Monday, July 27, 2015

Kay Guitars

The Kay Musical Instrument Company was one of many early musical instrument manufacturers in the United States. The Kay company was officially established in 1931 at Chicago, Illinois by Henry Kay Kuhrmeyer.

Groeschel Mandolins
Kuhrmeyer had worked his way up the ranks of a very old musical instrument company called Stromberg-Voisinet, not to be confused with Stromberg Guitars. Kuhrmeyer eventually became president of this firm.  The company had its roots as the Groeschel Mandolin Company which was founded in 1890.

There is some argument as to who was the first manufacturer to introduce the electric guitar. Everyone agrees that Electro/Rickenbacker was the first to come up with The Frying Pan, electric lap steel guitar in 1931.

Gibson claims to have introduced the first "Spanish" electric guitar, the ES-150 in 1936.

Ironically this was the same year that .Kay offered their first electric guitar. And though it is difficult to say who was first, but that does not take away from the fact that Kay is considered a pioneer in the field of the electric guitar.

In fact Stromberg-Voisinet was a part of what became Stromberg-Electro, and produced the first commercial electric guitar, the Stromberg Electro back in 1928.

Pickup unit inside resonator
Although the electronics within the body of this guitar were nothing like the guitar electronics we know today. Their ideas were based on the electronics found in phonographs of the day. 

With the help of an investor, Kuhrmeyer secured and purchased the Stromberg-Voisinet company in 1928 the same year the company became interested in electrifying the guitar. The Kay Musical Instrument Company (using Mr. Kuhrmeyer’s middle name) was officially established in 1931.

Kay Kraft
Although I must mention that prior to the acquisition, Stromberg-Voisinet had a line of guitars and mandolins under the Kay Kraft brandname.

From 1937 Speigle Catalog - Kay using the Old Kraftsmen logo
Aside from experimenting with electric guitars, Kay manufactured stringed folk instruments such as guitars, violins, cellos, banjos and upright basses. These guitars offered ran the gamut of classical, lap steel guitars, acoustic guitars, semi-acoustic electric guitars and solid body electric guitars.

Kay produced many of its instruments for resell by retail stores and catalog companies to sell as house brands This means Kay instruments can be found under a variety of names.

1940's Truetone
Airline and Sherwood Deluxe were distributed by Montogery Wards. Barclay was produced for Unity Buying Services. Beltone was distributed by the Monroe Company or P&H. Custom Kraft was the brand name for St. Louis Music.

1965 Penncrest
Holiday was the logo on Alden’s musical instruments. Old Kraftsmen was sold through the Spiegel catalog. Orpheum was distributed through the Wards catalog. Penncrest was the brand sold by J.C. Penny. Silvertone and Supertone were brandnames for Sears musical instruments. Suprema was distributed in Canada by Eatons and Truetone was sold through Western Auto Stores. From the 1930's to the 1950's Kay had a line of archtop acoustic and archtop acoustic electric guitars marketed under the Kamico logo. Some of Kay’s lower grade instruments were sold under the Knox and Kent brand names.

Kay Barney Kessel Pro

Kay electric guitars were said to have a Kelvinator headstock and Kleenex box pickups.

Kay 503A amplifier (Valco)
Though Kay may have initially made amplifiers early on, when the company was established it subcontracted its amplifier production to Valco. This is interesting because Valco/National was their rival in the 1950’s.

1964 Catalog "Elk Grove"
Mr. Kuhrmeyer officially retired in 1955 and the company was taken over by Sidney M. Katz. Katz saw the future and it was electric guitars. Katz had been long associated with rival Harmony guitars.

By 1964 the company moved from Chicago to new quarters in Elk Grove Illinois and continued the tradition of selling Kay guitars and musical instrument as well as house-brand instruments, but the demand for electric guitars was very heavy at this time in history.

Just a year later, in 1965. Katz sold Kay to the Jukebox manufacturer Seeburg Corporation with Katz becoming head of Seeburg's musical instrument division. Two years later Kay was resold and merged with Valco. However by now the guitar boom was fizzling out. The company was dissolved by 1968 and the assets of both Kay and Valco were auctioned off in 1969.

The upright bass and cello lines were sold to a company formed by a ranking Valco employee and was called.Engelhardt-Link. The Kay name (and some of its trademarks, such as Knox were acquired by Teisco importer, Weiss Musical Instruments aka W.M.I. which was owned by Sol Weindling and Barry Hornstein. These men put the Kay logo on imported Japanese guitars that were manufactured by Teisco.

In 1980, A.R. Enterprises (Tony Blair) purchased the Kay trademark. As of this date, Blair is still listed as CEO of Kay Guitars and also of Kustom Musical Instruments which was formerly owned by Hanser Music.

1956 Jimmy Reed Thin Twin
In my opinion Kay was producing its best guitars in the 1950 through the early 1960's, During these years Kay produced some remarkable guitars, such as the Thin Twin (1954), the Speed Demon (1956), the Barney Kessel and Barney Kessel Pro and the Swing Master (1959).

1956 Barney Kessel

1954 K-162
In 1954 the company offered its first bass guitar called The model K-162 Electronic Bass. This remained in the catalog for many years.

By 1960 the Barney Kessel models were renamed The Gold K line, which included this top or the line Gold K Jazz Special. Kessel's name was replaced with the letter "K".

Kay Gold Pro

The Gold K line, which included the Gold K, the Gold K Pro (hollow body, but no f-holes) and the Gold K Upbeat, which could be ordered with two or three pickups.

This same year Kay introduced their Thin Line electric models which became a staple with student guitarists, as did the Kay Pro which had more of a Les Paul vibe.

Solo King
One of the more unusual guitars Kay offered in 1960 was the Solo King, The upper part of the body was not carved, except for the upper cutaway. The lower part had a carve to rest the instrument on the players leg and a cutaway. It was available with one or two pickups. Eastwood Guitars briefly revived this instrument.

1961 Jazz Guitar
In 1961 Kay offered the twin pickup Kay Jazz guitar that featured and arched top, double cutaways, two Kay single coil pickups and a Bigsby tailpiece. The Thin Line electrics were modified and included the single pickup Galaxie model.

The Swing Master guitars were now Thin line models with two or thtee pickups. The three pickup model was fancier and had a bound neck. The Kay Speed Demons were also updated. They now had thin line bodies, f-holes and two or three pickups.

The Kay Vanguard Contour model was introduced this year. It was a solid body guitar that came with one or two pickups.

Jazz Special Bass

Kay offered three models of electric bass this year. All came with one pickup. The Jazz Special came with double cutaways and was offered in black or blond and had a large pickguard.

1959 Pro Model

The Pro Model was Kay's traditional bass. It had a small plastic cover surrounding its single pickup and was only available in brown sunburst.

The Value Leader Bass was a short scale model offered for $79.95 USD retail and could be ordered as a traditional 4 string bass or a 6 string bass.

Two new Kay models were available in 1962. One was the Kay Double Cutaway Solid Guitar, K300. It featured two pickups on a curly maple body and what Kay called its Thin Lite neck. The Kay Double Cutaway model K592 was perhaps the precursor to Gibson's Johnny A model. This excellent guitar featured twin Florentine cutaways and a Bigsby vibrato.

Model 504
We haven't said much about Kay amplifiers, but this was the year they came out with their recognizable transistorized amps.

Their top-of-the-line Transistorized Galaxy Two 35 watt model came with four removable legs that looked like they were right off of your Granny's console TV.

The difference in Kay guitars was quite obvious by 1966. This was the W.M.I. era and the guitars were made by Teisco. The prices had dropped during this period. Most of the guitars offered bore 6-on-a-side headstocks with a Kay emblem glued on them. The pickups changed on most of the models. They were still single coil pickups, but much different than those that adorned Kay guitars and basses in prior years.

By the 1970's Kay's line-up had dwindled to but a few electric models. Most of the offerings were not very good student grade models. All were made in the Far East. By the end of this era Kay offered some better copies of Gibson acoustic guitars, although I doubt the materials used in these student grade instruments could hold a candle to the real thing.

1979 Kay "Famous Copies"
They also offered a line of "Famous Copies". I think I mentioned in a prior article that Japanese companies saw nothing wrong in making copies of Gibson or Fender instruments, until Gibson's attorneys filed a patent infringement lawsuit.

The 1980's offerings included more copies of Fender and Gibson guitars including Stratocasters, Jazz Basses, Gibson Les Pauls, Flying V's and Explorers.

1987 was the final year for Kay guitars. The quality of the instruments appear to have improved, but sadly they are all once again copies of Gibson or Fender models. Ironically, the instruments came with an 18 month guarantee, but the company was dissolved the following year.

During the best years for Kay, the company was overshadowed by other USA brands, such as Gibson, Fender, Guild, Gretsch and Martin, who were building superior products. However some of the Kay models, both electric and the acoustic archtops were excellent guitars and are now commanding high prices in the vintage market. They were just under appreciated back in the day.

In recent years the brand Kay has emerged and is being applied to some student grade instruments made in the Far East and Pacific Rim countries. In checking Linkedin, Tony Blair is still the man in charge of Kay.

Roger Fritz Kay Thin Twin
But this same company offers Kay Vintage Reissue guitars. These instruments are made in the Far East, but are well made replicas of the famous Kay Thin Twin Guitar and what is called the Kay Jazz guitar, which is a semi-hollow body double cutaway instrument.

These names are also applied to the Kay Jazz Electric Bass and the Kay Pro Electric Bass.

Roger Fritz was hired by Tony Blair in 2010 to develop the Vintage Reissue line of Kay guitars and bass.


revfish said...

Many of my friends leaned on Kays! Gary Calvert of Gary & the Hornets played a Kay until he upgraded to the Fender Jaguar that he played for many years. If my memory is correct, I believe a Kay electric could be had for $25.00. I learned electric on an old Harmony my Dad bought from my cousin for $35.00. Hated that guitar! But it was an electric... Terry Fisher

marcus ohara said...

Good to hear from you Terry. I never owned a Kay, but I started out on a Harmony Patrician. The two companies shared a lot in common. It is unbelievable, but that $35 Kay is probably worth about $350 in todays vintage market.

God bless...

Tricia said...

If I send a picture of this guitar could you possibly tell me if it is a Kay? I only have one photo to go on, but curiosity is getting the best of me!!! If you can help me email me at please andillrespond with the picture!! Thanks! Tricia

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