The Kay guitar company's origins date back to the 1890's, starting with the Groeschel Mandolin Company of Chicago, Illinois. The company's name was changed to "Stromberg-Voisinet" in 1921, and shortlyafterwards, in 1923, Henry Kay "Hank" Kuhrmeyer (the origin of the name "Kay") joined the company and quickly worked his way up to the top. By 1928, Kuhrmeyer had bought the company and that same year the company started producing electric guitars and amps.
Kay was indeed one of the earliest American manufacturers of electric guitars. Things progressed, and by 1934, the company was officially known as the "Kay Musical Instrument Company". The company became larger and more successful over the years, leading to the addition of a new factory in Elk Grove Village, Illinois in 1964. But somehow by 1965, the company had hit rough times and was bought by Seeburg, a jukebox manufacturer that sold Kay to Valco in 1967.
Kay/Valco went out of business soon afterwards, and in 1969 its assets were auctioned off. Syl Weindling and Barry Hornstein of W.M.I. (the main importer of Teisco Del Rey products) purchased the Kay brand name during this time. As a result of this, the names "Teisco" and "Kay" were used on Teisco Del Rey guitars for a while in the early 70's. In 1980 the Kay Guitar Company was purchased by Tony Blair and is currently active selling Kay brand and Santa Rosa brand guitars, Chicago Blues harmonicas and accessories and of course the Kay Vintage Reissue line of professional guitars and basses.
Kay manufactured guitars under several different brandnames, so for those interested here is our best attempt to match some of the more common brandnames to the stores that distributed them:
- Airline - distributed by Montgomery Wards
- Barclay - Unity Buying Service
- Beltone - distributed by Monroe or P&H
- Custom Kraft - St. Louis Music
- Holiday - distributed by Aldens
- Old Kraftsman - distributed by Spiegel
- Orpheum - distributed by Wards Catalogue
- Penncrest - distributed by J.C. Penney
- Sherwood Deluxe - Montgomery Wards
- Silvertone - Sears & Roebuck
- Supertone - Sears & Roebuck
- Suprema - distributed by Eaton's Canada
- Truetone - distributed by Western Auto
The Kay Guitar Company has been the major producer of guitars since 1890. Most players do not realize that in 1928, Kay was the first company to start production of electric guitars in the USA. From 1952 through 1964, The Kay Guitar Company excelled at producing quality professional electric guitars with unique designs and features. The Kay Gold Line professional series became synonymous with that rich gutsy Blues/Jazz sound that eventually became known as Rock and Roll. This unique Blues sound was not available from any other guitar of that time. For the past decade, vintage Kay instruments have been fetching high prices and have had increasing interest from collectors and players because of the cool look and unique Blues/Jazz sound. Part of this special Blues sound came from the triple chamber design and the hand-wound blade pickups on the Kay K161V Thin Twin and the Kay K162V Electronic "Pro Bass" Guitar.
The K161 Kay Thin Twin electric guitar was originally introduced in 1952 and was known as the "Jimmy Reed" or "Howling' Wolf" model. "T-Bone" Burnett played a Thin Twin with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss at the 2009 Grammy Awards. The Thin Twin was the first guitar that was able to create that unique Blues sound. The special Kay interior bracing made the instrument a favorite among Blues players as well as rockers of the '50s and & '60s. The hand-wound pickups and separate center chamber allowed an extra biting natural distortion without feedback. The combination was a mellow clean gritty sound with natural sustain. The pickups are so hot that they needed to be contained in the center chamber, which is why the Twin Thin and Pro Bass made anyone who played it feel there was nothing else like it. The Pro Bass had a unique feature of a switch that cut off the high frequencies to reproduce an "upright Bass" sound but in the off position the Pro Bass gives a punchy Jazz sound. The Pro Bass comes with electric flatwound bass strings.
So why now?
At Kay, we knew this project was not just assembling parts and a Kay "Kel-von-a-tor" chevron headstock logo and calling it a Kay Vintage Reissue. The 1950's guitars of that time not only have a special look, but a special sound. To just make another mass-produced vintage looking guitar, as other companies have already done, was not enough. Only an electric guitar that could duplicate the '50s sound would be successful. To remake the products in the United States was a challenge, but it was more of a challenge to reproduce the instrument off-shore and still maintain the necessary strict quality control. The Vintage Reissue Line sat on the back burner for many years until all the components were able to come together. The Vintage Kay Reissue project came alive when Roger Fritz came into the picture.
Along comes Roger Fritz.
Roger Fritz is a professional luthier who makes guitars and basses for musicians like George Harrison and Randy Jackson. Roger is also a bass player who fell in love with the old Kay 1950's bass after having a friend recommend he play one. Roger, who had worked for Gibson in Nashville on their Bluegrass instruments, created his own company, Fritz Brothers Guitars in Alabama is making custom hand-made instruments for professional players worldwide. Roger was so enamored with the sound of the Kay (K162V) Pro Bass that he developed a clone and made them available for sale under the Fritz name. Roger Fritz was the missing link that was needed to make the project a reality: a Luthier that had a love for the instruments to be produced. Roger joined our team in early 2007 to help create and develop all the parts and features that made the Kay products different from all the rest. Most of the parts and molds were no longer available so everything had to be created from scratch. The pickguards, the knobs, the hand wound pickups, the tailpiece, and even the baseball bat style toggle switch cover all had to be manufactured using original parts as templates for the new reissued versions. Finding the parts was difficult and surprisingly expensive since we needed to search stores, eBay and contact collectors to find perfect originals to reproduce. The going price for a good vintage Jazz Special Bass today is $7,000. But after finding the parts and vintage instruments from avid collectors like Gary Walko, Vintage Kay historians like Michael Wright and Jay Scott, and dozens of avid fans, the project was able to take form.