NBD - 1938 Kay Orchestral 3/4

Discussion in 'Basses [DB]' started by Tonecraft, Jun 9, 2021.

  1. My new-old 1938 Kay Orchestral 3/4 ply - The SN is hard to read but I think it is 3090, placing its date of manufacture around 1938. Picked it up off of Craigslist from a wonderful elderly man who developed neuropathy and could no longer play. He has been playing upright since he was a teen and has had this for over 20 years. It came with a padded case, two bows, and a Fishman BP-100. I'm hoping that the bass is worth the trouble to repair and will replace my Cremona SB-2 as my gigging bass. I play in two bluegrass groups, attend multiple weekly bluegrass picks, play every week at a gypsy jazz jam, and play gypsy jazz on Pearl St. in Boulder most weekends when the weather is nice. The Cremona has been flawless and has surprised me with how durable it has been, but this Kay has some mojo that Cremona can never touch!

    Here is what I have observed with this Kay so far:

    It has obviously been refinished with some pretty ugly painted purfling on the front and back. Some seams on the back have come undone and there is one spot where the lamination is separating, but that should be an easy fix. The hat pegs need to be replaced, but I have access to a lathe and hope to find some ebony blanks to turn new pegs. The fingerboard has been shimmed and it appears the rosewood board was screwed back on and then plugged with dowels - it is very thin so I don't know if there is room to plane the board to a fully radiused profile. The bridge is a Josef Teller Panpi which sits a mile high and everything else is original, besides the strings (unknown brand). The endpin could probably stand to be replaced as well as it is cracked and rattles quite a bit. The tailgut saddle is cracked and needs replaced too. I have a composite tailpiece and 1/16" steel tailgut that will go on as well as Innovation Super Silver E-A and plain gut DG strings to replace these 20+ year old steel strings. It all seems pretty minor for an 83 year old bass, but it needs some love and a good setup!

    Here are some photos:
    IMG_2839.jpg IMG_2841.jpg IMG_2842.jpg IMG_2843.jpg IMG_2847.jpg IMG_2849.jpg IMG_2850.jpg IMG_2853.jpg IMG_2854.jpg IMG_2857.jpg
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2021
  2. eh_train

    eh_train Supporting Member Commercial User

    Jan 12, 2004
    Owner, Stand Up Guy Basses (Repair/Sell/Buy upright basses)
    Congrats on the new bass!

    I think yours is a little bit of a 'Frankenstein' model. But this may be a good thing.

    The early Kays sometimes had European necks and tuners on them, but by the time they got into 3000+ instruments they had settled on a standard Kay neck. It's the worst thing about Kay basses, IMO. Kay necks were /are notoriously too thin, improperly cut so they suffer heal cracks, and poorly fitted.

    Your neck definitely isn't a Kay neck. It looks European and, judging from pics 2, 4, and 5, was a later replacement. Those tuners are most common on basses from about 1850 through 1900. The neck has a massive shim in it, but as long as it's solid and the overall geometry is correct (ie., the neck plays well from top to bottom), it's no big deal.

    Congrats, you've successfully avoided the curse of a Kay neck!

    The previous owner did keep the original Kay endpin. If it rattles or slips, it's not hard to replace....
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2021
    james condino and strigidae like this.
  3. marcox


    Dec 10, 2007
    Congrats, it's a beauty! Original or not, I love the hat peg tuners.

    Did you buy it in Colorado Springs on Tuesday? I saw it on CL and was going to ask my sister who lives nearby to go take a look. But some lucky dude snapped it up ... :)
  4. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    I'll concur that this is most likely not a Kay neck, though the Orchestra basses from this period typically came with carved scrolls and similar Czech hatpegs. The joint looks like it may be a dovetail, which I wouldn't expect on a Euro neck, but it may have been cut to the Kay mortise. I can further confirm that the fingerboard, saddle, tailpiece and tailwire are not original to the instrument, so the only remaining Kay parts are the body and endpin set.

    Can you share a photo of the label as well? I'd like to doublecheck the serial number for the Registry.
    strigidae likes this.
  5. Replace the tailgut and seat it properly. Replace the Spiros with guts if they’re too bright.

    Nice looking bass. Ain’t nothing like an ancient ply if you want it to go thud.
    zootsaxes likes this.
  6. zootsaxes

    zootsaxes Supporting Member

    Mar 6, 2015
    Memphis, TN
    +1 replace that tail gut and it'll be night and day.
  7. bigshiny

    bigshiny Supporting Member

    Nov 18, 2010
    St Louis MO
    I agree with the last two posts.
  8. I saw the ad first thing Tuesday morning and dropped all my plans to go buy it, I really am a lucky guy, for once!

    I just got back from my local luthier and he was really exited about its condition. From what he saw, the neck replacement was done very well, and everything is structurally sound besides the seam/laminate separation on the lower bout. The action is incredibly high and the bridge is warped and since I want to use a Full Circle pickup on this bass and need adjusters, I'm debating getting a new bridge instead of reshaping and installing adjusters on the Panpi since the cost difference isn't great. It seems Despiau is a popular choice, but I'll do some digging in the forums to see what the consensus of the Kay crowd is on bridges.

    I'll be replacing the tailgut with 1/16" braided cable, and also replacing the tailpiece with a composite number, which should really open the bass up and let it be heard! I have the chunk that fell off the saddle, so hopefully it wont need replaced. The luthier recommended replacing the endpin as well. I'm thinking of going the carbon fiber route if it's not too pricey.

    For the gypsy jazz and bluegrass that I play, I'm hoping its sound lives up to the Kay reputation and will go thud for many more years.
    strigidae and marcox like this.
  9. Here's the label, Steven. Over the weekend I'll blow the 1/2 pound of dust out of the body and see if I can get the label cleared up to read more clearly. It looks like 3090 or 3990. There is no written number on the body from what I saw. IMG_2826.jpg
    strigidae and Steven Ayres like this.
  10. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    Thanks for posting the label. Based on adjacent samples of the inspector's hand, the number is 3070, confirming 1938. Here we can also see the edge of the transverse back brace that the company used on early Orchestra and Student models, which also functioned as a footing for the soundpost. With some careful dust removal and a good light in the vicinity of the label you may be able to discern a spidery penciled build number, which had a different function but is usually the same as the serial number on the label. The drops of detritus you see here are mostly polishing compound, and may brush away as well.

    Designed for classical students, the Orchestra series was very popular before the war, but was essentially discontinued by 1944. It is characterized by its gamba corners, standard edge pinstriping, ebonized maple fingerboard and appointments, and frequently hatpeg tuning machines and wood endpin sets. The model was originally marketed under the K-Meyer brand and sold OEM under the Gretsch brand, later distributed under the Genuine Kay, Old Kraftsman and Kustom Kraft brands as well, making more O variants than any other Kay model. Some were labeled O-1. I estimate total O production in the 1,900-2,000 range.

    I've noted no special affection for any brand of bridge among the "Kay crowd," so no worry there.
    Tonecraft, strigidae and rknea like this.
  11. Hammertime3


    Apr 23, 2008
    I had a '41 Orchestra and it was a real nice bass..no broken neck either. Sold it a couple of years ago to a local for $1500, with stand and K Max pickup. That's all it would fetch around here. Hated to see it go but there was nowhere to play it any more and we moved into a smaller place. I still miss playing along with Youtube, but you gotta do what you gotta do. Also, mine had chrome(?), or nickel plated tuners. I've never seen a bass with tuners like that before, though I haven't see tons of basses either. Always wondered if they were original.
  12. Phil Rowan

    Phil Rowan Supporting Member

    Mar 2, 2005
    Brooklyn, NY
    Wow! Those are the same kind hat peg tuners my old 38 Kay (SN 3033) had when I first got it. The peg box had been smashed and unfortunately it made more sense to throw a replacement Engelhart neck on there. Sadly, I don’t have that bass anymore, but it sure was a joy to play. Enjoy your bass!
    Tonecraft likes this.
  13. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    Any chance you would share a purchase price?

    Is your luthier Bob Ross?

    Yeah - looks like a rabid beaver went after that saddle! :D

    I appreciate a nice endpin, not so much for the tonal quality, but just because it is one part of the bass you touch and adjust regularly. At the very least, put a nice thumbscrew into the existing pin. A nicer pin might require that the hole be reamed. Not a big deal, but requires a tool.

    Sounds like quite the music scene you have there! I've got 2 kids working in Boulder and living in the general area. We've occasionally discussed relocating to there, but my other kid and our grandkids are 10 mins away from us here in the Chicago area.

    So, if the neck and bridge are new, it has been refinished, and if the tailpiece/endpin/wire get replaced - is there a point at which a Kay ceases to be a Kay? Kinda like George Washington's hatchet which only had the head replaced a couple of times more than the handle! :D
  14. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    Nickel-finished Kluson plate sets were standard spec on the Orchestra series starting at about #3700.
  15. My luthier is James at Sol Vista Violins in Lafayette, he’s a 2 minute drive from my house and does good work. While I wait for my bridge and strings to arrive, I’ll be taking it to Bob Ross and Kolacny Music just to get a second opinion.

    For me, the collectibility of the the bass is less important than how well it plays - if it were bone-stock original, I would most likely sell it to fund a hybrid Shen or something similar as this year and model have gone for $4000 in original condition. Since it’s had essentially everything but the body replaced, and the body has been refinished, I doubt it has the same appeal to a collector.

    It does make me a bit nervous to take an old ply out and gig with it as much as I do, but with a good padded case and some bumpers, it should be up to the task. It made it this far, right?

    The music scene in Denver/Boulder is great, and lucky for me, so is the demand for upright players!
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2021 at 9:33 AM
  16. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    I think it would be more of a concern if this were a fragile old carved bass, or in pristine condition. These things were built to take considerable abuse. This baby has been beat to $hit, and brought back from the dead more than once. I doubt you would do any harm to it that hadn't been done before! Sure, don't go outta your way to bang it around, but play the hell outta it. You know if anything breaks, it can be fixed. :D
    Tonecraft likes this.
  17. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    As far as I've been able to discern, there is no 'collector' market for Kay basses, at least not yet. Musicians look for a dependable instrument that plays well and looks good, and both buyers and sellers prefer to avoid shipping. An original blonde finish carries a premium. Other factors are insignificant to relative market value, in my experience.
    Tonecraft, strigidae and marcox like this.
  18. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    I recall seeing at least a couple Kays that were priced mighty high - like around the $5-6k range. But IIRC, both of those were priced - in part - due to who had previously owned/played them. And - of course - a seller can ask whatever they want. :D No idea what those went for - IF they sold.

    Seems like every once in a while a really high-priced old ply pops up, but I think those are most often Epiphones or something other than Kays. ISTR there was a blonde Gibson someone wanted huge number for a long time...

    On edit - dang! Just looked on-line and there is no shortage of Kays asking $4k and up! Words fail me.
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2021 at 11:44 AM
    Tonecraft likes this.
  19. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    {Not meaning to hijack the thread! Sorry}

    For me an unrealistic price only indicates unrealistic expectations on the part of the seller, who has usually bought into the idea that the age of a thing causes accumulating market value, or think that that they can sell on Craigslist for the same price a specialty retailer can command. When I say "collector market" I mean multiple buyers intentionally looking to acquire multiple things not to use, but just to own or to eventually resell as investment assets.

    There's one in particular who for over two years has been hoping to sell a nice example of an especially rare Kay model at multiples of its realistic value. I expect he thinks that there really is a collector market, and I've been watching to see whether he might be right.

    But yeah, I see a lot of inflated prices. If you keep watching you'll usually see them drift downward into the average range. For the past few months I'm seeing average online asking prices (not actual selling prices, I don't know) of around $2000 for the standard C-1 and M-1, and close to twice that for the blonde M-1B and S-9. I also see those high-priced blondes on the market far longer, distorting the averages upward; $3000 is probably a more realistic number. I'm seeing about 60% of the normal number of instruments for sale this year, which could be pushing prices up as well.

    That's the business report, returning you now to Kayleigh with the entertainment news ....
    Tonecraft and strigidae like this.
  20. Hammertime3


    Apr 23, 2008
    There's a nice '64 M1 on Craigslist kinda near me for $1200..no bag, stand, or bow. If only I had a need. I guess if I had a need I wouldn't have sold the other one. Oh, well....
  21. 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.

    Jun 16, 2021

Share This Page