What to look for in a 1965 Kay?

Discussion in 'Basses [DB]' started by fovea1959, Jan 21, 2019.

  1. fovea1959


    Feb 10, 2009
    I've been playing big band and doing a little combo work for about 10 years. Still playing a '96 Englehardt that I got *cheap*. It's a solid bass, but just doesn't sing; some good string choices and setup have helped a lot (mostly at the high end), but I still just don't like the sound, especially low.

    I have been hunting low key for a good replacement for years. I went "pass" on a 5 string Kay about 5 years ago because I couldn't justify the cost and didn't want to deal with a 5 string, but the sound of that bass has haunted me; my wife's head snapped up the instant I hit the first note.

    I just found a '65 Kay that needs a little work. After a new endpin, tail gut, a little cosmetic work (it was a school bass, well graffiti'd and edges are horrible), and putting a soundpost pad under the top (it's acquired a little dimple in the top), I'm looking at under $1800. Fingerboard is original and excellent. Neck angle is a little more than I have seen on most Kays, but I don't think it's been shimmed. Bass is coming from a reputable dealer with in-house repair gal. Pegbox and neck are both intact.

    Wife listened to it, and agrees it's not the best I ever tried, it's a got a much better sound that what I have now. I also like the idea of getting a used instrument; we had a bad experience with a new violin that didn't break in well....

    I have two concerns: the price seems highish; it doesn't seem collectible because of cosmetics and late model, but it's not a lot cheaper than basses I see here that are cleaner and seem to be more collectible. Am I seeing this wrong?

    2nd concerns: durability. My Englehardt is a *tank* (and sounds like it), and I'm worried about the neck on the Kay when it's getting wedged into my itty-bitty car. Any thoughts there?

    Anything else I need to think about when I take another look at this?
    staccatogrowl likes this.
  2. saabfender

    saabfender Inactive

    Jan 10, 2018
    This is the heart of the matter. Neither of you thinks this is a great instrument, much less even the one for you. Sounds like she'll go along with a more expensive instrument if it's substantially better (than the Englehardt or the Kay). Keep looking.

    Used is still a good option.
  3. Plywood basses are generally not going to have a rich or multi dimensional sound. If they ever sound "good" it will be one "good" sound. If tone is your driving reason to look to for a new bass, I'd suggest moving away from ply altogether. Also, one of the primary issues of ply basses is that they take a lot more physical effort to play, so 10 years on this bass means your body is 10 years on as well....
    Sam Dingle likes this.
  4. unbrokenchain

    unbrokenchain Supporting Member

    Jun 8, 2011
    Black Mountain, NC
    I love the way both my 69 and 45 Kays sound. If you're planning on auditioning for a high level orchestra it's probably not the way to go, but none of my gigs call for any high register arco work. Damon's right in that the sound does not have the complexity of a fine carved instrument, but Kays can really move some air. And both of mine have been on tour out to the desert and back to humid North Carolina and are no worse for the wear. An expensive carved instrument in that situation would add a layer of stress for sure.

    Most of the music that I get called for is in the americana vein, and what seems to please folks the most is a nice round thoom like on JD Crowe's Bluegrass Holiday album. Kay or American Standard seem to be a good fit for that sound. The looks also tend to fit with the genre, a beat up ply bass has become part of the aesthetic in a way. I think of a Kay as kind similar to a vintage P bass in the way that there are things I wish they had designed better originally, and it's sort of a one trick pony, but it's "the sound" and "the look" for certain types of music in our culture. I'm in the process of adding carbon fiber and a thicker fingerboard to the neck of my 69 (thread over in setup/repair, the 45 has already had it done), it's fairly simple for someone with router skills if the neck is a main concern.

    As for the price, I think it's on the high side but not out of the question. You could probably bring it to Asheville and sell it for 2k+
    jsf729 and james condino like this.
  5. Acoop


    Feb 21, 2012
    30 years ago I paid $80 for an old Kay out of a high school. Poor thing had been abused. I’d keep your eye out for a older European Maybe German laminate. Cheaper and without that tubby sound.
    AGCurry likes this.
  6. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    First, the construction of Englehardt and Kay basses is essentially identical. Englehardt and Link were the principals in Valco, which purchased Kay in '67 and bought back the bass and cello operation after they liquidated in '69. Englehardt basses are still made on the same jigs to the same specs with the same methods.

    The dovetail neck-joint design is generally considered weak. Because of the design nearly all Kays have had or need a reset at this age. There's only one neck angle from the factory. That said, many Kays are in use for years with failed neck joints that allow the neck to lean forward. This usually looks like a 1-1.5 millimeter lift of the heel from the button.

    A dealer that can provide detailed support can legitimately ask 30-50% more than the local street price of a given instrument. The C-1 was the bottom-drawer instrument in the '60s, and the only gamba-shaped model.

    Soundpost penetration is a red flag for a poorly maintained or abused instrument, also indicated by the edge chewing you describe. More subtle but common faults to look for are seam separation, loose veneers inside the body, a lifting bass bar, heel cracks, old non-professional repairs, or a tilted endpin.

    With some patience, at the price you mention you'll be able to find a pretty nice Kay without such issues and not far away. I see five or six go up for sale around the country every week.

    If you can get the serial number of the bass you're considering, I'd like to add it to our database. Good luck!
    RSBBass, rknea and Keith Rawlings like this.
  7. Hold out for an older one if you must have a Kay.

    IME they started building them heavier and deader to cope with the added tension of steel strings and they kept getting heavier until the end came in ‘69.
  8. Greg Clinkingbeard

    Greg Clinkingbeard Commercial User

    Apr 4, 2005
    Kansas City area
    Black Dog Bass Works
    My ‘67 weighs 29 pounds which is ridiculous. Granted, I added a thick ebony fingerboard but it seems to weigh at least 5 pounds more than most 3/4 basses I’ve dealt with.

    Dead? Not so much. Mine is dark and punchy with a lot of sustain. It is not bad under the bow.
    On a quartet gig Sunday night, the drummer was bummed that I didn’t take the Kay and I wish I had. It would have sounded better than my A bass in that room. Good Kay basses just get it done, in a variety of situations.
    Keyser Soze and james condino like this.
  9. eh_train

    eh_train Supporting Member Commercial User

    Jan 12, 2004
    Owner, Stand Up Guy Basses (Repair/Sell/Buy upright basses)
    Like Steven suggests, you'd be buying a very similar instrument to what you already have.

    I say if you're going to upgrade, aim for a really noticeable difference! Maybe a hybrid bass with a solid top? It'd definitely have more richness and variation in the sound.
  10. 210superair


    Sep 10, 2019
    Not to resurrect a thread, but I bought a 65 kay a month or so ago. Can any one extrapolate on the dimple in the top? Mine had the same, it was sitting in a closet for God knows how long, and the sound post was in the wrong spot, bridge too. I moved the sound post to where it should be, bridge too, and put guts on it, got rid of the old flats. The dimple seems to already have flattened itself out somewhat just from getting everything in the right place, but should I put a post pad under the top? It's bellying down a tiny bit at the bridge, but not bad, and from what I've read on here that's normal on a Kay. Should I just rock the thing out and not sweat it? It plays and sounds great now, so I'm not too worried other than maybe the pad will stop future structural damage?

    Thanks guys.....
  11. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    I wouldn't characterize it as 'normal,' but it's not unusual given the common abuse these instruments endure, as you describe. (Was it in the closet under tension all that time? Yeesh.)

    I have done a couple of patches at the soundpost, one of those to help correct significant distortion in the table, and it seems to have helped but not eliminated the distortion. Some luthiers recommend reinforcement of the entire table between the fholes, and while this is a major job involving the bass bar, to me it seems to be a better engineering approach, more likely to produce good long-term results. There's also steaming and reshaping the top, about which I don't know enough to opine upon.

    Pictures would help us all understand the extent of your problem, but from what you've written it feels like you'll do better to hold off any repair until you've played it for at least a year, monitoring the condition. If your bass plays well and doesn't change, I'd say you probably don't need to mess with it.

    Do I have you in the Kaybass registry?
  12. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc

    Soon enough you'll crash into a door loading it, fall over looking at a beautiful woman, or some drink will knock it off the stage. There will be plenty of time to fix the little details then...
  13. jsf729


    Dec 12, 2014
    Central Maryland
    I think James meant some "drunk" will knock it off the stage, but in no particular order, yeah if you're out there regularly- them's the odds....
    james condino likes this.
  14. 210superair


    Sep 10, 2019
    I'm in the register, yessir. I'll snap some pics asap, but I think it'll wait as you guys have stated.

    And I don't need drunks to break my basses, I do quite well on my own! Did this to my Eastman last summer... Lol 20180923_191645.jpg 20180923_191637.jpg
  15. 210superair


    Sep 10, 2019
    Here's the best shot I could get of the top dimple. I think the picture actually makes it look worse, it doesn't look quite this bad in person. Thanks for any help yall. 20190922_114744.jpg
  16. GretschWretch

    GretschWretch Supporting Member

    Dec 27, 2013
    East Central Alabama
    I dunno. I hear that around Asheville the drinks are large enough to slake the thirst of the Ghost of Christmas Present.
    unbrokenchain likes this.
  17. Steve Swan

    Steve Swan

    Oct 12, 2004
    Burlingame, California
    Retailer: Shen, Sun, older European
    What to look for in a Kay is a 1938 American Standard !!
  18. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    Yeah, that looks like collision damage to me. Not simple to fix.
  19. 210superair


    Sep 10, 2019
    In the picture it looks like the foot of the bridge is really going down and the top is quite bellied, but it really doesn't look like that in person. I think the light got the best of my pic, I'll see if I can snap a better one and still capture the dimple...

    Outside of that, what are your thoughts on it getting worse?
  20. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    Others will be better informed on this, but offhand, while I can imagine that it could be more pronounced in humid conditions, any worsening will probably be slow. That said, the top is physically compromised and weakened, so I would likely reinforce the top at the soundpost to get it out of the dimple and spread the tension on the top. This could change the instrument's voice somewhat, so it would be good in the repair to anticipate a change in post position to compensate.
    unbrokenchain and 210superair like this.