The Kay guitar company's orgins 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.
Now I don't know who was first out of the gate, but Kay's current website claims that they were the first American company to produce an electric guitar (a fairly signifigant claim if true). Regardless, it is widely
accepted that Kay was indeed one of the earliest 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. The company changed hands a few times since then and today there
are currently budget, asian-manufactured products sold under the Kay brandname available.
Kay manufactured guitars under several different brandnames, so for those interested here is an incomplete 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 Kraftsmen - 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
Now here's an other article on the Kay history...Enjoy
Kay Musical Instrument Company was a prolific American manufacturer
of musical instruments that operated from the 1930s through the 1960s. Although Kay's firstelectric guitar was offered in 1936
(the same year as Gibson ES-150, five years after the Frying pan),
Kay is known as an electric guitar pioneer because their past
company Stromberg-Voisinet produced the first commercial electric
guitar, the Stromberg Electro, in 1928.
Stromberg-Voisinet Banjo Ukulele Early history
The Kay Musical Instrument Company grew from the Groeschel
Mandolin Company (or Groehsl Instrument Company) in Chicago,
established in 1890. 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 the investor, he bought the company and started producing electric guitars
The new company, "Kay Musical Instruments" was formally
established in 1931 from the assets of the former Stromberg-Voisinet
company by Kuhrmeyer.
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 Spanish acoustics,Hawaiian lap steels,
hollow-body acoustic-electrics, 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 very prolific manufacturer of "house branded" guitars
and folk instruments for other Chicago-based instrument makers, and,
at times, even 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.
Retirement of Kuhrmeyer
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.
The assets of Kay/Valco was auctioned off in 1969. The upright bass
and cello lines were bought by Engelhardt-Link, a new company formed
by previous Valco member, and still continues the production (see #Kay Basses for details).The Kay name and some of its trademarks (such as Knox) were acquired by Teisco's importer, Weiss Musical Instruments,
who went on to market imported guitars and amplifiers under those brands.
In 2008-2009, Kay Guitar Company in California reissued 12 models
of vintage Kay guitars and basses manufactured by Fritz Brothers
A vintage 1960s "Truetone" archtop electric made by Kay ,
Kay primarily produced inexpensive department store style guitars
from the 1930s to the 1960s under various brand names. As well as
their own name, Kay manufactured guitars branded as 'Silvertone'
for Sears, 'Sherwood' and 'Airline' for Montgomery Wards,
'Old Kraftsman' for Spiegel, 'Custom Kraft' for St. Louis Music, 'Truetone' for Western Auto, 'Penncrest' for JC Penney, etc.
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.
Gold “K” Line
Gold "K" headstock
Barney Kessel Pro,In 1957 president Sydney Katz introduced the
Gold “K” line of archtop and solid body electric guitars to compete with major manufacturers like Fender, Gibson, and Gretsch. The gold “K”
Line featured the Jazz Special,Artist, Pro, Upbeat, 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 referred
to as “Kessel” or “Kleenex Box” pickups. The Jazz Special Bass has a single coil chrome pickup.
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 the Gold line was discontinued in 1962.
Kamico guitars were the lower-priced versions of Kay's original guitars,
and 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.
Gretsch Tone King (1939) by KayKay also began to produce in 1937 a 3/4 size
upright bass, which is widely believed to be the Concert or C-1 bass.
Much like the guitars manufactured, 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.
The Engelhardt-Link company bought the upright bass and cello lines at the
auction of Kay/Valco assets in 1969, and has continued to produce the same
line of instruments to this day. Still 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.