Kay Musical Instrument Company

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Kay guitar company)
Jump to: navigation, search
Kay Musical Instrument Company
Industry Musical instruments
Genre Producer
Founded 1931
Founder Henry Kay Kuhrmeyer
Defunct 1968
Products guitars, violins, cellos, upright basses, banjos, lap steel guitars
Kay's archtop electric guitars in 1961. L to R: Swing Master K673, Swing Master K672,[1] Truetone Jazz King[2][3][media 1]

Kay Musical Instrument Company was a prolific American manufacturer of musical instruments that operated from the 1930s through the 1960s. Although Kay's first electric guitar was offered in 1936 (the same year as Gibson ES-150, five years after the Frying pan), Kay is known as an electric guitar pioneer  because their past company Stromberg-Voisinet produced the first commercial electric guitar, the Stromberg Electro, in 1928.[4][5][6][7]


Stromberg-Voisinet Banjo Ukulele
Stromberg-Voisinet Aero-uke (c.1930)

Early history (1890–1931)[edit]

The Kay Musical Instrument Company grew from the Groeschel Mandolin Company (or Groeshl Instrument Company[8]) in Chicago, established in 1890.[9] In 1921, the company was renamed to Stromberg-Voisinet. In 1923, later president Henry Kay "Hank" Kuhrmeyer joined the company, and in 1928, with the help of an investor,[9] he bought the company and started producing electric guitars and amplifiers.[10]

The new company, "Kay Musical Instruments" was formally established in 1931[citation needed] from the assets of the former Stromberg-Voisinet company by Kuhrmeyer.

Activity (1931–1955)[edit]

The company initially manufactured only traditional folk instruments,[citation needed] but eventually grew to make a wide variety of stringed instruments, including violins, cellos, banjos, upright basses, and a variety of different types of guitars including classical guitars, lap steel guitars, semi-acoustic guitars, and solid body electrics. Some of Kay's lower-grade instruments were marketed under the Knox and Kent brand names.

In addition to manufacturing instruments for sale under its own brands, Kay was also a very prolific manufacturer of "house branded" guitars and folk instruments for other Chicago-based instrument makers, and, at times, even for major department stores including Sears and Montgomery Ward.

Kay also made guitar amplifiers, beginning with designs carried over from the old Stromberg company. Kay eventually subcontracted its amplifier production to Chicago music industry rival Valco in the 1950s.

Retirement of Kuhrmeyer (1955–1968)[edit]

After the retirement of Kuhrmeyer in 1955, the company was taken over by Sidney M. Katz. The product line of Kay was shifted toward electric musical instruments on demands, and in 1964, the company moved to a new factory in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. In 1965 Katz sold Kay to Seeburg Corporation, and he became the head of Seeburg's musical instrument division. In 1967, Kay was resold and merged with Valco, but dissolved in 1968 due to financial problems.[9]

Revive (1969–)[edit]

The assets of Kay/Valco were auctioned off in 1969. The upright bass and cello lines were bought by Engelhardt-Link, a new company formed by previous Valco member, and still continues the production (see #Kay basses for details). The Kay name (and some of its trademarks, such as Knox[citation needed]) were acquired by Teisco importer, Weiss Musical Instruments[2] (W.M.I., Sol Weindling and Barry Hornstein), who put the Kay name on the Teisco products beginning in 1973, and continued on through the 1970s.[11]

In 1980, A.R. Enterprises (Tony Blair) purchased the Kay trademark.[11]

In 2008-2009, Kay Guitar Company in California reissued 12 models of vintage Kay guitars and basses[12] manufactured by Fritz Brothers Guitars.[13] As of 2013, production and sales of these guitars have continued.[14]

Kay guitars[edit]

A vintage 1960s "Truetone" archtop electric made by Kay [3]

Kay was best known for its mid-priced guitars, (i.e. quality guitars that were priced below top-of-the-line instruments like Gibson and Gretsch models) as well as its budget instruments. Kay made guitar models for its own brand name as well as guitars branded as 'Silvertone' for Sears, 'Sherwood' and 'Airline' for Montgomery Wards, 'Old Kraftsman' for Spiegel, 'Custom Kraft' for St. Louis Music,[2] 'Truetone' for Western Auto,[3] 'Penncrest' for JC Penney, etc.[15] Also, Kay produced a line of archtop acoustics called Kamico.

Kay’s current line includes low priced acoustic, electric and bass guitars, and moderately priced banjos, ukuleles, mandolins and resonators. They also sell the Chicago Blues line of inexpensive harmonicas.[clarification needed]

K-161 Thin Twin guitar and K-162 Electronic Bass[edit]

Kay K-161 Thin Twin[16]
Kay K-162 Electronic Bass

During the 1950s one of the best known Kay electric guitar models was the K-161 "Thin Twin" guitar, most visibly used by blues artist Jimmy Reed. The instrument debuted in 1952 and featured a single cutaway body, a distinctive tortoiseshell pickguard and thin blade-style pickups from which the guitar derives its name. These pickups were also used on various Kay electrics dating back to the 1940s. Introduced the same year was the matching K-162 "'Electronic'" Bass, which had the distinction of being the first commercially available hollowbody bass guitar and the first electric bass produced after the Fender Precision's debut in 1951. Because the K-162 was used by Howlin' Wolf's bassist Andrew "Blueblood" McMahon, it is commonly known as the "Howlin Wolf" bass. These instruments are believed to be the first semi-hollow electrics, predating the Gibson ES-335 by six years. They had a unique design, utilizing a flat top and a free-floating arched back, no f-holes, and two braces running along the top. The result was a semi-acoustic instrument that was feedback-resistant while retaining natural resonances. in 1954 Kay also offered the K-160 bass with baritone tuning, according to the catalog, "tuned like the first four guitar strings but one octave lower." Other than higher pitched strings and an added white pickguard, the bass was the same as the K-162 bass.

Eventually both instruments were given new model numbers; as of 1959 the thin twin was now K5910 and the bass was K5965. Both instruments remained in Kay's catalog offerings with only minor variations until 1966, when Kay revamped its entire guitar line to only feature budget instruments. Kay also manufactured versions of the Thin Twin guitar under the Silvertone (Sears) and Old Kraftsman (Spiegel) brands.

Gold “K” Line[edit]

Gold "K" headstock
Jazz Special Bass

In 1957 president Sydney Katz introduced the Gold “K” line of archtop and solid body electric guitars[13] to compete with major manufacturers like Fender, Gibson, and Gretsch. The gold “K” Line featured the Jazz Special, Artist, Pro, Upbeat,[17] Jazz II, and Jazz Special Bass. Gold “K” guitars used the same hardware as top manufacturers. However, there were truss rod and neck issues.[citation needed]

Gold models had single coil pickups with clear silver plastic covers and phillips head bolt adjustable pole pieces. The Upbeat model came with an optional transparent black plastic cover. These pickups appeared on Kay instruments through the late 1960s and are sometimes referred to as “Kessel” or “Kleenex Box” pickups.[citation needed] The Jazz Special Bass has a single blade pickup as used on the K-161 and K-162 (tilted slightly towards the neck at the treble side), as well as a distinctive, over-sized headstock.

Valued among collectors, the headstocks from 1957-1960 featured a reverse painted plastic overlay similar to the Kelvinator logo. The guitars featured art deco patterns. It was difficult to get players to take Kay’s high end entry seriously, and the Gold line was discontinued in 1962.


Kamico guitars were the lower-priced versions of Kay's original guitars, and among the first guitars to use a humbucker type pickup, predating Gibson by some few years. Produced along with Kay brand name guitars from 1931–1951, according to most sources. The most recognizable model is the Jumbo Jazz. Kay also made banjo's under the kamico name

Kay basses[edit]

Gretsch Tone King (1939) by Kay

Kay also began to produce in 1937 a 3/4 size upright bass, which is widely believed to be the Concert or C-1 bass. Much like the guitars manufactured, the basses were hand crafted by skilled craftsmen using special ordered machinery. They even had a hot stamping machine that could emboss the trademark KAY cursive script. The Engelhardt-Link company bought the upright bass and cello lines at the auction of Kay/Valco assets in 1969, and has continued to produce the same line of instruments to this day. Still manufactured in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, Engelhardt basses and cellos are sturdy instruments widely used by students and touring professionals. The ES9 Swingmaster bass (formerly the Kay S9 Swingmaster), is highly thought-of by jazz, swing, and bluegrass musicians.

Notable players[edit]



Kay Kraft venetian guitar played by Josh White

Deacon John Moore President of American Federation of Musicians Local 174-496.jpg

Kay flattop guitar
played by Deacon John Moore

Old arched top guitar 1 (1).jpg

Archtop guitar with Kay style head

Kay K1160 parlor guitar.jpg

K1160 parlor guitar (ca.1966)[19]

Festival Singer, 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, South Bank.jpg

Value Leader K6530
played by festival singer Marcia Mello

Tour guide with Silvertone, Sun Studio.jpg

Thin Twin K-161 (1952–60) / Silvertone 1369L (1957)[16]

Natalie Warner Guitar.jpg

Speed Demon K318[19] /
Silvertone 1413L[20]
played by Natalie Warner

Kay Fuzz Tone (small).png

Kay Fuzz Tone

Truetone Jazz King (Kay Speed Demon K573).jpg

Speed Demon K573[2] / Truetone Jazz King (1960s)[3][media 1]

Kay Style Leader 1983.png

Style Leader #1983 (ca.1960)[21]

Kay Value Leader K5962 6string electric bass.png

Value Leader K5962 6-string Bass[1] (1962)[22]

Kay Value Leader 1963 (ca.1960).png

Value Leader #1963 (ca.1960)[21]

Kay Value Leader 1961 (ca.1960).png

Value Leader #1961 (ca.1960)[21]

DEMO - KAY Wah 1 in current day action

1970s KAY Wah 1 wah wah guitar pedal.jpg

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "1961 Kay Catalog". Kay Musical Instrument Co. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Kay/Silvertone: Speed Demon (K573) c. 1964". VintageSilvertone.com. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Trademark 72207542".  – "Truetone" was a registered trademark for musical instruments owned by Western Auto since 1964/1966 until 1989 (or since 1945/1947 until 1992 for radio receiver on trademark 71485315).
  4. ^ Michael Wright (February 2000). "1000 Years of the Guitar, Part 2". Vintage Guitar. 
  5. ^ Lynn Wheelwright (September 2008). "Stromberg Electro". Vintage Guitar. 
  6. ^ "New Sales Avenue Opened with Tone Amplifier for Stringed Instruments". The Music Trades. October 20, 1928. This tone amplifier is electrically operated either by alternating or direct currents. It consists of two major units -- an electro-magnetic pick-up and amplifying unit. The electro-magnetic pick-up is built within the instrument and is attached to its sounding board. The unit is connected with the amplifier, which produces the tone and volume required of the instrument. 
  7. ^ Stromberg Electro Instruments (advertisement on catalog). Chicago Musical Instrument. 1929. Operated from light socket alternating current. No batteries required. 
  8. ^ Maria Dugandzic-Pasic (2010), Croatians of Chicagoland - Images of America, Arcadia Publishing, p. 22, ISBN 978-0-7385-7819-4 
  9. ^ a b c "History of Henry Kuhrmeyer and the Kay Musical Instrument Company. Contains Engelhardt Information". Kay Bass Information and Registration. KayBass.com. 
  10. ^ "Kay History". KingOfKays.com. 
  11. ^ a b Fjestad Blue Book.
  12. ^ "Kay Vintage Reissue Catalog". Kay Guitar Company. 2009. 
  13. ^ a b "Kay Guitars (reissued in 2008-2009)". Archived from the original on 2008-03-11. 
  14. ^ http://www.musiciansfriend.com/search.jsp?sB=r&Ntt=kay
  15. ^ "The Story of Kay Guitars". MogrelGuitars.com. 
  16. ^ a b "Silvertone Thin Twin 1369L (1957)". VintageSilvertones.com. 
  17. ^ a b "1959 Kay Catalog". Kay Musical Instrument Co. 
  18. ^ "Ry's Hardware". RyCooder.nl. 
  19. ^ a b "1966 Kay Catalog". Kay Musical Instrument Co., a division of the Seeburg Corporation. 
  20. ^ "Silvertone 1413L (ca.1965) - Kay". VintageSilvertones.com. 
  21. ^ a b c "1960 Kay Catalog". Kay Musical Instrument Co. 
  22. ^ "The Rory Gallagher Instrument Archive". RoryGallagher.com. 
  1. ^ a b 1963 Truetone Jazz King Vintage Electric Guitar AKA Silvertone - Kay Speed Demon model K573 (video). 
    Note: Not yet found sources other than YouTube.



Further reading[edit]

  • Scott, Jay (1992). 50’s Cool: Kay Guitars. Second String Press. pp. 64 pages. ISBN 978-1-880422-01-4. 
  • Fjestad, Zach. "KAY". Blue Book of Acoustic Guitar Values. Blue Book Publications, Inc. "
    "Source: 1950s/1960s company history courtesy Jay Scott, 50´s Cool: Kay Guitars, contemporary history courtesy Michael Wright, Vintage Guitar Magazine, individual model listings: Michael Wright, Guitar Stories, Volume Two.
    See also: Mayflower, Kay Kraft.

External links[edit]

Current companies
Vintage Kay (1930s–1960s)
  • King of Kays — History of the Kay company and information and photos of vintage Kays.
  • KayBass.com — Kay Bass Information and Registration
More models (–1980s)