Kay Guitars are among the most respected, well-established instrument brands and their presence in music is wide-ranging. This is why even some of the greatest musicians can attest to the great quality of Kay Guitars.
Known today as “Kay Guitar Company,” the brand may not be as illustrious anymore when compared to the likes of Gibson and Fender. However, their guitars are well-loved not only by superstars but also beginners who needed an affordable alternative.
Even with the level of success that Kay Guitar Company has achieved, the brand is not without struggles and even faced the risk of closing down for good. But since the company has an excellent track record in building instruments, it didn’t take too long for the company to get back on track.
Kay Guitars: A brief history
Established by Henry “Kay” Kuhrmeyer in Chicago in 1931, Kay Musical instrument Company’s is one of the most enduring guitar brands to ever exist on American soil.
Kay’s history goes a long way to 1890, before Kurmeyer – along with his partners – acquired the business from the Andrew Groehsl Company. It has since then blossomed into a popular name that is usually associated with some of the most iconic musical artists in modern history.
Like most legendary guitar brands, Kay started manufacturing folk instruments such as banjos and mandolins, before expanding to include violins, cellos and upright basses, as well as archtop, classical and electric guitars.
After Kuhrmeyer retired from the industry in 1955, the company experienced a significant decline and was sold twice before closing down in 1968, due to financial setbacks under the ownership of guitar and amp manufacturer Valco. Fortunately, Kay made a comeback the following year and has continued producing instruments ever since.
Where are Kay Guitars made?
Kay was famous for producing budget instruments that were intended for novices, but they also made models for professional musicians and rockstars. When the company started out, Kay was based in Chicago Illinois where their instruments were produced. However, in recent years, a vast majority of their products are built in China.
Prominent Kay Guitar models
Kay Reissue 1957 Barney Kessel
In 1956, Kay Musical Instruments asked jazz guitar legend Barney Kessel to be an endorser of a new series of pro-grade guitars. As a result, Kay and Kessel came up with three signature guitars namely: The Pro, Artist and Jazz Special, which were all reissued in 2019.
Barney Kessel is a guitar legend who was revered even by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison. Although he was known as a great jazz innovator in the ‘50s, Kessel also contributed so much to blues, pop, r&b and rock with his session work. A consummate professional, Kessel has worked with the likes of the Beach Boys, Dinah Washington, Ike and Tina Turner, and The Righteous Brothers, to name a few.
K-161 Thin Twin guitar
The ‘50s was a remarkable decade for Kay with the K-161 Thin Twin leading the charge in 1952. The Thin Twin emerged as one of the most popular guitars in Kay’s wide-ranging collection. Later on, it was paired with a bass counterpart known as the K-161 Electronic Bass, which was dubbed by some as the “Howlin’ Wolf” bass due to Howlin’ Wolf bass player Andrew McMahon’s regular usage of the bass.
Gold “K” Line
The Kay guitar catalog won’t be complete without the Gold “K” line, which were intended to contend with the more dominant brand names of the ‘50s. Introduced in 1957, the new line was composed of archtop and solid body electric guitars which included models such as the Artist, Jazz Special, Jazz Special Bass and Upbeat, among others.
Although the Gold line is sought-after by vintage collectors today, it was discontinued in 1962 due to its neck and truss rod issues. Moreover, Kay also faced a lot of hurdles in marketing them to musicians who are seeking high-end instruments.
Famous Kay Guitar players and artists
From The Beatles to The Who, Rage Against the Machine to Taylor Swift, Kay Guitars have landed on the hands of countless superstars through the decades.
Here are some of the most prominent artists that have used Kay Guitars on their recordings and live performances:
- Barney Kessel
- Bob Dylan
- Chet Atkins
- Elvis Costello
- Elvis Presley
- Eric Clapton
- Jimi Hendrix
- John Lee Hooker
- Paul McCartney
- Pete Townshend
- Randy Jackson
- Sarah McLachlan
- Sheryl Crow
- Tom Morello
- Tom Petty
Are Kay Guitars good?
Kay Guitar Company has established itself as one of the most important brand names in the history of contemporary music. Their long list of famous endorsers and users is a testament to the quality of guitars that the company has produced through the decades.
Every Kay guitar is definitely capable of creating great sounding music and you surely won’t be disappointed if you obtained one for yourself. However, throughout their existence, they have focused most of their efforts on providing cheap, student guitars for those who are just starting out. If you are looking for premium quality instruments, then Kay may not be your best option.
Even though Kay has built guitars for some of the most respected musicians in the industry, those instruments are hard to come by in the second-hand market. Save for a few archtops, most vintage Kay guitars are also very cheap as they are not highly-favored by collectors. Moreover, some of their old guitars didn’t even have any brand markings on them and it would be very difficult to prove that they are indeed made by Kay
Kay Guitars are an essential part of our culture and heritage, but if you are planning to buy a brand new one today, you might want to temper your expectations since their main focus is to build budget instruments that were crafted overseas.