Kay was founded in 1931 by Henry “Kay” Kuhrmeyer. They supplied guitars to Montgomery Wards and others. During the 1950s their electric guitars were competitors for the Silvertone and Danelectro guitars. The company dissolved in 1968. Kay guitars are not currently in production. However, Kay also produced cellos and basses. Engelhardt-Link purchased the acoustic line of instruments from Kay. These are still being produced in Elk Grove Village, IL. The company lineage started with the Groeshel Mandolin Company.

The Groeshel Mandolin Company was established in Chicago in 1890. In 1921, the company was renamed to Stromberg-Voisinet. Stromberg-Voisinet was the Chicago company that became Kay around 1931. Stromberg-Voisinet was one of numerous companies that built musical instruments in Chicago in the early part of the 20th century. Like Regal, Harmony and most of their other competitors, Stromberg-Voisinet made relatively inexpensive instruments that were designed to be sold through catalogs. The 1920s Stromberg-Voisinet instruments were very well made, given their inexpensive prices, and they generally had a unique designs to attract buyers.

Stromberg-Voisinet is particulary well-known among serious students of stringed instrument design for its unique “Venetian” body shape, which was used for its mandolins, tenor guitars and 6-string guitars.

In 1923, Henry Kay Kuhrmeyer joined the company. He later became president. In 1928, with help of an investor, bought the company. The new company, “Kay Musical Instruments” was formally established in 1931 from the assets of Stromberg-Voisinet. Henry Kuhrmeyer, with no musical background, but was financially successful in the musical instrument business.

Mid 1920s Stromberg-Voisinet Hawaiian theme Parlor Guitar from my collection

Stromberg-Voisinet had primarily manufactured mandolins, tenor guitars, tenor banjos and 6-string guitars under its own brand as well as a large number of other brands, as Stromberg-Voisinet was an OEM supplier to many other manufacturers. Kay Musical Instruments continued this practice; however, Kay did sell many instruments under its own brand, “KayKraft.” Kay also made guitars under a few different brand names, such as Silvertone, Truetone, Airline, and Old Kraftsman, among others sold through catalogs which was the practice in this era.

Kuhrmeyer had been able to lure three very talented luthiers away from a large competitor company, Lyon & Healy. Joseph Zorzi, Philip Gabriel and John Abbott designed, built and improved within their trade and brought forth with their talents an archtop guitar.

In 1929-30, Kuhrmeyer served as President of the Chicago Zone of the Association of Musical Merchandise Manufacturers. He was proud of his employees and their many years of experience. Henry was involved in the daily operation of the factory along with the labor negotiations which were always present when dealing with a workforce. Kuhrmeyer negotiated with his employees a 40-hour work week, a first in the music industry.

Kuhrmeyer took the newest technology in amplification and applied it to Stromberg-Voisinet’s guitars. Kuhrmeyer had done considerable work on amplification and worked very closely with the United Reproducers Corporation of St. Charles, Illinois.

Stromberg-Voisinet has a special place in guitar history. Stromberg-Voisinet produced the first commercial electric guitar, the Stromberg Electro, in 1928.

Stromberg/Kay Del Oro, with “resonator” containing the Stromberg electro unit

Interior of the guitar, shows the Stromberg pickup inside

Stromberg-Voisinet “electrified” instruments were developed into a commercial product that was marketed to the public. The Music Trades article explains, “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.”

Stromberg-Voisinet is particulary well-known among serious students of stringed instrument design for its unique “Venetian” body shape, which was used for its mandolins, tenor guitars and 6-string guitars.

With the Stromberg-Voisinet company now recognized as a leader in their field, business expanded quickly, and by 1934 Kuhrmeyer repaid the debts he owed. The Kay Musical Instrument Company moved to a new building, in 1935, at 1640 W. Walnut St. in Chicago, Il.

In 1934 Kay, in response to National’s resonator guitars introduced the “Wood Amplifying Guitar.” It was a faux resonator that used wooden coverplate under which is a “wooden” resonating chamber with a trough that ‘feeds’ the sound upward to the dual grille holes. Only a few were made and they are quite rare today.

1934 Kay Wood Amplifying Guitar extremely rare from the earliest years of the Kay Musical Instrument Company

Kuhrmeyer had begun importing violins and cellos from Germany, but as World War II became reality, trade with Germany became increasingly difficult. In 1937, Kuhrmeyer made his decision to produce cellos and basses at his factory in Chicago, subsequently advertising them in the 1938 catalog.

1940s K–158 was called the Electric Spanish Guitar

Kay did build a line of amps carried over from the old Stromberg company that were also sold through catalogs like Spiegel and others. Kay eventually subcontracted its amplifier production to Chicago music industry rival Valco in the 1950s.

Kay Amp from late 30’s – 40’s

Henry Kuhrmeyer started planning his retirement in 1953. Sidney M. Katz, who had excellent financial backing from family members including Albert Pick, of Picks Hotels, was interested in purchasing the company. After having worked for Harmony Instruments, Katz knew the musical instrument business, but came to work in the accounting department of Kay Musical Instruments for some time before taking over full and complete leadership. In 1955, Kuhrmeyer retired allowing Katz full ownership and responsibility. Kuhrmeyer died March 18, 1956.

Introduced in the 1952 Kay catalog, the new K–161 was featured as the newest development in electric guitars.

The guitar was still large but much thinner at 2–¾” deep with a hollow construction. Advertised as the “Thin Twin” it was a favorite of bluesman Jimmy Reed and was produced under a few different brand names, including Silvertone (sold through Sears catalogs).

The Thin Twin had a curly maple top and back combined with mahogany sides. Today, it’s sort of funny to read about the new “innovations” of this model, such as two pickups, an adjustable truss rod, and a 3–way selector. Costing $125 at the time ($1,140 today), these guitars had a solid run throughout the 1950s.

Popular 1950’s Kay Thin Twin guitars and Kay electric bass

With the Thin Twin being the flagship Kay electric of the time, the most affordable model was the K–125. These were full–scale guitars at 25–¾”, but the entire guitar was only 37” long.

This model featured the same pickup as the Thin Twin but had a solidbody with a tone switch for two different sounds. They only cost $49.50, with an extra $6 for a case (about $500 today). These early small–bodied electrics really blurred the lines between lap steel guitars and what we think of today as standard electric guitars.

Kay K-162 Electric Bass

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 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.

Katz made few changes in the first couple of years, but as profits demanded the majority of the Kay line strengthened its shift toward electric instruments. He did allow the bass and cello line to operate nearly unaffected.

1962 Kay Jazz II Model

Katz tried to develop a stronger marketing plan by obtaining Barney Kessel, a noted guitarist, as an endorser. Arguably one of the finest guitars ever made by Kay, the Gold “K” Barney Kessel Jazz Special was a $400 guitar in 1959, which is a whopping $3,341 today.

Kay Barney Kessel Model

These awesome “K” guitars have some truly memorable characteristics, such as the “Kelvintor” headstock, the “tissue box” pickups, and, of course, the endorsement of Barney Kessel, who was a supremely popular jazz player back in the day.

It seems like Barney’s endorsement ended by 1960, and these upscale Kay jazz boxes ceased production soon after.

Kay Value Leader

Kay Value Leaders first started appearing in 1960, and they were exactly as described: the most affordable thinline electric guitars in the catalog. The three–pickup model was called the #1963, but one and two pickup versions could be had as well.

Popular 1960s Kay Vanguard solid body model

Kay began producing this thinline model in the late ‘50s, by 1962 the company had dubbed it the “Speed Demon.” These are auditorium–sized guitars (40–¼” x 15”) but were only 1 ¾” thick. The pickups are often called “speed bumps,” and a three pickup version (the K573) equipped with a tremolo can really get a great rockabilly tone.

Kay Speed Demon

1965 Kay Titan I thought you would be interested in this with Kay designed Bigsby style tremolo

In 1964, Kay Musical Instruments moved to a new factory in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. The move to the new building attracted a buyer, and in 1965 Katz sold the company to Seeburg, a company already famous for their juke boxes. Katz became the head of Seeburg’s musical instrument division. Bob Keyworth, a long time Kay employee, headed up the Kay instrument division.

In 1967, Valco Company who had been responsible for the National and Supro brands, descendants of the Dopyera brothers and Dobro, bought Kay from Seeburg. With Robert Engelhardt as president and Al Link as vice-president of Valco, Kay products were unchanged. During Valco’s ownership, Kay’s catalog was simply reprinted with Valco’s name at the head. Japanese competition, debt accumulation and inventory excesses were difficult for Kay/Valco to handle and a decision was made to dissolve the company.

The assets of Kay/Valco were auctioned off in October of 1969. W.M.I., Weiss Musical Instruments, founded by Jack Westheimer, operated by Sil Weindling and Barry Hornstein, bought the Kay name. By the early ‘70s, Kay only existed as a brandname attached to Japanese import guitars. Tony Blair, who had been working for W.M.I since 1973 bought the Kay name in 1980 after he heard Fred Gretsch, Jr. was interested in a brand name. By 1982 Blair began using the Kay name on instruments and in 1984 the Kay Guitar Company began manufacturing and importing instruments for beginners again.

Kay Musical Instrument Company output was very impressive, surpassed only by the Harmony Company (also based in Chicago). The Kay Company had a significant impact in the history of guitar making in the USA, and the company always had a plethora of guitars in just about every price range and style.

Collectors generally rate Kay slightly above Harmony guitars, but both are below Gibson in terms of collectability and quality. Kay made some fine instruments from stand up basses, cellos to some nice acoustic and electric guitars and basses.