1940s Vega Commander 8-String Lap Steel

Update 2019: I've added new pictures, a soundclip, and any necessary new information to this blog post. The owner never wound-up learning how to play 8-string, so it's now for sale.

This lap steel is ultra cool. My friend Rob from town up here started buzzing-over late-night emails about his quest to find an 8-string lap steel. That raised my eyebrows! He thought about plopping down dough on this and that and we pinged ideas back-and-forth. I found this hunk of modified solid body (it was originally a 6-string, like a 1950s variant I worked on a while back) on Reverb.com and pointed it out to him. A purchase later and a couple weeks travel and it was on my doorstep, with its new owner Rob in-hand.

Well -- the old modifications made to turn it into an 8-string were rather crude. The original pickup was savaged by a couple of extra "polepieces" shoved into it, the wiring was shot, and the original bridge/tail unit was long-gone and replaced with a homemade one with questionable saddles and mounting. Two "antennae" tuners graced the headstock mounted with portions of them under the other tuners. It was a mess -- but a repairable one!

Work included: making a new saddle and tidying-up the homemade bridge-block, installing a new Fender-style wiring harness, and waiting for a Tonerider TRJ1 jazz bass pickup to arrive before patching it in. The cavities are now shielded, the string spacing is rather decent, and most of all it sounds classic. Unsurprisingly, the pickup and harness choice means it sounds like a Fender Stringmaster -- which is a healthy outcome! I didn't play too well in the video clip but let's just say it's crisp, rich, and crazily-defined in tone. With a touch of reverb it has that angel-chime stuff going on. He's got it tuned to C6 tuning which means ACEGACEG low to high, in this case -- a tuning I'm not familiar with except for the fact that it's the same notes as a uke's open strings.

Scale length: 22 7/8"
String spacing at nut: 2"
String spacing at bridge: 2 9/16"
Body length overall: 31"
Side depth of main body: 1 7/8"
Fingerboard: rosewood
Bridge: steel
Neck feel: squareneck, rounded edges

Condition notes: clearly, it's been modified -- though it does look good. The stringblock/bridge is a replacement, the saddle is a replacement, the wiring harness is replaced, and it has a new Fender-style pickup installed. The non-original screw-mounts that would've received legs havet been installed for most of the instrument's life. The plastic bridge cover has a repaired crack in it as well, but is holding-up nicely. There's also two replaced fretboard inlays (replaced with pearl dots).

The finish cleaned-up a lot too, thankfully! This thing was grime-city when it came in but it's left a respectable slab with a deco-style cream/black paintjob and a reverse-painted-gold plastic bridge/pickup cover.

I'm not sure if the nut is original, but it works just fine, too.

A couple of missing dots were filled with pearl. Vega (these were made in Boston, by the way, and this one is probably late '40s in vintage) took the extra trouble to put on a Brazilian rosewood fretboard with inlaid celluloid lines and dots... rather than the "usual route" taken by many competitors where the markings were sprayed on the reverse of clear plastic -- or simply on the body itself. This adds an extra layer of class.

I managed to keep the exterior look of the guitar 100% stock by re-using the original bakelite knobs and surface washers and nuts. The plastic cover was damaged in shipping and I also patched that, too.

The three big holes in the back are for non-original sockets that must've allowed removable legs to be installed -- thus making this into a console lap steel. Sweet!

The two extra tuners were originally installed overlapping the originals... sigh! I recut them and fit them a bit better and they're working fine.

Here's under the cover -- with my hacked-up body cavity to accept the new Fender-style pickup. Note my clumsily-installed (but effectively-installed) threaded-stock "saddle." This allows fine-tuning of string spacing. It's a little ugly because the middle bit is just a gob of glue and sanding-dust to hold the thing in place while I soldered its outer edges down. Good enough for government work!

I managed to get the pickup "held" to the body by two screws installed in its bobbin wings. The original Jazz Bass-style cover wouldn't retrofit to this easily.

Because Jazz Bass pickups have two poles for each bass string, I was able to fudge the spacing to roughly-align over the poles and have an even volume spread.


Rob Gardner said…
This is a fantastic old guitar, Jake. Nothing can imitate the sound of 8 strings in C6. A handsome old dog and great sounding too. Thanks for all the hard work and problem solving.