The untold heritage of Kay Guitars

Ora Sawyers

In 1928, Henry ‘Kay’ Kuhrmeyer and his fiscal backers Stromberg and Voisinet were dependable for what was most likely the to start with commercially offered electrical guitar, the Stromberg Electro. Of class, electric powered guitars already existed by this position, but Kuhrmeyer observed a way to mass-generate and sector them on a stage that had in no way been observed before.

Soon after, in 1931, Kuhrmeyer purchased out his economical companions and founded the Kay Musical Instrument Organization in Chicago. By 1935, the enterprise experienced designed a new manufacturing unit in the town and was developing 100,000 instruments for each 12 months, like mandolins, lap steels and banjos.

The Kay Organization sold these instruments underneath numerous brand names, such as Groeschel, Stromberg, Kay Kraft, Kay, Kaywood, Lark, Kamico, Arch and Arch Kraft. Kay Guitars would also get the job done with other firms and distributors, who would normally order tailor made guitars adorned with their individual branding.

Billy Squier. Impression: Gary Gershoff / Getty Photos

In a natural way, this induced confusion. Kay-designed guitars – as properly as those crafted by local rivals Harmony – were marketed beneath quite a few names, depending on the catalogue they were offered out of: Silvertone, offered by Sears Truetone, bought out of Western Automobile Customized Kraft, the house brand name for the St Louis Source Business department retail store JCPenney’s Penncrest line Airline, originally marketed and offered by Montgomery Ward Old Kraftsman, the Spiegel catalogue model and Rex parlor guitars, sold by Gretsch.

For the most aspect, these were regular blue-collar guitars. By 1938, additional than 60 per cent of Kay’s concluded instruments had been staying offered outside the house Chicago by these distributors.

As if that wasn’t adequate, Kay also created amplifiers. This perform, nevertheless, was sub-contracted to Valco, a competing unbiased corporation, in the 1950s. All over this time, Kuhrmeyer also poached three luthiers from another community rival, Lyon & Healy, to help additional the structure of his company’s guitars, significantly their archtops.

1950s kay archtop two door cinema club

The war for the windy city

Household to Harmony, Lyon & Healy, and Valco – alone dependable for National and Supro – Chicago was a aggressive site for Kay Guitars to set up in. In 1967, Valco bought the corporation and ongoing to deliver Kay guitars, the only noteworthy improve staying the name on the headstock, which now read through Valco.

Sad to say, only a couple of decades afterwards, Valco dissolved underneath the body weight of level of competition from the Japanese marketplace, inventory mismanagement, mounting financial debt and much more. But the Kay model name Kay lived on. It was bought in 1969 by Weiss Musical Instruments, who slapped the identify on the headstocks of their Japanese import guitars so that they’d seem common and be far more marketable to US vendors.

1950s kay archtop two door cinema club

Blue collar, White Stripes

Many of the innumerable guitars generated by Kay are even now available on the classic market place, under a assortment of names. Due to the fact so several were manufactured and their quality was frequently deemed inferior to that of Gibson and Fender devices – in particular immediately after the arrival of solidbody guitars in the 1950s – there was a time when you could discover them in pawn stores and next-hand outlets for up coming-to-very little selling prices. Then the White Stripes happened…

Jack White’s use of Kay products, which include his Valco-produced Res-O-Glass Airline and Kay Archtop, encouraged a thing of resurgence, even if Kay guitars hardly ever achieved the reverence that the biggest American manufacturers did.

White’s archtop was thought to be a Kay K6533 Price Chief. The guitar was initially a tobacco sunburst design but was coated in Kraft paper in 2001 – supposedly to prevent the feedback as a result of the f-holes but White has shrugged off the dilemma in many interviews.

Regardless of what its complete, White’s use of the K6533 proved that terrific music could indeed be coaxed out of mass-produced ‘budget’ devices by the likes of Kay and Harmony, and despatched several musicians in look for of their very own small-expense classic devices – which drove up the cost of vintage Kay Guitars.

Jack White
Jack White. Graphic: Barry Brecheisen / WireImage

The legacy life on

The serial numbers on Kay devices can be difficult to trace, as they normally corresponded to the batch currently being made at the time, and improved from model to design. As for development, the pre-1960 tops on the archtops and flat-tops have been usually spruce, despite the fact that more cost-effective variations showcased birch tops, backs, and sides. Mahogany and maple were normally used on backs and sides also. Some early Kay instruments experienced carved tops, but they had been typically laminated and pressed – a cheaper and speedier way to deliver an arched top rated.

Even though some Kay-produced guitars featured maple or mahogany necks, the most typically utilised wood for funds products was poplar. The fretboards had been ordinarily Brazilian rosewood up till the 1960s, when it switched to Indian rosewood or maple that had been painted or stained a darker shade. If your Kay has a zero fret, it arrived immediately after 1968, when the business was owned by Valco. Metal reinforcement bars ended up normally applied in necks until eventually the early 1960s, at which stage adjustable truss rods grew to become additional widespread. Some assert that Kay Guitars made use of DeArmond or Gibson pickups – they did not. The pickups had been wound by Kay factory personnel in-property.

As for the instruments them selves, Kay guitars have been achieved with equally criticism and celebration. Though the firm mass-produced guitars to offer them at decrease charges, they also designed custom instruments for artists. Kay guitars have been observed in the hands of Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Beck, Joe Walsh, and quite a few others. Elvis Presley’s 1st guitar was a Kay flat-prime acoustic.

Throughout the company’s 38-12 months operate, it place instruments in the fingers of songs legends as properly as, much more importantly, functioning-course musicians for whom entry to this sort of equipment was not generally easy. We feel that is a legacy to be very pleased of.

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