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Kay Musical Instrument Company
IndustryMusical instruments
PredecessorGroeschel Mandolin Co. (1890), Stromberg-Voisinet (1921)
SuccessorW.M.I. (1969-1980),
The Kay Guitar Company (1980-present)
FounderHenry "Kay" Kuhrmeyer
Key people
Sidney M. Katz
Tony Blair
Productsguitars, guitar amplifiers, upright basses, violins, cellos, banjos, lap steel guitars
BrandsKay, Knox, Kent, Kamico
OEM brands: Silvertone, Sherwood, Airline, Old Kraftsman, Custom Kraft,[2]Truetone,[3]Penncrest.

Kay Musical Instrument Company is a musical instrument manufacturer of the United States, in operation from the 1890 to present day.

Kay was established in 1931 in Chicago, Illinois, by Henry Kay Kuhrmeyer, from the assets of the former Stromberg-Voisinet (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. However, the Kuhrmeyer-owned Stromberg-Voisinet brand had produced the Stromberg Electro even earlier, in 1928, making the short-lived model arguably the first commercial electric guitar.[4][5][6][7]


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

Early history (1890-1931)

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[] 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.[9]

Revive (1969-present)

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[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][12]

In 1980, A.R. Enterprises (Tony Blair) purchased the Kay trademark.[12]

In 2008-2009, Kay Guitar Company in California reissued 12 models of vintage Kay guitars and basses[13] manufactured by Fritz Brothers Guitars.[14] As of 2013, production and sales of these guitars have continued.[15]

Kay guitars

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

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,[2]Truetone for Western Auto,[3] 'Penncrest' for JC Penney, etc.[16] 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

Kay K-161 Thin Twin[17] (1952-1959/1966)
Kay K-162 Electronic Bass (1952-1959/1966)

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 "fire stripe" 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 a 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.[18] 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

Gold "K" headstock
Barney Kessel Pro[18] (1957-1962)
Jazz Special Bass (1957-1962)

In 1957, president Sydney Katz introduced the Gold "K" line of archtop and solid body electric guitars[14] to compete with major manufacturers like Fender, Gibson, and Gretsch. The gold "K" Line featured the Jazz Special, Artist, Pro, Upbeat,[18]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.


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.

Kay basses

Gretsch Tone King (1939) by Kay

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.

Notable players


Kay Kraft Venetian guitar played by Fields Ward of The Bog Trotters Band, in Galax, Vieginia in 1937 (clip).jpg

Kay Kraft Venetian guitar played by Fields Ward (1937)

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 (c. 1966)[20]

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

Value Leader K6530

Tour guide with Silvertone, Sun Studio.jpg

Thin Twin K-161 (1952–60) / Silvertone 1369L (1957)[17]

Natalie Warner Guitar.jpg

Speed Demon K318[20] /
Silvertone 1413L[21]

Kay Fuzz Tone (small).png

Kay Fuzz Tone

1970s KAY Wah 1 wah wah guitar pedal.jpg

Kay Wah Wah 1 (c. 1973)[media 1]

See also


  1. ^ a b "1961 Kay Catalog" (PDF). Kay Musical Instrument Co.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Kay/Silvertone: Speed Demon (K573) c. 1964".
  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.
  10. ^ "Kay History".
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ a b Fjestad & Blue Book.
  13. ^ "Kay Vintage Reissue Catalog". Kay Guitar Company. 2009.
  14. ^ a b "Kay Guitars (reissued in 2008-2009)". Archived from the original on 2008-03-11.
  15. ^
  16. ^ "The Story of Kay Guitars".
  17. ^ a b "Silvertone Thin Twin 1369L (1957)".
  18. ^ a b c "1959 Kay Catalog" (PDF). Kay Musical Instrument Co.
  19. ^ "Ry's Hardware".
  20. ^ a b "1966 Kay Catalog" (PDF). Kay Musical Instrument Co., a division of the Seeburg Corporation.
  21. ^ "Silvertone 1413L (ca.1965) - Kay".
  22. ^ a b c "1960 Kay Catalog" (PDF). Kay Musical Instrument Co.
  23. ^ "The Rory Gallagher Instrument Archive".
  1. ^ Vintage 1970's WAH WAH pedal (video). 2008-08-17.
    DEMO - KAY Wah 1 in current day action.
  2. ^ 1963 Truetone Jazz King Vintage Electric Guitar AKA Silvertone - Kay Speed Demon model K573 (video). 2009-11-02.
    Note: Not yet found sources other than YouTube.



Further reading

  • 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

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

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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