Kay Musical Instrument Company was a prolific American manufacturer of musical instruments that operated from the 1930s through the 1960s. Although Kay's first electric guitar was offered in 1936 (the same year as Gibson ES-150, five years after the Frying pan), Kay is known as an electric guitar pioneer because their past company Stromberg-Voisinet produced the first commercial electric guitar, the Stromberg Electro, in 1928.
Early history (1890–1931)
The Kay Musical Instrument Company grew from the Groeschel Mandolin Company (or Groeshl Instrument Company) in Chicago, established in 1890. In 1921, the company was renamed to Stromberg-Voisinet. In 1923, later president Henry Kay "Hank" Kuhrmeyer joined the company, and in 1928, with the help of an investor, he bought the company and started producing electric guitars and amplifiers.
The new company, "Kay Musical Instruments" was formally established in 1931 from the assets of the former Stromberg-Voisinet company by Kuhrmeyer.
The company initially manufactured only traditional folk instruments, but eventually grew to make a wide variety of stringed instruments, including violins, cellos, banjos, upright basses, and a variety of different types of guitars including classical guitars, lap steel guitars, semi-acoustic guitars, and solid body electrics. Some of Kay's lower-grade instruments were marketed under the Knox and Kent brand names.
In addition to manufacturing instruments for sale under its own brands, Kay was also a very prolific manufacturer of "house branded" guitars and folk instruments for other Chicago-based instrument makers, and, at times, even for major department stores including Sears and Montgomery Ward.
Kay also made guitar amplifiers, beginning with designs carried over from the old Stromberg company. Kay eventually subcontracted its amplifier production to Chicago music industry rival Valco in the 1950s.
Retirement of Kuhrmeyer (1955–1968)
After the retirement of Kuhrmeyer in 1955, the company was taken over by Sidney M. Katz. The product line of Kay was shifted toward electric musical instruments on demands, and in 1964, the company moved to a new factory in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. In 1965 Katz sold Kay to Seeburg Corporation, and he became the head of Seeburg's musical instrument division. In 1967, Kay was resold and merged with Valco, but dissolved in 1968 due to financial problems.
The assets of Kay/Valco were auctioned off in 1969. The upright bass and cello lines were bought by Engelhardt-Link, a new company formed by previous Valco member, and still continues the production. The Kay name (and some of its trademarks, such as Knox were acquired by Teisco importer, Weiss Musical Instruments (W.M.I., Sol Weindling and Barry Hornstein), who put the Kay name on the Teisco products beginning in 1973, and continued on through the 1970s.
In 1980, A.R. Enterprises (Tony Blair) purchased the Kay trademark.
In 2008-2009, Kay Guitar Company in California reissued 12 models of vintage Kay guitars and basses manufactured by Fritz Brothers Guitars. As of 2013, production and sales of these guitars have continued.