Chicago’s Kay Musical Instrument Company pumped out some assembly-line junkers in its time. But it also made some real treasures. Before WWII, it was a real innovator in guitar design. Our Kay is an example from the late 1930s. We got her from the incomparable Steve Chipman of Vintage Parlor Guitars in Chester, Vermont, who is well-known for restoring rare oddities like this with some really fine craftsmanship and care. Kay is no exception. She’s not a high class instrument, but, make no mistake, she’s a fine ass lady all the same.
She sounds like maybe she was built out of wood from the staircase of a haunted house. But creakier, and more clamorous. Like maybe the stairs were roughed in with scrap lumber. Probably the staircase was dangerous. Like the one the guy falls down backwards in Psycho. Which would make sense, because if you knock on Kay, it sounds like there might be some ghosts in there.
Most guitars these days are “X-braced” under the soundboard, which is thought to provide more sustain and resonance than the old “ladder-braced” designs, like Kay. But there are those that still cherish the punchy thud of a ladder-braced guitar. She is also an archtop (pressed, not carved), meaning the sound board is convex instead of flat. Again, not the most resonant design. But if she didn’t sound a little like a plywood box, she wouldn’t sound like the 1930s.
So Kay has a sound that modern listeners are not used to. Some might even say she sounds feeble, compared to the big booming dreadnought cannons we’re used to today. But she sounds of her era, of an earlier time in music, when musicians had to use technique, not technology, to make a song sound sweet. They had to find a musical relationship with the instruments they had to work with, one way or another. Whether we manage that or not ourselves, Kay helps us connect with that musical experience. And that makes her, for us, as valuable as an instrument can be.
She’s weathered the years well. Not a crack on her, though plenty of dings and scrapes and play-wear. She didn’t sit in a closet all this time. She’s been around. It is almost certain that someone was playing some of the classic oldtime numbers we play, like Rank Stranger, on this guitar 75 years before we picked her up. We like that thought. We like that she is not one of the popular Gibson or Martin models from her time that were treated like queens over the years and are sold for thousands upon thousands of dollars today. Kay is modest, and odd, and full of secrets, and we love her.