Discussion in 'Basses [DB]' started by mxr255, Oct 31, 2003.

  1. mxr255

    mxr255 Supporting Member

    Jul 21, 2003
    Williamsport, PA
    I have been playing bass for 15 years. I am almost finished with a degree in music with double bass as my main instrument and I do not understand the Kay passion.

    I have played on many Kays and they have skinny necks and feel nice for Jazz, but the sound is nothing compared to Carved instrument or the Hybrid (carved top) basses that companies like Shen is kicking out of China?

    I have heard guys say that it has that "tone". Well what is that? I play tons of Jazz and my Wilfer carved bass and it does a GREAT job. I would understand it people were getting then for 500 bucks, but most guys I see are paying between $1,000 and 2,000. I saw a guy pay over a 1,000 bucks for one and then put over $600 into it to get it set up properly and then there he was with a bass that played nice, but still had a laminate sound.

    IF someone could descride this Kay tone I would really LOVE to hear it. Thanks guys!


    I am not trying to sound like an ass I just do not get it!
  2. Alexi David

    Alexi David

    May 15, 2003
    What's to get? What is good tone for one person is not good tone for the other. I learned on my Dad's Kay. It didn't have a lot of punch or definition, but it was very rugged (laminate), nice loud sound, fantastic for pizz. No, it doesn't work in an orchestra, but then again, I don't think our Kay fans are symphony players.

    Also, just because one has a carved instrument, doesn't mean it will sound better. I've heard some Kays, properly setup, that beat the crap out of a low-level/badly setup carved bass.

    Many great bassists used them, such as Slam Stewart, Paul Chambers, Chubby Jackson, Aaron Bell - the list goes on. For a beggining Jazz/Bluegrass player, they're simply wonderful. That of course, is just my opinion.
  3. mxr255

    mxr255 Supporting Member

    Jul 21, 2003
    Williamsport, PA
    Yeah I agree that there are a lot of crappy Carved basses....and set up is the key...
  4. mchildree

    mchildree Supporting Member

    Sep 4, 2000
    For certain types of music, the tone of a carved bass isn't ideal, believe it or not...many of the more traditional styles call for a simpler, more percussive sound that doesn't cover frequencies which would conflict with other acoustic instruments. A laminate bass works well for that.

    Bluegrass and blues bassists tend to play in environments where you'd not want to take a $5K+ carved instrument. Kays and other laminates are good for that. Kays also have the unique ability to simultaneously give a player (1) a decent entry level instrument (2) a collector's piece and (3) a large club of other players to identify with. Might not be important to you, but for a beginner, it really feels nice to "belong" somewhere.

    And just when you think you know what "the laminate sound" is...shoot over to NY and play one of Arnold Schnitzer's New Standards.... ;)
  5. Many great bassists used them, such as Slam Stewart, Paul Chambers, Chubby Jackson, Aaron Bell - the list goes on. For a beggining Jazz/Bluegrass player, they're simply wonderful. That of course, is just my opinion. [/B][/QUOTE]

    Mingus Fingus, i'm glad you focused on mentioning this is your opinion, especially when you mention that they're simply wonderful for jazz. In my opinion they are, generally junk, from the "pop off scrolls" to the quality, or lack of, of the crutch tips on the end-pins. Some genre of music, including blue-grass, do demand what a Kay can provide... a short sound. You can get the same sound out of a New Standard, Shen or a Christopher, with the added features of a real, carved scroll and real inlaid purfling as opposed to painted on or decaled, by getting the bass set up for that.
    Of course there are exceptions..The players you mentioned ( although i've never seen Paul Chambers playing any bass except that wonderful carved bass with the carved womans head instead of a scroll ) probably all had freak Kays. You can add Milt Hinton to your list by the way. He had a blonde Kay he used on alot of records. By the way, Chubby and Slam both did ads for Kay in Downbeat and Metronome magazines. Showing my age again....Anyway I don't understand the Kay passion either.
  6. As you know, Chubby endorsed a namesake 5-string model!

    I have a student who is using a school Kay and aside from all its shortcomings, I have to admit the sucker is loud! But, I would have to agree that considering the sound and the construction, the prices are somewhat inflated on Kays today. But whatever the market will bear, eh?

    Had the chance to buy a mint late-40s Kay a few years ago for $350. Shoulda jumped on that one.
  7. tsolo


    Aug 24, 2002
    Ft. Worth
    I don't think it's something that can be explained. I don't care for VW bugs - but some people will spend a small fortune on them. I passed up a decent Kay swingmaster 'cause the owner wanted too much for it, in my opinion. So i bought a new englehardt for less. I need something that will take punishment and a laminated bass will take the abuse that a carved instrument won't. I'd like to have a Kay - just 'cause it's a tradition thing. I just won't pay the prices they command.
  8. brianrost

    brianrost Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2000
    Boston, Taxachusetts
    It's the tone that other guys playing Kays have put down on classic records that other players are trying to emulate.

    If I get called for a rockabilly, bluegrass or blues gig the gut string plywood bass sound is what the leader expects. So I use a plywood bass with gut strings.

    It's really that simple.
  9. brianrost

    brianrost Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2000
    Boston, Taxachusetts
    Well show me a $1600 carved bass, fully set up, that's worth owning. If there was one I would probably already own one.

    Chinese and Romanian basses may be bringing carved prices down today, but five years ago when I bought my plywood Juzek it was a good deal at $2300 plus $500 of setup work because I couldn't find ANY carved bass worth owning at that price point.

    How much was your Wilfer? The cheapest one Lemur Music offers is $5500...that's more than I paid for my last car :meh:
  10. mxr255

    mxr255 Supporting Member

    Jul 21, 2003
    Williamsport, PA
    you are correct.....a $1600 carved bass is probably not a wise investment, but you could own a modern Chinese laminate (shen) that would have a GREAT sound if properly set up.....but I understand the History behind the Kays.....

    and I do love my Volkswagon so if you compare it to that I get it...;)
  11. Johnny L

    Johnny L

    Feb 14, 2002
    Victoria, TX
    My discount $0.02:

    It's not really about Kay passion, it's about bass passion. But you're right, walking around with this kind of image can make conversations regarding your bass's pedigree with folks who don't give a rat's behind about the music you play and the work you've put in to execute it successfully a little more awkward.

    It may help to have a freak [insert plywood brand name here] story to tell though, just in case.
  12. FunkySpoo

    FunkySpoo Supporting Member

    Feb 6, 2002
    They've got "MOJO"
  13. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    A lot also depends on what and how you play. I've had more than one luthier tell me that my carved bass is "ugly" or "crappy", or when one is being nice, "Ok, but you should get a better bass soon". But I like the sound, and am used to the way it plays, so I keep it. I also don't have $15K lying around to upgrade with...so I keep it. I imagine many Kay owners have found themselves in the same predicament over the years.
  14. It would appear as if the Kay has become the Budweiser of basses. Like Bud, Everyone knows about them, and they’re cheap (WELL THEY USED TO BE). Just as Bud has it’s fans who think it is great beer, Kay Basses have fans who think they are great basses. Past mass marketing, and previous ease of ownership have made them almost a household name among musical circles. Therefore, the question "Why Kay?" to the uneducated bass player/shopper is almost a mute point. To them Kay is what they know, and what they think is going to give them the magic jazz/bluegrass sound they are after. Though, for an individual, a Kay might fit that bill perfectly

    After reading the pervious responses to Matt’s question, I think it can be agreed upon that if you can get a Kay in good shape, at a reasonable price, it’s a sound investment. Good luck trying to find a Kay in good shape at a reasonable price! Recently, I have met players who have, or are willing to spend up to 3grrr on Kays that would make a Luthier cry (epoxy everywhere, nails, screws and evil curses) And, one player who had a Kay completely covered in Duct Tape who BRAGGED that he could get $1500 for it in a heart beat. To me this seems like a very salty price to pay for a piece of "history" when a Shen Laminate, a New Standard or a Christopher can be setup to give you sound these mangled Kays can’t even come close to.

    - Jerry
  15. Jerry, my sentiments exactly...And welcome to TB.
    I like your post name!
  16. Don Higdon

    Don Higdon In Memoriam

    Dec 11, 1999
    Princeton Junction, NJ
    You can hear a nice sounding Kay and some great piano on two Bill Charlap CD's: 'Distant Star' and 'Along With Me.' Sean Smith plays a Kay he bought from Michael Moore. MM used it on tour with Benny Goodman, a man not known for tolerating second-best.
    I'm old enough to remember when Kay was a laughing-stock. The mental picture was the lounge trio with a blonde Kay and a useless chick singer who played a cocktail drum set, if you can remember those (Paul Wall button should; he's no spring chicken either.) So I was surprised as hell when Arnold hipped me to a small Kay S-1. The sound was amazing. I let it go so I could buy my Old 87, which was a model for his New Standard Cleveland. The Kay went to a name bassist and educator. .
    So maybe these are the exceptions that, coupled with the fact that Kays are no longer produced, feed and romanticise the myth.
  17. Dono, since we're bringing age into this...I'll bet you're old enough to remember those " pre-war " Kays.... they were real skinny mothers. I'd say ribs at about 6"! The few I remember playing sounded pretty good. Some of our Kay afcionados can give us a rant on these.
    BTW, did MM tell you any stories about Benny Goodman and his, uh, ability to stretch a dollar? I'm sure he did and I have a few from Colin Bailey who, with Monty Budwig and Victor Feldman did a Japanese tour with BG. I'll post some someday under humor.
  18. littlebill


    Oct 18, 2002
    Apopka, Fla
    The other night we were at a jam when it started raining. About 50 people crowded under the tin roof shelter where 6 of us were playing. My old German plywood, which is comparable to the Kay, held its own considering the conditions of playing 4 hours in the rainy weather. We had a great time with an enthusiastic crowd. I've talked to a couple of bassists that will bring the carved bass out on good night but they tell me they will not even consider leaving the house during humid times we tend to have here in Florida. For the bluegrass crowd and other outdoor venues, there is no question as to "Why Kay".
  19. Littlebill, again, in my mind there's still a huge question as to "Why Kay" when you can get one of the other mentioned laminated basses with better trim, better sound, featuring real scrolls, and real purfling.
    Easy to kill the sound with cheap gut strings and rags in the F holes!
    And in defense of your old plywood German bass, i'll bet it has a real scroll, real purfling and is a better sounding instrument than a Kay!
  20. Damon Rondeau

    Damon Rondeau Journeyman Clam Artist Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2002
    Winnipeg, baby
    I wonder if Kays would be so popular if they weren't American-made and if you could still get new ones (never mind this Engelhardt stuff.) In addition to the Budweiser factor, there's a nostalgia factor, a '57 Chevvie thing going on here...

    I've noticed that a lot of bluegrass folks will call a Chinese bass a "China bass". Doesn't matter whether it's a beautiful Shen or a lowly Crapatino, it's a "China bass". Makes me wonder, in Asia or in Europe, do they call a Kay a "Yankee bass"? Maybe with a bit of disdain in the tone of voice?

    The Kay thing comes from the same place as "I gotta have a Martin", "gotta have a pre-CBS Fender", etc. There's truth to the legend but the legend has taken over reality.
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