Saturday, November 10, 2018

Kay Guitars and Amplifiers

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.

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.

1940-50'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. Truetone was Western Auto's brandname, for guitars, and radios.

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.

1952 Kay
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).

They also produced a Barney Kessel model. Although he allowed Kay to use his name, it is written that he did not care much for the guitar. But it is a wonderfully made and very collectible instrument.

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". By this time, Kessel had lent his name to the Gibson Guitar company.

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. The model 504 was a tube amp, made by the Valco company, which by now was owned by Kay.

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.  This amp had a removable chassis that housed the electronics. You could pull it out, and place the speaker cabinet away from the amp section.

The difference in Kay guitars was quite obvious by 1966.  After Sidney Katz retired, the company was owned by the Seeburg Corporation. The Kay Company, which had merged with Valco, eventually dissolved and in 1969 their assets were sold off and acquired by W.M.I. (Weiss Musical Instruments). Now the guitars were made by Teisco. The prices dropped during this period, as none of the instruments were domestically manufactured.

Most of the guitars offered bore 6-on-a-side headstocks with a Kay badge 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.

In 1980 the Kay brand was acquired by A.R. Industries. 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. Although Tony Blair of A.R. Industries still owns the brand name, in 2008 Kay Guitars launched a reissue of their more popular brands, which were manufactured by Fritz Brothers Guitars.

Roger Fritz Kay Thin Twin

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.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Some Very Unique Guitars from 2017 and 2018

A lot of Stratocasters
With all the Strats, Teles, Les Pauls and Martin dreadnought versions out there, you might think we may never see any new and original guitars any more. But buck up lil' camper. There are a few designers that have come up with some new, and somewhat off-the-wall guitars.

2018 Fender

You may have come late to the party for this guitar, but Fender’s Custom Shop recently came out with The Meteora. It is what happened when a Telecaster and a Jazzmaster got together. The body shape is based on a Jazzmaster with an exaggerated offset. The neck is also based on a 1968 maple Jazzmaster with block inlays with 22 frets. Though the pickguard is definitely a Jazzmaster shape, the rest of the guitar is pure Telecaster.

Fender Meteora
The bridge pickup on the flat stainless steel plate is right off a Tele, and the neck features a Custom Shop Twisted Tele pickup, which has Alnico 5 magnets that are slightly taller, and wound with 42 gauge wire, instead of the 43 gauge found on most Tele neck pickups. The controls are the same as on a Telecaster, but you are looking at a most unique instrument.

It was a limited run, so new Fender Meteoras are scarce.

St. Vincent
St. Vincent is the stage name of Anne Erin Clark. She is a pretty girl with a very nice voice. I am impressed that she studied music at Berklee College before venturing on a career as a singer-songwriter-guitarist. She spent some time in Sufjan Stevens touring band, before embarking on a solo career.

Music Man Guitars thought enough of her to design a very unique guitar called The St. Vincent. It is a beautiful instrument with one of the most unusual shapes that I have ever seen.

Music Man
St. Vincent
The body is made of African mahogany. The neck is made of “roasted maple”, unless you purchase the black model, which features a maple neck. The fretboard is rosewood, with inlays designed by St. Vincent. The neck features a hand rubbed gun stock oil and wax finish.

The headstock is the short style with 4 plus 2 tuners, typical of Ernie Ball Music Man guitars. The tuners are Schaller M6 locking style with pearl buttons. The guitar features 3 DiMarzio mini humbucking pickups. It also features a Music Man Modern tremolo and six adjustable bridge/saddles. The volume and tone controls have triangular plastic knobs.

Music Man St. Vincent Guitars

The St. Vincent is available in blue with a white pickguard, Polaris white, Matte black with a black pickguard, or tobacco burst with a white pickguard.

Pagelli Guitars are unique creations by builders Claudio and Claudia Pagelli. This couple builds acoustic guitar, electric guitars, and basses using some of the wildest designs you have ever seen.

Pagelli Kill Bill

For the 2018 NAMM Convention they created the “Kill Bill” guitar for ZZ Topp guitarist Billy Gibbons. The body is fashioned with an unusual shape that only the Pagellis' could dream up. The guitar features a neck-through body, with a single humbucker. Volume and tone controls are mounted on the instruments body.

Artist Robert Goetzl

Martin Guitars has tapped Rutherford, New Jersey resident Robert Goetzl to create their 2018 model DX420.

Martin's Two Millionth Guitar
If you remember Goetzl designed the incredible artwork for Martin’s Two-Millionth guitar back in 2016. It was called the History of Time, and it was the most ornate guitar that Martin had ever created. A handcrafted RCM watch was embedded in the headstock. At the time this instrument retailed for $149,000 USD.

Martin DX420

If you missed out on that sale, you can get the DX420 for the manufacturers retail price of $799.00 SRP, $599.00 street price. This a Martin made of HPL (high pressure laminate) with a printed top designed exclusively for Martin by Mr. Goetzl.

The guitars neck is also made of laminated material, and the fretboard is made of Richlite. Another man made product. It come with a Fishman Sonitone under saddle pickup.

Gibson Modern
DC Standard

Gibson has come out with a new solid body model they call Custom Limited Edition Modern DC (double cutaway). This is a totally different design that has never been used on a Gibson guitar.

The guitar incorporates a swept neck heel that allows easy access to all 24 frets. It also has an extra-long neck tenon to maximize sustain, a sleek new Apex headstock carve for strength and durability.

Gibson Modern DC

It also features a 2-Piece Maple Top with a Mahogany Body and a Mahogany medium C-Shape 57 Classic Neck pickup & 57 Classic Plus Bridge pickup. Controls include a single 500K CTS Volume, and Tone Pot, with a hand-wired harness, and a Switchcraft Toggle.

The guitar is available in Bullion Gold, Heritage Cherry Burst, or Ebony.

Gibson Modern DC

Gibson also features a similar model called the Modern DC (double cutaway) Semi-Hollow. The features are similar to the previously mentioned model, however this guitar has a one-piece solid Mahogany body, and a two piece solid Mahogany top with a cats-eye cutaway on the lower bout.

Gibson Modern DC Semi-hollow

This guitar is available in White Pearl, Gray Pearl, Blue Pearl, or Pearl Coral. Both models retail for around $4,000 USD.

As you may have read, Gibson has emerged from Bankruptcy under a newly named president, James "JC" Curleigh,  who formerly was president of Levi Strauss & Co. The majority shareholder is the investment firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.

A few 2019 Gibson Electric Guitars
In taking a look at Gibson's 2019 offerings I cannot help but notice an extreme drop in the suggested retail price for their guitars. Can this signal Gibson once again offering some affordable models for us common people? We can only hope.

New Harmony Guitars

Harmony Guitars are offering some new models. Yes, I said Harmony Guitars. These are no longer made in Chicago, but the new models look nice. They are Silhouette, Rebel, and Jupiter, and all feature Gold Foil pickups and bolt-on necks, Madagascar Ebony fret boards, and locking tuners.

New Harmony Amplifier

The company is also offering a new Harmony amp line up. This will be a range of new combo amps, cabs and heads, along with a reissue of the classic 8418 Harmony amp. This amp will feature custom hand-wiring, a single 12" Jensen speaker, analog spring reverb, tremolo, and a pull boost. The prices for the guitars and amplifiers have not been set as of yet.