1/10/2014

c.1950 Kay-made Orpheum K90 Resonator Guitar




Kay made bodies for a number of National's wood-bodied single-cone resonator guitar line with the most famous members being the Havana and the Aragon. This guitar's styling and design is somewhere between the idea of both of those models with its archtop-shaped 000-plus-size (15 3/4" lower bout) body but flat top and back. It is, of course, all laminated woods on the body but it does have an attractive spruce-lam top and mahogany-lam back and sides.

The most important bit for this guy, though, is what's under the hood: it has a prewar-style National 9.5" cone as original equipment.



The Kay-branded variant of this guitar was known as the K90 which is stamped inside the body. This one has the "Orpheum" brand at the headstock, however, and compared to most K90s which had Kay's own-design smaller 8" resonator cone, the big, National-made 9.5" cone that's in this guy gives this guitar enormous holding power. I really can't say enough how much difference there is between a good-quality 1930s/40s National cone compared to just about anything else. It's like you're plugged in when you play something like this.

The main difference between a guitar like this and a metal-bodied Nat'l, however, is all that warmth! This thing has a very sweet voice when compared to the brass and steel-bodied instruments I've had through from the same period. It's not as cutty, but it also seems to butter-up the high notes that would maybe be a bit pingy when played hard on a metal-bodied guitar.

My work on this guitar included a fret level/dress, setup, new saddle and biscuit fixings, proper cone seating, and cleaning. Someone got to the neck on this guy before me and reset it with the addition of a dowel in the bottom of the heel for support (a good idea).


Bone nut and narrow nut width -- only 1 5/8"! -- but a generous long scale: 25 3/4"! This means that you can use comparatively-lighter strings to feed that cone plenty of power and you'll need to do that anyway with the narrow, fairly-skinny, unreinforced neck (it's a mild C shape like a 40s Gibson but much narrower).

I think for standard pitch 50w-11 works great at this scale. I actually have it strung with some extra light nickel-wound strings right now (46w-10) which gives this an electric guitar feel but still a ton of carrying power. Just so you know, the way a properly-seated National cone responds to different strings is like this:

Lighter gauges = more of a flattop guitar/5-string banjo sound with sweet sustain / heavier gauges = more of a punchy raucous archtop guitar sound...


Rosewood board, brass frets, and funky celluloid position markers.

By the way, though I dated this as c.1950, my guess this is from more like 1948-ish.



Did you notice the "B-stock" evidence of the coverplate? Look at how it's aligned!


Typical Chicago-style tailpiece but -- it's longer than usual.






The coffee-colored buttons are great! These tuners work just fine, too, now that they're lubed.



The neck has been brutalized. It looks like someone clamped it against something very odd at some point, too.



Parts-bin button...


Here's a sample of the soundwell...


Here's the original cone plus biscuit. The original saddle was still in place (it was maple) but some jackaninny glued a big hunk of wood to it. Unfortunately, it all had to be removed. I installed this Tusq synthetic, compensated saddle instead. Tain't it nice to have your guitar play in tune?

I also seated the biscuit with a few drops of glue.


When you have a nice tight-fitting soundwell like on this guy you can often eliminate any random rattle by crimping the very edge of the cone into the wall of the well. Works great! It's best to seat it as well as you can first, but often the soundwells are slightly out-of-round anyhow.

Update: I feel like I should clarify, here -- the edge on this cone had been slightly curled inwards at the raised lip probably at the factory to fit the slightly-small soundwell. I've simply pressed that curled lip into the side to cut down on rattle from two 1" patches where the cone does not make nice contact with the (non-perfectly-flat) bottom of the soundwell.

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