In 1928 Henry ‘Kay’ Kuhrmeyer and his backers Stromberg and Voisinet were responsible for what was perhaps the first commercially available electric guitar, the Stromberg Electro. Of course, electric guitars already existed at this point, but Kuhrmeyer found a way to mass-produce and market them on a level never seen before.
Shortly thereafter, in 1931, Kuhrmeyer bought out his financial partners and founded the Kay Musical Instrument Company in Chicago. By 1935 the company had built a new factory in the city and was producing 100,000 instruments a year, including mandolins, lap steels and banjos.
The Kay Company sold these instruments under various brand names, such as Groeschel, Stromberg, Kay Kraft, Kay, Kaywood, Lark, Kamico, Arch, and Arch Kraft. Kay Guitars also worked with other companies and distributors, who often ordered custom guitars adorned with their own branding.
Naturally, this caused confusion. Guitars made by Kay—as well as those built by local rivals Harmony—were marketed under many names, depending on the catalog they were sold from: Silvertone, sold by Sears; Truetone, sold by Western Auto; Custom Kraft, the house brand of St Louis Supply Company; JCPenney’s Penncrest line; Airline, originally marketed and sold by Montgomery Ward; Old Kraftsman, the Spiegel catalog brand; and Rex parlor guitars, sold by Gretsch.
For the most part, these were standard blue-collar guitars. By 1938, over 60% of Kay’s finished instruments were sold outside of Chicago by these distributors.
As if that weren’t enough, Kay also made amplifiers. This work was, however, contracted out to competing independent firm Valco in the 1950s. Around this time Kuhrmeyer also hired three luthiers from another local rival, Lyon & Healy, to help push the design of the his company’s guitars, especially their archtops.
The War for the Windy City
Home to Harmony, Lyon & Healy and Valco – itself responsible for National and Supro – Chicago was a competitive location for Kay Guitars to install. In 1967 Valco purchased the company and continued to produce Kay guitars, the only notable change being the name on the headstock, which now read Valco.
Unfortunately, only a few years later, Valco dissolved under the weight of competition from the Japanese market, poor inventory management, growing debt and more. But the Kay brand name survived. It was purchased in 1969 by Weiss Musical Instruments, who put the name on the headstocks of their guitars imported from Japan so that they sounded familiar and were more marketable to American retailers.
Blue Collar, White Stripes
Many of the countless guitars produced by Kay are still available on the vintage market, under a variety of names. Because so many were produced and their quality was often considered inferior to that of Gibson and Fender instruments – especially after the arrival of solidbody guitars in the 1950s – there was a time when you could find them in pawnshops and thrift stores for the next – price down to nothing. Then the white stripes arrived…
Jack White’s use of Kay products, including his Valco-made Res-O-Glass Airline and Kay Archtop, inspired something of a resurgence, even though Kay guitars never achieved the reverence of America’s top brands. .
White’s archtop was considered a Kay K6533 value leader. The guitar was originally a tobacco sunburst model but was wrapped in Kraft paper in 2001 – supposedly to stop feedback through the f-holes, but White ignored the issue in several interviews.
Regardless of its finish, White’s use of the K6533 proved that great music could indeed be extracted from mass-produced “budget” instruments by the likes of Kay and Harmony, and sent many musicians in search of their own low-cost vintage instruments – driving up the price of vintage Kay guitars.
The legacy lives on
Kay instrument serial numbers can be difficult to trace, as they often corresponded to the batch manufactured at the time and changed from model to model. As for construction, pre-1960 tops on archtops and flat tops were typically spruce, although cheaper versions featured birch tops, backs, and sides. Mahogany and maple were also commonly used on backs and sides. Some early Kay instruments had carved tops, but they were usually rolled and pressed – a cheaper and faster way to produce an arched top.
While some Kay-made guitars featured maple or mahogany necks, the most common wood used for budget models was poplar. Fingerboards were typically Brazilian rosewood until the 1960s when they changed to Indian rosewood or maple that had been painted or stained a darker color. If your Kay has a zero fret, it came after 1968 when the company was owned by Valco. Steel tie rods were commonly used in collars until the early 1960s when adjustable tie rods became more common. Some claim that Kay Guitars used DeArmond or Gibson pickups – they didn’t. The pickups were wound by Kay factory workers in-house.
As for the instruments themselves, Kay guitars have been both criticized and celebrated. While the company mass-produced guitars to sell at lower prices, it also made custom instruments for artists. Kay guitars have been seen in the hands of Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Beck, Joe Walsh and many more. Elvis Presley’s first guitar was a Kay flat acoustic.
Over the company’s 38-year history, it has put instruments in the hands of music legends and, more importantly, working-class musicians for whom access to such tools was unheard of. not always easy. We think it’s a legacy we can be proud of.
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