About Kay Electric Guitars

by Dan Bradley
Like so many rockers, the company crashed soon after its peak.

Like so many rockers, the company crashed soon after its peak.

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The Kay Co. can be traced back to the 1890s. It began in Chicago as the Groeschel Mandolin Company. It later became Stromberg-Voisinet (1921), and by 1934 was known as the Kay Musical Instrument Company. The company originally manufactured mandolins, banjos and other traditional stringed instruments. In 1923, Henry "Kay" Kuhrmeyer joined the company. He worked his way up and finally bought the business in 1928. Kuhrmeyer knew just what bandwagon to hop on because that same year they began producing electrical guitars and equipment. The Kay Company subsequently did a lot of business during the electric guitar boom of the 1960s.

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The Beginning of Electric

The Stromberg Electro was the first documented American electric guitar (1928). Kay did not invent the concept of converting vibration into electrical impulse by way of a magnet, they just mass-produced it. Problems plagued the Stromberg Electro -- the weight of the pickup necessitated a more secure attachment to the guitar's body than was in place. Often the guitars would sustain damage that was beyond a justifiable cost to repair. The design problems, coupled with the onset of the Depression, kept Kay from aggressively producing electric guitars until the 1950s and 1960s (although they did try electric banjos for a spell). The fad took a while to catch on, in part because a new guitar, complete with amplifier, might cost more than $200 in the instrument's early days (compare that with $80 for a new washing machine).

The First Guitars

The Stromberg Electro still looked like an acoustic guitar -- a hollow wooden body with a circular cutout below the strings. The onboard pickups made these early guitars heavy and expensive (even somewhat dangerous) -- all this trouble for what was still not a very powerful sound. Stylistically, Kay electric guitars began to move away from their acoustic predecessors by the 1950s. Guitars like the Kay Thin Twin (a closed hollow body from 1952) became stalwarts of the era. Chicago-area blues enthusiasts like Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Reed enjoyed these guitars for their light weight and clean, powerful sound.

Boom Guitars

Kay electric guitars of the 1960s most closely resembled Fender's classic Stratocaster or Telecaster design -- a square-ish, figure-eight body with deep cutouts at the base of the neck. Kay guitars generally have one or two pickups and a smallish, beginner-level frame. They are known among enthusiasts today for their distinctive tinny blues sound. The aging company took extreme measures later in the decade to seem hip: flashy, chunky pickups, shiny inlays in the neck and beveled angles on multiple edges of the body and head. The Airline brand had pick guards resembling racing stripes shooting lengthwise across the body. Some of the more classical-looking early-'60s guitars had S-shaped holes at the top and bottom that imitated those of a violin.

Later Guitars

Kay was sold to Valco in 1967 and Kay/Valco was subsequently out of business by 1969. Their assets were sold off several times. The Kay brand name became affiliated with W.M.I. and then Teisco Del Ray guitars (previously known for making circle- and pentagon-shaped instruments) in the 1970s. Kay is now a brand of Asian-made budget guitars. Kay manufactured guitars under many different brand names over the years, including Airline, Barclay, Beltone, Old Kraftsman, Penncrest, Silvertone, Supertone and Truetone. They were often sold through department stores, such as Sears, Roebuck (Silvertone), Montgomery Ward (Airline) and J.C. Penney (Penncrest).

About the Author

Dan Bradley has been writing in various forms since 2002. He has published blogs at Chicago Now, satire at The Heckler, written poetry and shorts and even composed grants for Goodwill. Bradley was awarded a Caterpillar fellowship in 2002. He graduated with a Master of Arts in English from Bradley University (no relation).

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