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Question about Kay basses

Discussion in 'Basses [DB]' started by Balkan, Nov 22, 2013.

  1. Balkan


    Aug 8, 2005
    New York, NY
    Hi - I'm an electric player just about to start learning double bass. After doing some research and visiting some showrooms, I have been thinking about getting a Kay bass.

    I've noticed that the older ones are significantly more expensive, such that I can get a 60s M1 for significantly cheaper than a 40s model in comparable condition.

    I was wondering if there is benefit from a player's perspective from going older, or is this more about collector value.

    Obviously, every bass is different, but am I right now I am trying to figure out how to target my search, and whether it makes sense to focus on finding a more affordable 60s model.


  2. Lo-E


    Dec 19, 2009
    Brooklyn, NY
    I don't think you'll go wrong with a 60's model. Many Kays built prior to the fifties have a little trouble with higher-tension strings today. If you shoot for mid-fifties and later, I think you'll do fine. Mine's from '56.

    Things to be aware of:

    Many Kays have very thin necks which haven't stayed very straight over time. The rosewood boards don't do anything to help this. If originality doesn't mean anything to you, try to find one that has already had the fingerboard replaced with a thicker ebony board. It ends up being done to most Kays eventually anyway, so you might as well get one that's been done. It will have a much stronger neck and save you a lot of aggravation.

    Original endpins are a bit of a nuisance to adjust and they sometimes rattle. If there's a mysterious rattle, look there first.

    Look for repaired cracks in the neck - they're very, very common. A good repair isn't necessarily a deal-breaker, just make sure the repair was done well.

    Make sure that the ribs (sides) are still firmly glued to the top and bottom. Again, not a deal-breaker, but something you'll have to deal with if the seams have opened up.

    All-in-all, Kays are pretty solid basses once they've been put right. Take it to a good local guy (there are a number to choose from here in NYC) and have them give it a good once-over and you should do well with a 60s Kay.
  3. Balkan


    Aug 8, 2005
    New York, NY
    Hey thanks. I am actually NYC-based myself. So, I've looked at a couple of 1940s m1s selling in the $3k to $3.5k range, but this is at a reputable shop that has already checked the bass out. On the other hand, I am seeing 1960s Kays in $2k to $2.5k range that look to be in great shape, but not sold from a shop. So far I've seen rosewood boards that have some years left but will need to be changed. But by that point I imagine should have a better sense of where I am as a player, whether the bass is a keeper, or whether I want to move on to something else.
  4. John Chambliss

    John Chambliss Supporting Member

    Nov 11, 2005
    Memphis, TN
    I have a 56 Kay M-1 which I bought in 1980 for $400. I don't play it much preferring my Romanian bass. Personally, I would start with a newer better quality ply or hybrid and pass on the Kays. My Kay is still playable, but it wasn't built to last as long as it has.
  5. RSBBass


    Jun 11, 2011
    Kay have a cool history and have a vintage vibe thing that you are paying a premium for. If that's what you want cool. Just be aware that there are several better made and better designed choices out there for you at lower prices than Kay's. Shen and Christopher in the new market and some German and Eastern European makers in the used. I would consult with your teacher.
  6. Balkan


    Aug 8, 2005
    New York, NY
    Thanks! I was thinking about some of those other options as well, and will check out the Shens. My teacher is not a fan of the Shens but my teacher also plays a much, much more expensive bass.

    Here was my thinking on the Kays:

    1. will have better resale value than a new, cheap bass.
    2. is appropriate (and maybe a classic?) for the kind of playing I will most immediately want to do - specifically bluegrass and country
    3. if I decide to invest in something much more expensive a couple of years down the line, I am more likely to want to keep the Kay for what it is.
    4. with electric bass, I tend to reach for my 40-year old one much more than my 2-year old one.

    Of course, I could be wrong on all of the above, and am very open to being persuaded otherwise.
  7. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    To address your questions specifically:

    1. The Kay will have a certain amount of resale value because it is a Kay, but you are purchasing it for an inflated price because it is a Kay. If you hold onto it for decades, they might reach a point where their collector value skyrockets. That strategy is kind of like collecting Beanie Babies was in the 90's... You could end up with a killer pay day, or you could end up with something no one wants. I would argue that a Kay bass has a lot more potential to retain/gain value, but nothing is a sure thing. That's your call.

    2. In bluegrass and country owning a Kay is a rite of passage. Just about everyone in that world has/had one, or at the very least has played one. This doesn't mean that it is better than a different instrument for that music, it just means it's popular. There are a lot of horrible Stratocasters out there too, it just happens to be the most popular guitar in the world.

    3. If this is the kind of person you are, you can't change that. When the Loonie (Canadian one dollar coin) came out in 1987, my grandmother decided she was never spending one. She hasn't to this day, and she gave each of her grandchildren a pretty heavy graduation present. If you want to hold onto that instrument and have the space to do so, that is your decision. If you are that kind of person, you could very well grow attached to your first double bass and want to keep it, regardless to whether or not it is a Kay, or what you paid for it.

    4. "Vintage" instruments do have their appeal, as do new instruments. Again, your personal preferences are at play here. Older instruments are much more common in the carved market. Some basses just aren't built to last. A lot of the surgeries previously mentioned that are common on Kays might not be considered on an instrument that isn't a Kay. If the cost of repairs is more than the cost of the instrument, (and a new fingerboard, endpin, fixing a cracked or warped neck, gluing seams etc. can definitely put you into that situation) a lot of people cut their losses and move on. I think this is the big reason why you don't see a lot of older ply/cheap basses around.

    Hopefully that helps. As much as we can give you the "Kay basses are awesome!" or "you can get more bass for less money!" it really comes down to you and your personal preferences as well. Turning a tea drinker into a coffee drinker is a challenge that isn't worth it most of the time, and if you've got your heart set on a Kay, then I say go down that road.
  8. Will Kelly

    Will Kelly

    Mar 3, 2010
    For three grand, you could have Upton build you an awesome plywood bass that would be a much better instrument.
  9. tyb507

    tyb507 Supporting Member

    Sep 17, 2004
    Burlington, Vermont

    KUNGfuSHERIFF Supporting Member

    Feb 8, 2002
    Upstate NY
    The thing about Kays in my experience is that they're good at what they're good at, which happens to work really well for roots music, but they're weak in other areas.

    My preference is for the older Kay basses. They were built lighter and tend to sound deeper and more musical. On the other hand, you're talking about a 60-plus year old student bass. Sooner or later, rot sets in. Good old entropy at work.

    I would never, ever pay $3500 for a Kay bass. That's just craziness.
  11. Steve Swan

    Steve Swan

    Oct 12, 2004
    Burlingame, California
    Retailer: Shen, Sun, older European
    For the kind of money that you are considering on a vintage american plywood bass, an Epiphone B4 from the late 1940s to the mid 1950s or a King Moretone or American Standard from the late 1930s through the early 1950s is going to give you so much more bass than any Kay would be. These non-Kay choices were generally distributed more widely in the midwest and east coast than in the west.

    It's sort of like spending $XXX on a vintage Fender or Gibson guitar amplifier. The more commonly known choice is often much more expensive and not quite the versatile good value that the lesser known, but better functioning choice would be.

    Good luck in your search!
  12. Phil Rowan

    Phil Rowan Supporting Member

    Mar 2, 2005
    Brooklyn, NY
    Huh.. My '38 Kay Orchestra Model weighs a ton but lines up with the latter part of your 2nd sentence. Interesting axe in that the bass bar runs pretty much flush all the way from top to bottom, and there's a.. what would you call it, not a back brace, but a brace-like piece of wood that runs across the back on the inside, which coincides with where the sound post touches the back. I had a sound post adjustment done by John Beal and he said he'd never seen anything like it.. I've often wanted to post pictures and see if Molly Kay or anyone else can chime in about whether this is a common thing or not.
  13. Jake deVilliers

    Jake deVilliers Commercial User

    May 24, 2006
    Crescent Beach, BC
    Owner of The Bass Spa, String Repairman at Long & McQuade Vancouver
    Nope, I've never seen a back brace on a Kay. I'd bet it was installed by the guy who took the top off and replaced the bass bar.
  14. Jake deVilliers

    Jake deVilliers Commercial User

    May 24, 2006
    Crescent Beach, BC
    Owner of The Bass Spa, String Repairman at Long & McQuade Vancouver
    That's "RITE of passage", Mr. Canada.
  15. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
  16. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    Sorry Jake, it's fixed. We have an international image to maintain!

    (They don't know about Rob Ford yet right?)
  17. I can certainly corroborate this. I took my 1949 Kay into Mike Shank's shop to get the laminations glued (a common problem with laminated, aka "plywood", instruments-- the layers of wood eventually start to separate). He took one look at the fingerboard and told me to have that fixed immediately-- the fingerboard was beginning to separate from the neck. In a Kay, the fingerboard is structural-- if it were to separate from the neck, the neck would break, due to its thinness and the tension of steel strings (I had Spirocore mediums on it at the time). And, like the laminate layers of wood composing the instrument, the glue that holds everything together doesn't last forever.

    So I got that taken care of. My 1949 Kay has the original painted hardwood (not rosewood or ebony) fingerboard, which was re-glued. The laminates were re-glued. I got her re-strung with Spirocore Weichs (low tension) and I absolutely love them on my old Kay.

    Getting the laminate layers re-glued made a world of difference, too-- the notes were more responsive, and much louder! The best part was that Mike did it for a very reasonable price.

    So, yes, there are certainly things to keep an eye on when taking a look at a Kay, American Standard, King, or Epiphone bass. But, if the instrument was loved and cared-for (as mine is) for most of its life, those are routine repairs that shouldn't cost all that much-- you just have to do your due diligence and get them taken care of as soon as you know that something is amiss.
  18. I'm very afraid that this is going to happen to me. I'm currently saving up for a fully-carved instrument for orchestral use. But my parents bought me my Kay over 20 years ago. They couldn't afford it outright, as money was tight in my family, so the luthier, who was a friend of the family, let them "rent to own" for a pretty significant discount. I performed numerous auditions, competitions, and, literally, hundreds of concerts with this bass. To be 100% completely honest, I don't know if I will actually be able to part with it when I finally get the money saved up for the new bass.
  19. MollyKay


    Sep 10, 2006
    Southern PA
    Bass Hobby'ist
    The back brace could be factory installed. Some of the very early K-Meyer basses have the back brace which was the forerunner to the sound post disk. I have a very early K-Meyer with the back brace, definitely factory installed as the patina of the wood all matches under black light inspection. To date I have seen three very early Kay and K-Meyer basses with this detail.

    My K-Meyer...unrestored.



    My K-Meyer in as found condition:

    http://s318.photobucket.com/user/bassmonkey2/slideshow/1937 K-Meyer

    K-Meyer from eBay (not my bass):

    http://s318.photobucket.com/user/bassmonkey2/slideshow/K Meyer No 156

    The really early basses tend to have slight differences then the later models. I guess they were trying minor modification to see what worked and what did not work. Even though the basses were factory made I see a slight amount of variation in the details for my research. :D
  20. For 2500 or 3 grand I would gladly part with my 43 Kay M1. And then call upton to make me a bass. I love my kay! She is awsome at what she does! I play 90% roots folk music and she is awsome at that! Has the sound the look and the mojo of being a 70 year old American bass. But when I play with someone more like my wife doing more pop/singer songwriter stuff no matter what I do I cant get an a refined sustaining tone from it.

    I have seen a few basses with great refined sustaining tones that through technique thump and sound great for root folk music.

    Just my opinion.