Wednesday, March 4, 2009

An Okay Guitar

Music stores can be dangerous places, if you’re me. Once several years ago Eberle & I pulled up outside Greif’s Music in Ontario. For you local readers, that’s when Greif’s still had stores in both Payette, ID & Ontario, OR—& this was our first ever visit to the Ontario store. I got out of the car & said, “Well, at least we don’t need to buy anything.” We used Greif’s as an outlet for Alice in Wonder Band supplies, & I guess I was thinking we were pretty well stocked at that moment.

Anyhoo, Eberle was looking around thru the sheet music, probably wearing her piano teacher’s hat, & I decided to wander thru the guitar room. There was a hollow body electric guitar hanging on the wall, which I looked at rather admiringly. It wasn’t a high-end guitar—pretty middle of the road as such guitars go, but it caught my eye. Eberle came into the room—I said, “That’s a cool guitar.” She said, “Don’t you want to play it at least?” I guess you know the rest of the story. The good news is that between Five & Dime Jazz & (especially) our movie soundtrack work as the Bijou Orchestrette, the guitar ultimately paid for itself.

Fast forward to last Friday, the end of a mind-bogglingly hectic week. On an excursion to Ontario, we stopped
at Greif’s Music in Ontario, OR so I could pick up a guitar cleaning cloth—a $1.50 item. I bought the cloth, then wandered off to the guitar room while Eberle looked for piano teacherly music….

& I saw quite a nice
bajo sexto that I thought Eberle would get a kick out of seeing, too. So, we both ended up in the guitar room, & after admiring the bajo sexto & the Gibson plectrum banjo Greif’s hasn’t found a buyer for after about three years, we came around the corner & were greeted by the little fellow you see in the pic above. Eberle said the fatal words, “Wouldn’t you like to play it?” But it was a deal: $79.95 for an old Kay parlor guitar—when I looked at the tag I thought they'd missed a “1” at least in front of the price, & a little ‘net research showed that one quite a bit like it was going for $200 as a “buy now” item on eBay this week.

Now I refer to this g
uitar as a “little fellow” because it is a small guitar—maybe not “Owl & the Pussycat” sized, but tiny in comparison with my favorites, the Regal resonator & the Harmony archtop. In the next pic on the righthand side, you can see the Harmony & the Kay side by side as a point of comparison—won’t get into scale length & size of upper & lower bouts, because that’s apt to make most folks’ eyes glass over.

In essence, this Kay
is a parlor guitar, a term that dates back to the mid 19th century. A fair number of old-time musicians played these smaller sized models. Interestingly, although it’s small, it’s got a big tone, especially on the bass end—who’d a thunk that? Of course, the fact that even the inexpensive guitars typically were made of solid wood back in the 50s helps the tone, & there’s some truth to the old adage “the older the violin, the sweeter the music.”

About 240 odd posts ago, way back in
August, I wrote a post called “A Good Guitar”; it was a little tribute to my beloved 58 Harmony Master, as well as a meditation on what “a good guitar is.” This topic also came up on a recent post over at Citizen K. Now I’m not here to tell you this Kay is some diamond in the rough—as per the punnish title, it’s “an okay guitar.” But I am saying that if you can figure out what the guitar wants to do, you can have a lot of fun with an instrument like this—the Kay particularly responds to fingerpicking I’ve found, & some day when I’ve got nothing else to do, I might re-string it with a set of John Pearse bronze & silk strings, which might enrich the tone a bit.

The Kay has had its share of little cosmetic dings & nicks over the years—the fretboa
rd is worn in places, & ideally the action might be a little lower (those John Pearse strings could compensate a bit for this). I do know (because I asked) that someone traded it in for a newer instrument; I’m hoping they got a pretty decent guitar, because if they got some inexpensive but “prettier” new guitar, I’m thinking they might have been better off with what they had.

The st
ory of the Kay Guitar Company, like the story of Harmony guitars, is an interesting one. The majority of guitars produced by both Kay & Harmony were inexpensive models, often department store guitars—Harmonys & Kays were sold by Montgomery Ward & Sears (under the Silvertone brand name). Both companies had their origins in the 1890s, but both really experienced a heyday between about the 1930s thru the 1950s. Despite being “cheap” guitars when they were made, both Kays & Harmonys have held up well over the years & these old guitars continue to make a lot of good music. Some noteworthy guitar players who used Kays were:

Arthur Crudup (used both Kay & Silvertone archtops)
Buddy Guy (archtop & jumbo)
John Lee Hooker & Lightnin’ Hopkins (jumbo models)
Howlin’ Wolf & Joseph Spence (archtops)
Elmore James (Kay dreadnought)

In terms of Kay electric guitars, players have included Barney Kessel (!), Eric Clapton (I think in the Yardbirds days) & Ry Cooder.

Now that’s a pretty impressive line-up of folks who played fairly modest guitars—guess Paul Skelton might be on to something there…. It's something for sure that novice players might consider when they read in various chat rooms & bulletin boards, etc. that they can’t even begin to think of making music without a Gibson or a Martin or a National, etc. etc. Do they need a guitar with a comfortable & playable set-up? Yes. Do they need a guitar whose sound & feel they like? Yes. Are they only going to find this in a high-priced guitar? My answer to this is “no.”

At any rate, I’m having fun making music on this okay guitar!

Eberle took the pic of me with the Kay
The fellow in the previous pic is the great Howlin' Wolf


  1. Congratulations on the new addition to the family! I love to play instruments at the stores! I have often brought home "strays" as the spouse calls them, I seem to see that they need lovin' too. Perhaps you can post a sound of it sometime!

  2. Thanks Chris-- the Kay definitely falls into the "stray" category. You're right about the sounds-- I do need to get back into recording, & when I do so I'll definitely do so.

    Thanks again.

  3. * i.e., I'll definitely record the Kay-- that last sentence is loopy!

  4. I'm glad you posted this. I recently picked up a Silvertone S615, which is of course based on a Harmony/Stella guitar called the H941. I absolutely love the guitar. It is crisp and it absolutely rings. My only other acoustic guitar before this one was a Guild Mark II classical from roughly the same time period. There is something about these old guitars. They definitely want to sing. There is something in the wood... maybe it's a combination of humidity, oils and various molds and/or fungus. But they sound amazing. I hate to say it but so many newer, "nicer" and more expensive guitars sound very "safe". They have no edge. They don't want to be unique, they want to be "accepted". It seems this is where guitar making has gone for the most part. These older guitars always sounded different and eccentric and unique, probably because the world was much bigger then, it was OK to sound interesting. Now everyone compares to a Martin or a Taylor and the result is BORING. I love my Silvertone. It has a unique voice from the past. And it cost me $40.


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