Monday, July 27, 2015

Kay Guitars

1940's Kay K-42 archtop
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.


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 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

Rhyth Mandmelody Shop said...

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Anonymous said...

WTB Kay Barney Kessel Jazz Special, blond single PU. Please contact me:

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Debbie said...

I have an electric Kay guitar, my uncle gave it to me when I was 15, and I am wondering what it's worth. From the research I have done, I am pretty sure it's one of the rare ones, but not positive. I have pictures, but it doesn't allow pictures on here, so if anyone would know what it's worth you can email me, and I will send pictures.

JLM said...

The first guitar I ever bought was a Kay, though I didn't find out this fact for decades after I bought it. Turns out it was a Kay Speed Demon, a sunburst single cutaway, single pickup (speed bump type) archtop. I ordered it from a J.C. Penney catalog in 1966. The asking price was $29.95. I bought an archtop semi-hollow because I didn't have an amp and knew a solid body wouldn't be heard without one. There was no name on the headstock so for years afterward I never knew what it actually was. I sold it to a friend in 1969 when I bought a Kalamazoo KG2A, Gibson's budget brand solid body (by then I'd gotten an amp). I always regretted selling it and sometime in the late Seventies ran into the friend I'd sold it to and inquired if he still had it with the intention of buying it back. He said that he'd just sold it that past year. Would love to have one again but now they cost far more than the $29.95 I payed back then,usually way over $500. Maybe someday I'll find a bargain.

Knight of Jehanne said...

I have a very unusual Kay Acoustic that my late Grandfather bought ( used in a pawn shop in 1954 ) for $100.00 ( quite a sum at the time ) for my Dad's Birthday. My Dad gave me the guitar at age 15 ( I'd been playing since I was about 7 ) and the dreaded 'ice-storm' of the early 70's in Connecticut that caused a week long power outage caused the set neck ( no truss rod ) to warp a bit. In 1976, I took it to a friend who'd gone to professional Luthier school in New Hampshire to fix. He did a great job and told me the guitar was very unusual in several senses. 1.) That it had extraordinary bracing similar to a Martin, 2.) That the saddle, nut and machines were made of 'the oldest bone he'd ever seen', 3.) The binding was tortoiseshell as was the pick guard and heel guard where the neck joint attached and was Honduras Mahogany (neck, back & sides) with a very nice/old Spruce top. In 1978, I sent a description and a pic to the 'Rare Bird' Column of Guitar Player Magazine and was invited to submit pictures for an up-coming 'Rare Bird' book ( I never did ).. The Serial # inside is legible & clear but due to Kay serial numbers being interpreted about a hundred ways by as many 'experts'.. I've never been able to match it. The Luthier friend believed whoever built the guitar ( for Kay ) did it either for themselves or for a Kay Salesman to 'show off' the quality.. Unfortunately, after all these years, I have health issues and plan to auction it soon on Ebay with in-depth pics and description...

Unknown said...

I recently picked up a k42 off of eBay. The sound holes are shaped like revolvers. Has anybody seen this before?

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