5 String Banjo (1916)

Fairbanks/Vega  Tu-Ba-Phone #9 5 String Banjo  (1916)
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Item # 12196
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Fairbanks/Vega Tu-Ba-Phone #9 Model 5 String Banjo (1916), made in Boston, Mass., serial # 36192, shaded maple finish, laminated maple neck and rim, ebony fingerboard, hard shell case.

This banjo is a truly beautifully preserved well over 100 year old example of pretty much the most desired of all openback 5-strings: the Fairbanks/Vega Tu-Ba-Phone #9. While not the absolute pinnacle of the Fairbanks/Vega line, the #9 is generally considered the standard by which any similar instrument is judged, true for more than a century! This instrument is built on a just-over 11" diameter rim with a 27" scale neck, pretty much the favored pattern for openback banjos since. Its produces a magical sound that few other banjos, new or old, can match. While many builders have emulated these original 100+ year old Fairbanks designs over the last 50+ years, only a few have come close to really matching them.

The world-beating Fairbanks/Vega models were mostly the creations of David L. Day, arguably the single most important (if unsung) banjo designer of all time. His innovations set the pattern for what is now the traditional openback banjo and have been widely copied for decades, yet few modern banjo players even know his name. He left Vega in 1922, to Join Fred Bacon in another celebrated banjo company.

This banjo carries "Tu-Ba-Phone" and "No. 9" stamps on the dowel along with a deeply impressed serial number; the rim number matches as well. By most modern reckoning it dates to 1916, about 7 years after the model was announced. At this point the 5-string banjo was still king; the tenor and plectrum instruments that would dominate the 1920s were just starting their development. This No. 9 carries the transitional "Fairbanks banjo Made by the Vega Company" dowel stamp as used in the 1910's, use of the older "Fairbanks" name ended in 1922 in favor of the singular "Vega" brand.

By any name this is an exceptionally beautiful banjo, a feast for the eyes as well as the ears! The #9 was the second-highest grade cataloged Vega 5-string, with only the rare gold-plated Tu-Ba-Phone Deluxe above it. It features elaborate hand-engraved pearl inlay on the headstock, heelcap and bound fingerboard. The headstock face has an intricate scrolled pearl floral pattern while another engraved pearl design ornaments the headstock rear. The heel is elaborately carved in a floral pattern with a pearl-inlaid laminated ebony heelcap. These high-end Fairbanks banjos perfectly exemplify the elaborate Art Nouveau look of the pre-WWI gilded age.

The heavy laminate maple rim is equipped with Fairbanks' patented bracket band; the shoes are mounted to that, not drilled through the rim. The rim is capped with the "Tu-Ba-Phone" tone ring that is still a standard fitting today, 115 years since its invention. The bottom of the rim is bound with tortoise celluloid on both edges with elaborate marquetry along the bottom.

The tuners are gold friction pegs with genuine pearl buttons that appear original; many of these banjos have had their headstocks drilled out for larger geared tuners over the last century and it is relatively rare today to find one in its original state. The tailpiece is an old 5-string cammed No-Knot; it appears period but is unmarked.

This is an original 1910s 5-string instrument with matching numbers on the dowel and rim; many Tu-Ba-Phones found today are later conversions from 1920s 4-strings. This banjo is simply a wonderful example of one of Fairbanks/Vega's classic banjos with the full measure of that lovely Tu-Ba-Phone sound, the world standard to many old-time players. This is one instrument that instantly justifies its longstanding stellar reputation as one of the very finest banjos ever made.
Overall length is 36 7/8 in. (93.7 cm.), 11 1/16 in. (28.1 cm.) diameter head, and 2 5/8 in. (6.7 cm.) in depth, measured at side of rim. Scale length is 27 in. (686 mm.). Width of nut is 1 3/16 in. (30 mm.).

This lovely old banjo is simply superbly preserved, one of the nicest of these we have ever seen. While is has seen some use over the last 100+ years or so it appears to have been well cared for over the decades, remaining in largely superlative condition. The thin finish on the neck, rim and dowel appears all original showing only light wear and some micro-checking on the headstock rear. There is really not much play wear but some minor scattered dings, dents and rubs here and there. There is an odd double circle burn mark on the treble side of the dowel near the heel joint; we don't know the origin of this but it causes no problems.

The hardware appears all original to the instrument, or at least period. The closed-end hook and nut set is original and complete, showing some corrosion and plating loss to a number of the hooks. The rim hardware shows some minor corrosion in spots. The dowel has a mounting piece for a spin-on resonator in the center; there is no large hole drilled through the stick as with some of these systems, only a couple of tiny screw holes. The friction tuners have the original pearl buttons intact. The tailpiece is the correct period style cammed No-Knot.

The frets appear original, and show amazingly little wear. The bone nut appears to be later, or possible just reworked at some point; the 5th string nut is the same. The inlaid pearl markers are in truly superb condition, with the deep-cut engraving showing very little wear at all. The neck is very straight, as well, perfectly true well over a century on.

This banjo is set up with a Waverly FyberSkyn 2 head and vintage but later Grover Non-Tip bridge; it has a tone that will attract banjoists seeking the absolute best in an openback 5-string, and will continue to do so over the next century. This old #9 rings for days; these rarely turn up in this sort of condition anymore and it's hard to imagine a finer old-time banjo than this, both in look and sound. It resides in a modern tweed HSC. Overall Excellent Condition.