Monday, July 8, 2013

Gay Guitars

Gay guitars!!!?    Yep, you heard me right.

Frank Gay's Personal Guitar

Gay guitars are a creation of luthier, guitarist, and composer and watch maker Frank (Francois) Gay and were very popular with famous country singers of the 1950’s and ‘60’s. The elaborate designs on the guitars went well with the artist’s Nudie suits.

Frank Gay guitar

Frank Gay was born to French Canadian parents in the town of Marcelin, which is a small city north of Saskatoon, on April 23, 1923.

Frank Gay
I first became interested in Mr. Gay when a friend posted a picture of a Webb Pierce album cover on Face Book. Pierce was holding this guitar that was all decked out in fancy inlay and binding and heart shaped sound hole. I had to find out about that guitar, which started me on my quest.

Pierce's guitar pickguard was clear, and the binding was very unusual unlike other guitars I have come across. I did a little research and discovered that not only the body was elaborate, but the neck and headstock were exquisite. The headstock was like something I have never seen. This acoustic guitar had a six-on-a-side elaborately carved headstock.

 It was then I set out to find more about the builder.

Frank Gay studied music at the New York School of Music. He was already a qualified watch maker, but his interest lay in music. Frank moved to Toronto to further his music studies under the tutelage of guitar instructor Norman Chapman, who later became his partner in a duo.

For a day job, Gay apprenticed at R.S. Williams and Co. which was the largest workshop and Canadian manufacture of pianos and other stringed instruments. Frank spent two years working at this company, before setting up his own studio and shop in Edmonton. This was in the year of 1953.

It was then that Mr. Gay set forth building the fancy steel string guitars that became so popular with country musicians. Johnny Cash, Don Gibson, Hank Snow, Carl Smith, Ferlin Husky, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, and Johnny Horton all owned at played Gay guitars.

Carl Smith's Gay Guitar - CMHOF
Three Gay guitars, owned by the latter three musicians, were once on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville Tennessee.

Perhaps the most unusual Gay guitar was made for country star Ferlin Husky. It currently resides in the Mac Yasuda collection. Many who have seen it, mistake it for a Gibson J-200 that was painted with unusual inlay designs that were not just on the head and neck, but included floral inlays on the guitars body.

The sound hole on this instrument is almost triangular, similar to the one found on a Gretsch Rancher. The 3-on-a-side headstock is much different from any Gibson now or of its day.

Unfortunately some of Gay’s early models did not hold up well due to the glue and bindings he used. Subsequently some of the instruments fell apart. Country stars like Husky and Carl Smith had relationships with big name guitar manufacturers.

In the case of Ferlin Husky’s guitar, it was repaired by Gibson guitars and upon finishing, they slapped a Gibson logo over the Gay crest.

Carl Smith’s Gay guitar was repaired by Sho-bud. When the guitar was returned, the headstock featured a “Customized by Sho-bud” logo.

It was in the mid 1950’s Frank was approached by someone from Canadian radio station CKUA.

Frank was living in Edmonton, Alberta and building guitars in his garage. Word that a somewhat famous luthier lived in the same town as the radio station prompted an interview.

Upon meeting the fellow from CKUA, Frank Gay put on an impromptu concert and played various genres of music, using a different guitar for each. The show's producer was very impressed.

Frank was supposed to just do an interview for the show, however due to his talent he was asked to do a program on the station. This proved a blessing for the tiny radio station. Not only was Frank Gay a gifted luthier and guitarist, but he had a lot of friends in the music industry that he invited to be on his show. His show on CKUA lasted from 1958 to 1963.

Frank Gay went on to make appearances on CBC and do pop music recordings. He has played concerts and coffee houses. In 1959 Frank Gay founded the Classical Guitar Society, which is possibly the first in western Canada.

Frank Gay Guitar

By the early 1960’s Frank had moved on to building classical guitars, using a Ramirez flamenco guitar (given to him by Carlos Montoya) and an Esteco classical guitar as models.

Gay went on to build guitars for Montoya and Alirio Diaz. Gay has also built folk guitars, a small five course (10 strings) renaissance guitar, lutes, mandolins, banjos and even a few solid body electric guitars. Gay was noted for his fine inlay work and unique designs.

To this day, the late Frank Gay is recognized as an innovative artisan and a major figure in the history of Canadian stringed-instrument making.

Anonymous wrote below asking to see the Frank Gay double neck guitar. I could not find it, but I found a triple neck guitar that he made.
Click on the links under the pictures for the source. Click on the links in the text for further information.
©UniqueGuitar Publications


Anonymous said...

I have a poor pic of a Gay bass/six string hollow body twin. I'll send if you like

Anonymous said...

can you post the pic of the doubleneck? or send it to me...

Anonymous said...

I have a Frank Gay flamenco/classical guitar that I bought from Frank in 1968. My Goya classical guitar was ruined in an automobile accident. The Gay guitar was,and is, still superb, although a weakening in my fingers due to advancing age makes it less playable than when I was a young man. I'm interested in learning what my guitar would be worth today, since, not playing it myself, I think it would be an excellent instrument for a younger guitarist.

Marc said...

I haven't a clue what it is worth. Some fellows I know from Western Kentucky that are acquainted with many of the Grand Ol' Opry stars have told me that Gay Guitars are more for show than playing. They sure look pretty. I bet you have a great instrument and I bet it would be a great player. I always love hearing from you. Thank you Anonymous.

~Marc O'Hara

Douglas Francis Mitchell said...

I bought an acoustic guitar from Frank in 1980. I have had it repaired over the years, but it still has great sound and I play it every day. George Gruhn in Nashville appraised it at $2000.
Douglas Francis Mitchell

Anonymous said...

I worked for Frank Gay in ith late 1950's...
Hand sanded guitars and other stuff and sometimes
We jammed late into the night as musicians were drawn to him in his shop. I even was on his weekly radio show once and played a Segovia study # 6 and he played harmony to it. He was a wonderfull person.
Mike Kamenar

Lucas Welsh said...

I wonder if there is any provenance to go along with the montoya story and the Ramirez guitar? Photos, articles? Ive seen some of his classical guitars and they were better than his steel string guitars.

isumbras said...

"Playing on my Gay guitar, smoking a a cheap cigar" - Boy Dylan, 'Standing in the Doorway'

isumbras said...

Oops "strumming on my Gay guitar"

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this informative intro to these crazy looking guitars.
It was my trying to figure out what Faron Young was knocking around in those early clips and photos that led me here.
I found one picture of his guitar taken at the CMA hall of fame but it was a bit out of focus and it was impossible for me to make out the logo on the headstock.
There are a few guitars those old Nashville Cats were playing I haver been able to try, Grammer chiefly among them. Now I guess I'll have to add Gay tonthe list.

Monika Igali said...

You might like to know that the University of Alberta Press has a new book out on Frank Gay. Here is the link to it:

Anonymous said...

Many years ago I inherited a classical guitar from my grandmother. It has sat idle in it's case for some time. I recently opened it up and saw that it was a Frank Gay custom 1971. I do not remember the model number off the top of my head. It is still in very good condition but needs to be re-strung. I am going to take it to Myhre's Music in Edmonton and get it re-conditioned.
Good to see that the Frank Gay name is still out here.

David Sloan said...

When you said that Frank's guitars never stood up - this is because he made them to create an unaged sound for some people like montoya. One thing you could not miss in the seventies was a montoya concert after Carlos had picked up one of his new guitars. At Carlos age he new that he did not have much time left with his hearing. When he did finger rolls on gays guitars it was magical. Carlos best sound was what he called the March through the carnival. When he played, the sound created made you practically see the events taking place. One thing never duplicated on another guitar I have seen is the tapping on the wood sounds that were created by Carlos.

Tracy Pitcox said...

We have Hank Snow's Gay guitar at our Heart of Texas Country Music Museum in Brady, Texas!

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Cadillac Bob said...

That's me in the photo with the Frank Gay triple neck, originally ordered by Conn Ford in the late '50's...the guitar was sent to Texas in the early '60's to have the guitar neck converted to an 'organ guitar'.