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Kay Basses - Need a Primer

Discussion in 'Basses [DB]' started by Steve Freides, Jan 18, 2013.

  1. Steve Freides

    Steve Freides Former Mannes College Theory Faculty Supporting Member

    Dec 11, 2007
    Ridgewood, NJ
    I'd appreciate an education on Kay basses - links would be fine, and an 'executive summary' here would be appreciated as well. My questions:

    Are some/any/most/none considered worthy for orchestral playing and, if not at the highest levels, then a notch or two down? Was there a full range of models, i.e., starter instruments up through "pro" level or were they all more or less the same?

    I ask because I've known, e.g., some of my son's friends who've gone through Mannes' and Juilliard's Prep divisions have played Kays which, since I thought they were basically popular with pop/rock/county type music, was odd.

    I also ask because a student's Mom asked me because she saw one somewhere, so I figured it would be a good thing to know.

    Many thanks.

  2. kaybass.com would be the place to start. Roger Stowers has spent years, maybe decades collecting information on Kay basses.

    talkbass member MollyKay may also be helpful. She and her husband collect, restore and occasionally sell vintage American plywoods.

    I imagine your son's friends played them because they were cheap, mostly durable and readily available -- total production was somewhere around 30,000 between '39 and '69.
  3. El Thumpo

    El Thumpo Four strings, no waiting Supporting Member

    Oct 15, 2006
    San Francisco Bay Area
    It's useful to think of Kays as the Volkswagen of basses. Not complicated, not fussy, but durable and they made a lot of them.

    There are minor variations in quality within the models themselves, but they are largely cosmetic--a prettier veneer here, engraved tuners there. I have a '38 that was top-of-the-line for its time, which means an ebony fingerboard (rather than the standard rosewood) and real (not painted-on) purfling.

    But my Kay, like ALL Kays, are plywood instruments: no carved top, no solid-wood backs or sides. That does wonders for their durability--which is why numerous Kays are still around, picking up mojo and that played-in vibe. People like, even love, them for that. And in genres like bluegrass or (some) jazz, the limited sustain they produce--more like a thump than a growl--is a sound some people prefer.

    But even an experienced all-plywood bass isn't going to give the full range of subtlety and tonality that orchestral players are usually looking for. So no, I wouldn't say that they qualify IN GENERAL as "worthy for orchestral playing". At least not in the long run.

    Yes, there are exceptions; with so many Kays manufactured, it's not hard to hear anecdotes about this player or that going through Julliard or nailing a symphony audition on a Kay. But on closer examination, those always seem to be cases of making do, not preference. Given druthers, most orchestral players are going to want to step up.
  4. Avoid Kays for orchestral work. I have a very fine Kay, but when I want to bow, I reach for my carved top.

    For bowing--especially with lower-set steel strings--Kays have a horrible design flaw: the neck projection is too shallow and doesn't allow proper bow clearance at the C bout. You can minimize this problem by adding a shim or fatter fingerboard, but this costs a lot.

    For the same money as Kays go for you can get a Shen hybrid, which is a GREAT starter instrument for an orchestra player...
  5. Jake deVilliers

    Jake deVilliers Commercial User

    May 24, 2006
    Crescent Beach, BC
    Owner of The Bass Spa, String Repairman at Long & McQuade Vancouver
    According to Roger, only 1/3 of Kay's production was basses. So out of maybe 58,000 instruments made, only 19,000 would be basses, including the 1/4 size models.
  6. El Thumpo

    El Thumpo Four strings, no waiting Supporting Member

    Oct 15, 2006
    San Francisco Bay Area
    Gosh, you're right. All this time, I thought it was my crappy technique. Now I realize it's this design flaw AND my crappy technique. :rolleyes:
  7. Get yourself a carved top bass. I had been playing Kays exclusively for about 5 years and I thought my bow technique was horrible until I got my Shen a few months ago. Now my arco is SINGING! I still love my Kay for thumpy pizzicato and, actually, I'm better at bowing it since getting the Shen. The carved bass is making me an all-around better player!
  8. Steve Freides

    Steve Freides Former Mannes College Theory Faculty Supporting Member

    Dec 11, 2007
    Ridgewood, NJ
    If I read the Kay Bass site correctly, an S-9 is always blond? There's one on eBay now but it's not blond.

  9. MollyKay


    Sep 10, 2006
    Southern PA
    Bass Hobby'ist
    Correct, the “S” stands for Swingmaster and the ‘9” is for the blonde color.

    Swingmaster basses were the top of the line for Kay and were marketed toward the professional. Based on vintage advertisements the Swingmaster line of basses had a factory carved scroll. Ebony fingerboard and tail piece. They have real inlaid black/white/black purfling around the body and around the FF holes. The real purfling also makes them prone to weak edges and edge chipping (which can easily be repaired) because they were all plywood layers.

    Here are model numbers that I have owned.

    S-1 is dark tobacco brown

    S-5 was the thin line model

    S-8 was honey brown

    S-9 was blonde

    I can say the shade of tobacco brown to honey brown can really vary based on how the bass was exposed to heat and light. I have a 1941 Kay S-8 that is a beautiful amber honey brown; the finish is perfect in every way. The exact same bass model S-8 from 1950 is MUCH darker and appears more like an S-1. They are both confirmed S-8 but appear very different in color.
  10. That bass has been refinished, crudely, and who knows what else. I offered the owner $500 and he turned me down. I wouldn't pay any more than that, personally.
  11. Steve Freides

    Steve Freides Former Mannes College Theory Faculty Supporting Member

    Dec 11, 2007
    Ridgewood, NJ
    Thanks - I appreciate the info. That's it's been refinished is a show-stopper, and the owner seems to know almost nothing about it.

  12. Primary

    Primary TB Assistant

    Here are some related products that TB members are talking about. Clicking on a product will take you to TB’s partner, Primary, where you can find links to TB discussions about these products.

    Mar 7, 2021

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