Documenting history as well as my experiences with repairing and restoring vintage guitars.

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Kay Musical Instrument Co ended its 37 year run in 1968 when its new parent company went bankrupt after only a year of ownership. As far as ...

An American-Made Kay Guitar from 1978?

Kay Musical Instrument Co ended its 37 year run in 1968 when its new parent company went bankrupt after only a year of ownership. As far as I knew, that was the last time a Kay instrument would be manufactured in the United States. The brand returned in the 1970s and was applied to Japanese import instruments and later Korean and Taiwanese guitars in the 1980s. Today I was introduced to the exception to that rule, a footnote in Kay's history in an era that I have ignored. I am a bit of a snob about Kay instruments made post-1968 but this guitar piqued my interest. Thank you to Casandra who reached out to me with this.

1978-1980 Kay Acoustic - Made in America
Image Credit: Casandra S


The year is 1964, Beatlemania is taking over the US, and guitars are the hottest product on the shelves. Kay Musical Instrument Co had just built their multi-million dollar factory in Elk Grove Village, Illinois (see this rare 1964 Kay booklet I scanned) to modernize and compete with growing demand. Kay primarily served the retail stores across the country; providing guitars, mandolins, and banjos for the stores to resell. If you walked into any department store in America, there would be a section for guitars and 9 times out of 10 it would've been built in America by a Chicago or New Jersey manufacturer. 

Simultaneously in Chicago, The Weiss Musical Instrument Co was founded by Sylvain Weindling, Richard Weiss, and Barry Hornstein with Robert Weintraub as head of sales. The firm was established to import musical instruments from the burgeoning Japanese market (post-WWII reconstruction) and provide them to the growing American market [6]. 

Japanese manufacture of guitars had been around for at least a decade by that point and benefitted from access to tropical woods that resembled what the American manufacturers had been importing from South America for nearly a century. The Japanese were not held back by the established norms of instrument design that Americans had learned from Germany, France, and Spain and so their instruments stood out with unique body shapes and designs.

Weiss Muiscal Instrument Co reached an agreement with the Japanese manufacturer, Teisco, which had formed shortly after WWII and had begun dipping their toes in the guitar market. Weiss became the sole dealer of Teisco instruments and sold literal boat loads to American retailers who could not believe the prices they were seeing [1]. It wouldn't be long before American and Japanese instruments would appear next to each other in the catalogs, often with the same brand name rendering them indistinguishable to the consumer.

Kay had been purchased in 1965 by the Seeburg Corporation, a jukebox manufacturer, who had seen the success of guitars in the early 1960s and wanted in. They began a modest redesign of the Kay instrument lineup. But by 1967, Kay was losing sales to the imports and became a huge liability. In sharp contrast, Weiss Musical Instrument Co reported a 50% increase in sales compared to 7% in the rest of the industry [4]. 

Kay was bailed out by Valco, long-time manufacturer of Supro guitars and amplifiers, who purchased the company and began extensive reworking. These new instruments had Valco-designed maple necks with the Valco bolt-on neck joints and had new body shapes and appointments. Unfortunately Valco went bankrupt after only a year sinking the Kay name.

Around 1970, W.M.I. Corp had the opportunity to purchase the Kay brand name. It seemed fitting, W.M.I was at the top of their game and owning a well-established American brand seemed like a solid investment for their product line. By 1973 they were working with the Richard Legg Co to develop marketing and sales strategies for their launch [3]. 

Kay's 1973 Relaunch

The debut 1973 Kay catalog had a bold, biblical slogan   
Image Credit: Kay Vintage Reissue

Kay guitars returned to the shelves in 1973 with a brand new catalog entirely of imported instruments. The debut catalog is rather drab to the modern eye; many of the instruments are plain and uninspired while others are blatant rip offs. Stylistically, the fancier acoustics, the mandolins, and electrics borrow heavily from Gibson while the cheaper acoustics have no discernable style. They are all constructed of laminate of Philippine Mahogany or Luan and the acoustics are crudely braced. They were meant for the American consumer who may have grown up with a Kay guitar and would like their children to have one also. Having played and worked on some of these instruments, I imagine they discouraged more kids than they inspired. Snobbery aside, these instruments are legitimately very tough to play. But you cannot deny the success, by 1975 W.M.I had purchased a 150,000 square foot warehouse at 3057 N. Rockwell Street and moved their operations to that location [2].

The Guitar

Image Credit: Casandra S

On June 22nd, 1978, Charles E Jones of W.M.I. Corp (owners of the Kay brand name ) filed a patent for a guitar constructed entirely of molded plastic. Certainly a departure from the traditional wood construction but not as outrageous as it might've been a decade earlier. Italian luthier Mario Maccaferri had patented his own process for plastic guitars in the 1950s and they featured colorful designs and swirls mixed in the plastic. Ovation, one of the today's most prominent manufacturers of plastic-backed guitars, first displayed their instrument at NAMM in 1967. But while Maccaferri's guitars were seen more as novelties, Jones intended for his guitar to be a working instrument free from the pitfalls of previous molded instruments. 

Patent image of the guitar
Image Credit: Google Patents

The neck is molded from "styrene acrylonitrile copolymer with glass fiber reinforcement" with weight relief pockets molded and a bent sheet metal reinforcement strip running its length. The tuners were mounted to the headplate which fits onto the headstock and encloses the tuners entirely. Interestingly, the tuners themselves were intended to be made from glass fiber reinforced nylon relying on the properties of nylon to self-lubricate the tuning machines.

Interior drawing of the bracing and neck joint
Image Credit: Google Patents

The body was made of the same plastic composition with a spruce veneer laminated over poplar as the top. The top bracing was one piece, injection molded, and bonded via epoxy or contact cement. The bridge was mounted the same way but had locating pins to facilitate placement.

Image Credit: Casandra S

W.M.I. Corp was granted patent 4,213,370 on July 22nd, 1980. The instruments say "Made in U.S.A" on the back but I'm not able to determine where exactly they were molded and assembled. 

Kay's Later History

By 1981, W.M.I. sold the Kay name to Anthony Ruzbasan and Tony Blair who moved the headquarters to 5398 Massachusetts Ave (later 4180 Elmhurt Dr) in Indianapolis, Indiana  [5]. They continued to import acoustics of similar quality but expanded the electric line with beginner level guitars in a wider variety of body shapes similar to Fender, Gibson, Steinberger, and Alembic. They are the current owners of the Kay brand name and import cheap beginner instruments as well as lending the brand name to American-made reissues of certain Kay models by Fritz Brothers Guitars.


[5] The Purchasers Guide to the Music Industries Vol. 85 (1981)

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