c.1935 Kay-made KeyKord (Converted) Tenor Guitar

So, here's a very cool but odd duck. Originally this instrument (called a KeyKord tenor guitar and made by Kay in Chicago) would have had a fretless fingerboard and a chord-button gizmo attached to it that let the player use a number of typical chord shapes without having to actually fret the neck. Think of it like the piano accordion's "bass button" side with all sorts of chords available at the click of a button.

The patent for this gizmo dates to 1932 but below I've got evidence from a 1930 issue of Music Trade Review that shows that it was in use since 1930.

This one was modified from that original format at some point in its life and had what appears to be an Oscar Schmidt 1920s tenor banjo fretboard glued to its slightly thinned-down (width, not front to back) neck. Personally... I think that's great, because now a player can make proper use of the gobs of delicious tone coming out of this instrument.

Above is the 1930 article in question with a pic of the KeyKord device, later patented in 1932.

This "two point" body shape is really classy and very familiar if you're into Kay's 1930s "KayKraft" line of instruments (as well as the earlier 1920s versions of the same design). It's sort of a mid-size tenor guitar, nowadays, around the size one would expect of a modern 3/4 size guitar.

The body is entirely made from solid mahogany, it has its original (slightly recut) ebony/bone bridge, and the neck appears to be a dark-stained poplar.

Because the neck for the KeyKord instruments didn't need to consider 12th or 14th fret joins, the adaptation to using the 21" scale Oscar Schmidt fretboard (c.1920s) left the neck join between the 10th and 11th frets, giving it an almost big mandolin sort of look. This turns out to be a boon to the ladder-braced top, however, because it puts the bridge right in the sweet spot as far as tone goes.

Note the mucky finish to the treble side of the soundhole -- there was a pickguard there at some point that was later removed, leaving a bare top. I've sealed it up and before the day's through I'll polish it up a little, but it's still going to show wear there unless the instrument gets refinished. It's not something very noticeable from the next seat over, though, so the couple of sealing coats of varnish I used matched the color nicely.

This is the original ebony/bone bridge, though I recut it slightly and re-spaced the strings a bit wider.

I always like it when manufacturers use banjo tailpieces on tenor guitars. It's just a nice classy choice vs. the repetitive Waverly cloud tailpiece or similar.

Note the fun binding with the black/goldy-yellow trim purfling.

The mahogany on this guitar is nice (and pretty) stuff. The original finish shows weather-checking and use but is in overall decent shape.

What would have been original 4:1 tuners have been replaced here with modern Grover friction types similar to those found on tenor guitars throughout the 1920s-40s.

The neck appears to have been reset at some point in its life and is nice and sturdy to the box.

Note the gold strap button -- didn't have any nickel or chrome on hand. Normally a small screw would hold this tailpiece on, but because the mounting hole was a little stripped out I installed this larger screw and strap button in its place, which gives a more secure mount and also a way to hang your guit!

Oh, and did I mention the absolutely awesome fitted original hard case? I've never seen another one like this for one of these guys -- just lousy chip cases.

Not bad at all!


Chris Till said...

Once again your blog is so helpful to me. I just found one of these (without the bridge) at the flea market this morning. Seems like some are saying it's a baritone uke, not a tenor guitar, but I trust you.

Jake Wildwood said...

It's because they haven't seen vintage tenor guitars before... and so they assume the small body = uke. Baritone ukes weren't "invented" until the 50s, really... a bit after this was made.

You can tune these DGBE like a baritone uke, though, but with steel strings.

Chris Till said...

Hello! Thing is... in my humble opinion, the chord shapes on the buttons are ukulele shapes, not tenor guitar shapes. What's even more odd is that the indicated chord shape on the button is not what is actually pressed down on the instrument. Anyway... I'm taking it over to Mr. Russ Shaw to make a bridge for it today (the one missing piece) (using a picture from your blog as a template). Thanks, Chris

Chris Till said...

I looked up the patent number on the instrument's gizmo, #1,692,560. Filed 11/27/1925. Granted 11/20/1928. Inventor's name John Mokrejs of NYC. Googling that name, there is an author of some early 20th century music books, particularly "Lessons in Harmony" from 1913. The official name of the patented gizmo is "Stopping Mechanism for Stringed Musical Instruments."

Chris Till said...

Curious, it seems there were (at least) two different patented stopping mechanisms on the KeyKords. The 1932 Solenburger patent that you cite and the 1928 Mokrejs patent on mine.