Kay Musical Instrument Company
|Predecessor||Groeschel Mandolin Co. (1890), Stromberg-Voisinet (1921)|
(Kay Guitar Company (2008-))
|Founder||Henry Kay Kuhrmeyer|
|Sidney M. Katz|
|Products||guitars, guitar amplifiers, upright basses, violins, cellos, banjos, lap steel guitars|
|Brands||Knox, Kent, Kamico
OEM brands: Silvertone, Sherwood, Airline, Old Kraftsman, Custom Kraft, Truetone, Penncrest.
Kay Musical Instrument Company was a musical instrument manufacturer of the United States, in operation since the 1930s until the 1960s. It was established in 1931 at Chicago, Illinois by Henry Kay Kuhrmeyer, from the assets of the former Stromberg-Voisinet, which was founded as Groeschel Mandolin Company in 1890. Kay offered their first electric guitar in 1936—five years after the Rickenbacker Frying pan, and the same year as the Gibson ES-150. Nonetheless, Kay is considered an electric guitar pioneer because Kuhrmeyer bought their past company, Stromberg-Voisinet, and produced the first commercial electric guitar, the Stromberg Electro, in 1928.
- 1 Overview
- 2 Kay guitars
- 3 Kay basses
- 4 Notable players
- 5 Gallery
- 6 See also
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Early history (1890–1931)
The Kay Musical Instrument Company grew from the Groeschel Mandolin Company (or Groeshl Instrument Company) in Chicago, established in 1890. 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, he bought the company and started producing electric guitars and amplifiers.
The new company, "Kay Musical Instruments" was formally established in 1931 from the assets of the former Stromberg-Voisinet company by Kuhrmeyer.
Activity on Kuhrmeyer-era (1931–1955)
The company initially manufactured only traditional folk instruments, 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 prolific manufacturer of "house branded" guitars and folk instruments for other Chicago-based instrument makers and, at times, 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.
Decline on Katz-era (1955–1968)
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.
The assets of Kay/Valco were auctioned off in 1969. The upright bass and cello lines were sold to Engelhardt-Link, a new company formed by a previous Valco member, which has continued production (see #Kay basses for details). The Kay name (and some of its trademarks, such as Knox) were acquired by Teisco importer, Weiss Musical Instruments (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.
In 2008-2009, Kay Guitar Company in California reissued 12 models of vintage Kay guitars and basses manufactured by Fritz Brothers Guitars. As of 2013, production and sales of these guitars have continued.
Kay was best known for its mid-priced guitars, (i.e., quality guitars 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 and guitars branded as Silvertone for Sears, Sherwood and Airline for Montgomery Wards, Old Kraftsman for Spiegel, Custom Kraft for St. Louis Music, Truetone for Western Auto, 'Penncrest' for JC Penney, etc. 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
One of the best known Kay electric guitars during the 1950s was the K-161 "Thin Twin", most visibly used by blues artist Jimmy Reed. This instrument debuted in 1952, and featured a single cutaway body, a distinctive tortoiseshell pickguard, and a pair of thin blade-style pickups that gave the guitar its name. Kay used this type of pickups on various Kay electrics dating back to the 1940s.
Also in 1952, Kay introduced the matching K-162 "Electronic" Bass, which was the first commercially available thinline-hollowbody electric bass guitar, and the second production electric bass guitar after the Fender Precision Bass debuted in 1951. Due to the use of K-162 by a bassist of Howlin' Wolf, Andrew "Blueblood" McMahon, it is commonly known as the "Howlin Wolf" bass. These instruments[clarification needed] are believed to be the first semi-hollow electrics (i.e., thinline-hollowbody electric with solid center-block), predating the Gibson ES-335 by six years. Their unique design[clarification needed] featured a flat top with no f-holes, a free-floating arched back, and two braces running along the top. The result was an semi-acoustic instrument that was feedback-resistant while retaining natural acoustic resonances. In 1954, Kay added the K-160 bass to its catalog with baritone tuning, according to the catalog, "tuned like the first four guitar strings but one octave lower." Structurally this bass was basically same as K-162 bass, except for the higher pitched tuning and the addition of a white pickguard.
In the late 1950s, various guitars in the Kay line were assigned new model numbers; according to the 1959 catalog, the Thin Twin became K5910 and the Electronic Bass became K5965. Both instruments remained in Kay's catalog offerings with only minor cosmetic 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
In 1957, president Sydney Katz introduced the Gold “K” line of archtop and solid body electric guitars to compete with major manufacturers like Fender, Gibson, and Gretsch. The gold “K” Line featured the Jazz Special, Artist, Pro, Upbeat, Jazz II, and Jazz Special Bass. Gold “K” guitars used the same hardware as top manufacturers. However, there were truss rod and neck issues.
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 called “Kessel” or “Kleenex Box” pickups. 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, oversized 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 Kay discontinued the Gold line in 1962.
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Kamico guitars were lower-priced versions of Kay's original guitars. They were 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.
In 1937, Kay began to produce a 3/4 size upright bass, which is widely believed to be their Concert or C-1 bass. Like their guitar manufacturing, 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.
After the dissolve of Kay/Valco in 1968, the Engelhardt-Link company bought the upright bass and cello lines[clarification needed] at the asset auction in 1969, and continue to produce the same instrument lines till today. 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.
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- Alvin Youngblood Hart American blues guitarist/songwriter
- Annie Clark of St. Vincent
- Barney Kessel, American jazz/blues guitarist/session musician prominent in the 1950s and 60’s. Kessel endorsed the Jazz Special, Artist and Pro guitars, but left to join Gibson after three years.
- Big Joe Williams, American blues guitarist/songwriter.
- Bill Black, upright bassist for Elvis Presley
- Bob Dylan
- Eric Clapton, Singer and lead guitarist of the band Cream
- Howlin' Wolf, blues singer
- Roscoe Holcomb, American Banjoist http://www.banjohangout.org/archive/90739
- Jack White, American singer/guitarist of rock bands The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather.
- Jimmy Reed, Chicago blues singer/guitarist - Reed's guitar tone is the most famous example of the unique, thick & biting "Kay sound."
- Jose Silva, American plectrum Banjoist http://www.banjohangout.org/archive/217778
- Mike Rutherford, guitarist and bassist of Genesis, uses a Kay Speed Demon in the music video for the Genesis song I Can't Dance
- Paul McCartney of The Beatles, who has the Kay upright bass originally owned by Bill Black and heard on "Heartbreak Hotel" and many other classic Elvis Presley recordings. He also played a black Kay Jazz Special Bass guitar on Wings' Red Rose Speedway This Bass also appears in the official music videos for "Junior's Farm" and "Ebony and Ivory". http://kayvintagereissue.com/vintageplayers.php
- Phil Alvin of The Blasters
- Robert DeLeo and Dean DeLeo of the Stone Temple Pilots
- Robert Pete Williams, American blues guitarist/songwriter
- Ry Cooder
- T Bone BurnettAmerican Guitarist http://kayvintagereissue.com/vintageplayers.php
- Tom Morello guitarist of Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave
- Sarah McLachlan
- Sheryl Crow
Kay Kraft venetian guitar played by Josh White
Kay flattop guitar
Archtop guitar with Kay style head
K1160 parlor guitar (ca.1966)
Value Leader K6530
Thin Twin K-161 (1952–60) / Silvertone 1369L (1957)
Kay Fuzz Tone
1947 Kay L-30 Double Bass owned by Chubby Jackson
- "1961 Kay Catalog" (PDF). Kay Musical Instrument Co.
- "Kay/Silvertone: Speed Demon (K573) c. 1964". VintageSilvertone.com.
- "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).
- Michael Wright (February 2000). "1000 Years of the Guitar, Part 2". Vintage Guitar.
- Lynn Wheelwright (September 2008). "Stromberg Electro". Vintage Guitar.
- "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.
- Stromberg Electro Instruments (advertisement on catalog). Chicago Musical Instrument. 1929.
Operated from light socket alternating current. No batteries required.
- Maria Dugandzic-Pasic (2010), Croatians of Chicagoland - Images of America, Arcadia Publishing, p. 22, ISBN 978-0-7385-7819-4
- "History of Henry Kuhrmeyer and the Kay Musical Instrument Company. Contains Engelhardt Information". Kay Bass Information and Registration. KayBass.com.
- "Kay History". KingOfKays.com.
- Wright, Michael. "Jack Westheimer — Pioneer of Global Guitarmaking". Vintage Gutiar (July 1999).
In August ’69, the Valco/Kay assets were auctioned off and W.M.I. purchased the rights to the Kay brand name. W.M.I. began to slowly transition Teisco del Rey guitars to the Kay brand name, which gave them greater credibility with dealers. This change was completed by around ’73 and the Teisco del Rey name then disappeared. This explains why you will occasionally see a Teisco guitar with a Kay logo.
- Fjestad & Blue Book.
- "Kay Vintage Reissue Catalog". Kay Guitar Company. 2009.
- "Kay Guitars (reissued in 2008-2009)". Archived from the original on 2008-03-11.
- "The Story of Kay Guitars". MogrelGuitars.com.
- "Silvertone Thin Twin 1369L (1957)". VintageSilvertones.com.
- "1959 Kay Catalog" (PDF). Kay Musical Instrument Co.
- "Ry's Hardware". RyCooder.nl.
- "1966 Kay Catalog" (PDF). Kay Musical Instrument Co., a division of the Seeburg Corporation.
- "Silvertone 1413L (ca.1965) - Kay". VintageSilvertones.com.
- "1960 Kay Catalog" (PDF). Kay Musical Instrument Co.
- "The Rory Gallagher Instrument Archive". RoryGallagher.com.
- 1963 Truetone Jazz King Vintage Electric Guitar AKA Silvertone - Kay Speed Demon model K573 (video).
Note: Not yet found sources other than YouTube.
- "A short timeline of Kay and Engelhardt upright basses". Everything 2. — compact timeline, based on the below.
- "A history of Kay and Engelhardt upright basses". KayBass.com. — detailed history.
- "The Story of Kay Guitars". MogrelGuitars.com. Archived from the original on 24 April 2012. — history focused on the development of early electric guitars, based on the other references.
- "Kay History". KingOfKays.com. — another short history, which covers slightly different topics.
- "Kay Vintage Catalog (1953-1987)". Kay Musical Instruments / Kay Guitar Company.
- "Antique Vintage Guitars Info".
- "Vintage American". KingOfKays.com.
- 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.
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- Current companies
- Engelhardt-Link, upright bass and cello manufacturer that took over Kay's product lines in 1969
- Kay Guitar Company, which uses Kay brand in 2000s (decade) (not the successor)
- 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)