jimmy-reedI purchased an original 1950s Kay Thin Twin K-161 “Jimmy Reed” style guitar that I am planning on restoring. Looks like most all the original parts are there, but the guitar is disassembled and will need plenty of work. I always liked the sound and look of these guitars. It has the vintage vibe and hopefully will have the sound that players like Jimmy Reed made with his.

I was thinking of getting one of the Fritz Brothers Kay Reissues that are now available. T Bone Burnett was playing one with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss a few years ago. It is hard to find an original one from the 1950s in decent condition for a price that is affordable. I came across this original one that someone started to restore, but never finished. I was up for a challenge so I picked up this box of parts to make into a decent Kay Thin Twin guitar.

Kay Musical Instrument Company manufactured guitars (and other stringed instruments) in the United States from the 1930s until the 1960s. Established in 1931 at Chicago, Illinois by Henry Kay Kuhrmeyer, from the assets of the former Stromberg-Voisinet, which was founded as Groeschel Mandolin Company in 1890. Most of their guitars were value beginner models, but they have also offered a few higher-end models including the Twin Thin, the Jazz and Pro electric bass. As well as the Barney Kessel models. Kay guitars have found a cult-like following among tone junkies, notably T-Bone Burnett and Sean Hurley (John Mayer, session bassist). There’s nothing like the sound of an original, right?

T Bone Burnett with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss playing Kay Thin Twin guitar

T Bone Burnett with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss playing Kay Thin Twin guitar

Kay K-161 Thin Twin electric guitars made from 1952 to 1959. This one looks like early 1950s (but hard to tell exact date). Commonly referred to as the “Jimmy Reed” guitar because he was pictured on an album cover with one. The Kay Musical Instrument Company mass produced instruments in the USA and the K-161 Thin Twin was introduced not long after Gibson’s Les Paul. The Thin Twin is a semi-hollow body guitar and is NOT a thin-line. It is larger than its name “thin” implies as it is really a reference to the unique appearance of the dual pickups, having a very slim “blade” profile. The guitar’s body was 2 3⁄4 inches (70 mm) deep. Underneath the pickguard these thin blade pickups are actually large single coil pickups.

Hubert Sumlin and the Howlin' Wolf Band with Kay Twin Twin guitars

Hubert Sumlin and the Howlin’ Wolf Band with Kay Twin Twin guitars

These guitars were also sold through catalogs branded as Silvertone (Sears Roebuck) and Old Kraftsman (Spiegel). The Silvertone version usually has a slightly different “pointier” headstock shape. The one I am restoring has the Kay style headstock.

Kay also built one of the earliest electric bass guitars using the similar “thin” single coil pickups called the Pro Bass. Commonly referred to as the “Howlin’ Wolf bass” as it was used by Andrew “Blueblood” McMahon in the Wolf band. The Kay Pro bass was the second electric bass on the market, built by Kay in response to Fender’s Electric Precision Bass. Unlike the Precision Bass that has a solid body, the Kay Pro Bass is a hollow body and has a different sound. These original basses are sought after and still used today in some studios. These basses have also been reissued by Kay.

Paul McCartney playing black Kay Jazz Bass

Paul McCartney playing black Kay Jazz Bass

Even Paul McCarney played a double cutaway Kay Jazz Bass model with Wings during their 1970s tour.

Kay offered their first electric guitar in 1936—five years after the Rickenbacker Frying pan, and the same year as the Gibson ES-150. Nonetheless, Kay is considered an electric guitar pioneer because Kuhrmeyer bought their past company, Stromberg-Voisinet, and produced the first commercial electric guitar, the Stromberg Electro, in 1928.

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, Truetone for Western Auto, ‘Penncrest’ for JC Penney, etc. Also, Kay produced a line of archtop acoustics called Kamico.

Kay’s line included 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.

JIMMY VIVINO - Musical Director / Guitarist Conan O'Brien Show  Playing the Reissue Thin Twin K161VB

Jimmy Vivino – Musical Director / Guitarist from the Conan O’Brien Show and member of the Fab Faux playing the Reissue Thin Twin K161VB

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. Debuting in 1952, with a single cutaway body, a distinctive tortoiseshell pickguard, and “twin thin” blade-style pickups that gave the guitar its name. Kay used these pickups on various Kay electrics dating back to the 1940s including the K-162 Pro Bass. The Kay Thin Twin was a semi-hollow body without F-holes introduced years before the Gibson’s iconic ES-335 semi hollow body guitar.

1950’s Kay Thin Twin Restoration Project

  • Nice flame maple front and back
  • Original electronics with oil in paper caps and pots marked W3738 304544
  • Original pickguard with all original screws
  • Original 3-way switch and switch tip
  • Four original cupcake knobs in nice condition
  • Kay shaped headstock with original single line deluxe Klusons
  • Body and neck refinished in nitro
  • Neck has been reset
  • Binding which is always a big concern on older vintage guitars looks to be 100% intact
  • Jack has been moved from side to top of body (not sure I am happy about this and wish they left it in the original place), Original location plugged before refinish

This guitar has already gone through some restorative work. I will need to complete it.

Original pickguard looks in good condition

Original pickguard looks in good condition

Guitar has had some refinishing which is not desirable for a collectors piece, but this is a player’s grade guitar at best.

Guitar has had some refinishing

Guitar has had some refinishing

Original knobs look good

Original knobs look good

Luckily, the original 3-way switch tip is included as it would be a hard to find part. It has a bit of an unusual shape and unlike a Fender part.

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Kay style headstock

Kay style headstock

Plugged where jack was

Plugged where jack was

Bridge will need some work

Wooden bridge will need some work

Nice flamed maple back and sides

Nice flamed maple back and sides

Original pots and electronics as they appear

Original pots and electronics as they appear

Single coil original pickups

Single coil original pickups

Neck is a nice and beefy 50s style. Not a thin toothpick.

Tuners look good

Tuners look good

The body has two small holes on top plugged before refinish. There are a few areas where there are some slight discolorations. Number L7637-5903 stamped inside body. Does this mean anything to anyone? Most Kay guitars do no even have a serial number.

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Not a super clean guitar, but hopefully will become a great cool old player guitar. These guitars are usually great for the blues.

Should be a challenging and fun project to put this 1950s guitar back to playing condition.

I have started working on this and the first thing was to see if any of the original parts are missing. So far I have found I am missing on string for the pickups, but should be easy to find a replacement.

Mostly hollow body

Mostly hollow body

Interesting construction. I guess you can say it is mostly hollow with long braces down the middle of the body.

All original electronics

All original electronics

Pickups are large magnets with a coils around it.

Original thin twin pickups

Original thin twin pickups

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I mounted the pickups onto the original pickguard that is in excellent condition. The original switch may need some work as it is quite loose.

Mounted the pickups to the original pickguard

Mounted the pickups to the original pickguard

I will post more pictures as this project progresses.

Some video from YouTube featuring the Kay Thin Twin K-161 Jimmy Reed Guitar. This guitar has a cool bluesy sound especially when plugged into a vintage old tube amp.