10/11/2013

c.1940 Kay-made Del Oro "Minstrel" Tailpiece Guitar



Hmm, you don't see guitars like this in fairly good condition all that often. Due to their nature (student instruments), they tend to get pretty beat up over the years. This one, however, is in great shape and only needed average work to get it up and going (fret level/dress, replacement tuners, bridge cut/shave, some seam repairs, and a setup).

It now plays nicely and has a loud, mid-range, projecting sort of tone. If you're into these tailpiece flattop guitars you know what I mean -- a bit of rumble, sparkle, sustain in the higher register but a chunky, driving sort of bass. Perfect for blues, ragtime, or swing-y sort of backing guitar (think: Pokey LaFarge).

While unmarked except for the "Del Oro" branding at the top, it's definitely a Kay-made instrument and probably dates to the late 30s or early 40s.



Update: Since posting this, I replaced the original fret-saddle bridge with this black-painted rosewood archtop guitar saddle/bridge top. I had this in my parts bin and it gives both a better sound, slightly better string spacing, better looks (it's cheaply "ebonized" like the black fretboard), and more secure string notches (the fret-saddle bridges with the cut-outs on the rear tend to have a bit of string slip). I also screwed it to the top with a couple of small machine screws so it won't move around on you if you're a heavy-handed type. Overall: 100% better. The original will come with the guitar, of course.


It's all-solid birch body with a maple (dyed) fretboard and rosewood bridge with fret-saddle. The neck seems to be poplar or a really plain maple. The lower bout width is 14" so it's a little shy of a typical 00 size, though the sides are a little deeper than normal giving this a bit of a "Nick Lucas" or "L-00" Gibson feel in the lap.

What's interesting is that, atypical for Kay at the time, the scale length is only 24 3/8" which makes it more similar to Kay/Stromberg-Voisinet's late-20s guitars in feel tension-wise. This is also probably why it has lived so long with a good, straight neck and no neck joint issues (Kay tended to push the scale lengths longer, and that combined with over-stringing means many Kay builds are out of service these days).

Combine that short scale with a 14-fret, mildly-v shaped neck, and you have a good all-around easy-player. I've set it up with spot-on 1/16" treble, 3/32" bass action at the 12th fret. It's currently setup with 50w-11 strings which should keep the neck healthy for the future, though I'll bet it'd be fine with regular lights, too. It's got a 1 3/4" nut.


Original bone nut, replacement tuners.


Pearl dots in the board with tall/thin original brass frets. These needed only the lightest leveling and dressing to get them in check.


The painted pickguard is pretty silly but fun!

The guit has only a couple cracks -- a tiny hairline right at the soundhole ring near the treble side of the board (stable) and a tiny hairline just below the heel on the back (also stable).


This style tailpiece is often seen on 40s Kalamazoo (Gibson-made) guitars.


Oh, right, but how awesome is that decal? This "Vagabond" (from the line of instruments marketed under that brand) or "minstrel" scene is a hallmark of B&J mailorder products, especially form the 30s. I suspect that the J decal under the bass-side musician also had a "B" before it at some point.



The tuners that came with the guitar were cruddy, recent, Chinese ones. I replaced them with these 60s ones I think I took off of an old Guild that the owner wanted upgraded. They're not a great match for 40s period tuners but they sure look and work tons better than what was on it.


Typical Kay-style heel with actual heel cap





Big old wooden endpin, too!

Note the bottom 1/2" of that center-seam slightly juts out... perfectly stable. I reglued much of the back/side seam on the lower bout but didn't bother with taking that section apart to reglue it as it's sturdy enough already. No need fixing what isn't broken...!

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