c.1935 Kay-made Unmarked Archtop Guitar

This is a sweet old archtop, built by Kay in Chicago, around c.1930-1935 or so. It's got a solid spruce top, solid birch back and sides, and a solid maple neck. The fretboard is an indeterminate hardwood (probably dyed maple?) and has inlaid MOP dots in a Martin-ish/Harmony-ish pattern. Bridge is an adjustable rosewood type and everything on the guitar is entirely original -- cool tortoise pickguard with good sturdy bracket, nice heavy tailpiece, and near-mint 3-on-a-plate tuners with bakelite buttons.

Oh, and it has zero cracks! Not bad for a fella of this age.

I cleaned it up, did a fret dress, and a setup on the guitar. It plays great -- action a hair under 1/8" from the board at the 12th -- and has a longish 25 3/4" scale, which gives light strings a "medium string" feel and tension and immediate, powerful response. This guitar loves to get "dug into" and feels best with a heavier mandolin-style or jazz-style pick.

The 25 3/4" scale is what really gives this away as a Kay build. They're the only maker who really used that scale length as a "standard" length through the 30s into the 60s. Otherwise this guitar is very similar to its Harmony contemporaries and somewhat similar to its Regal contemporaries, and being unmarked, would otherwise make attribution difficult.

Good, simple, but effective fret markers. Both the top and back are bound in cream celluloid.

Frets are original and nickel-silver.

Original bone nut.

Rosewood, compensated bridge. Note all of the nice crossgrain "figure" in the wood. It's a good slab of spruce, for sure.

The colors are a bit "red" in the photos -- the sunburst is really more of a nice black to orangey yellow brownish in tone.

Finish overall is in great shape but has its share of playwear and use wear -- back has some bigger scratches but they're the usual buckle wear.

Tuners look practically brand-new.

Heel join is good and tight.

Nice bracket design with two mounting screws on the side means it's not going to vibrate the screws loose any time soon.

Good, heavy, original tailpiece. This guitar has loads of sustain and a rich, snappy, big bright tone. It has more warmth than your typical Chicago-made archtop, however, which is really nice.


Anonymous said...


Can you give me some direction where I'd look to date my Kay archtop? It is reminiscent of the latest one you posted, but the headstock is more like the Kay right before it. The name Kay is spelled in nickel raised from the headstock.


Antebellum Instruments said...

Hi Ben -- Late 40s to mid 1950s or so. Then you saw those "Kelvinator" big plate Kay headstock ornaments, then decals... I think... but there was overlap. The latest Kay I posted was more than likely sold by someone other than Kay themselves... like for a mailorder company like Mont Ward or Sears.

If yours has original Kluson tuners you can definitely date your guitar more or less by them, too. Check out this page:


Totally useful info!!!

All the best! Jake

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jake!

My guitar has 3-on-a-side Klusons that look to be original. Based on the website I'd say they most resemble the description of the 56 - 58 models (although they are not exactly like the picture). I thought the guitar was probably born about the same time as me. ha ha