Kay K-42 & Harmony 1348

The "Big Two" of budget guitars, Kay and Harmony were the giant Chicago music houses manufacturing instruments under their own names as well as numerous house brands, One of those, Silvertone, was manufactured for another Chicago giant, Sears & Roebuck, who ultimately became the largest retailer of Kay and Harmony instruments. Many a baby boomer sat in their bedroom gazing upon the selection of electric guitars and amplifiers in the phone book sized Sears catalog in hopes they too would join the rock 'n roll revolution!

Kay's rich history dates back to the late 1800s and the Groehsl Company which evolved into the Stromberg-Voisinet Company by the early 1920s. The Kay Musical Instrument Company became official in 1931. By the end, Kay was owned by Valco who went out of business in 1968. Kay manufactured Silvertone labeled instruments for Sears begining in the mid-1940s. With roots in early "Electro" instrument attempts by Stromberg-Voisinet, Kay provided Sears with their first electric Spanish (archtop) guitar and amplifier set by 1946. A solidbody guitar folowed in the early 1950s right after Fender and along with Gibson and Harmony. The 1950s became their "golden era" as the guitar boom of the 1960s was met with mass production techniques, such as bolt on necks, and quality issues.

Harmony lasted almost 10 years longer before calling it quits in 1976. They were considered the largest volume instrument manufacturer and even claimed to have made more instruments than all of the other manufacturers combined at one point. Numbers like over 1 million instruments have been tossed around but there does not seem to be any records to confirm. They had been a vendor of Sears, who at one point even owned Harmony, for decades providing guitars that were basically Harmony models with a few minor cosmetic changes.

Although primarily considered entry level budget brands, Kay and Harmony always maintained a "professional grade" line of guitars in an effort to compete with Fender, Gibson and Martin. Many of these guitars are now being discovered by the vintage market as reasonable alternatives that capture the spirit of American musical instrument manufacturing. Models like the Kay Jimmy Reed Thin Twin, Pro and Barney Kessel Pro or Harmony Stratotone, Meteor and Rocket can now command prices well north of $1,000. As the baby boomers move into their retirement years and begin to search for the instruments of their youth, the catalog guitars will undoubtedly see rapid appreciation.

Many Kay and Harmony budget guitars passed through my hands however I had little experience with their top of the line models with the exception of lap steel guitars. My June 2008 Monthly G.A.S. Attack introduced me to an early 1960s Kay manufactured Airline Barney Kessel with three (3) "speed bump" pickups. Airline was the house brand manufactured for another catalog giant, Montgomery Ward. A very nice thin bodied double cutaway guitar, you can scroll down and read all about her. Although she was a wonderful example I still hadn't found what I was looking for, so the search continued but with a full depth hollowbody in mind. Don't get me wrong as thinlines, such as the Gibson ES-335, are great guitars with less of a tendency to feedback but ya' just gotta love a big vintage archtop!

First up is a beautiful blonde Kay K-42 Artist that was available from 1947-51. Kay necks tend to be chunky and this guitar is no exception. When someone talks about a "baseball bat" neck its an accurate description! Nevertheless, its quite comfortable especially for my large hands but it would be a tough play for someone with smaller digits. With a spruce top and maple back/sides, its large 17 1/4" body provides a silky mellow tone with volume and projection one expects from an archtop guitar. As for the overall quality of its tone, which is truly personal preference, it will compete with many mid-level Gibson and Epiphone acoustic archtops from the period for a fraction of the price.

The tortoiseshell binding is a rich feature and compliments the natural finish. Absolutely no deterioration which is not the case with the pickguard. The tortiseshell continues as a headstock overlay with an embedded art deco design. Whether it was the Kelvinator of the 1950s or the headstock of this Artist from the 1940s, Kay offered more than the standard MOP inlay. As for tuners, the individual Klusons (unmarked) still bear their original buttons.

Overall condition of this one, it just doesn't get much better unless the instrument was never played. The only issue is the pickguard which has begun to deteriorate but is still stable. Actually it looks kinda cool! The woods have darkened very nicely with age and perhaps some help of the gas emission from the pickguard. The guitar is free of any damage or repairs and the binding shows no signs of shrinkage. Very light age/play wear so this one could be easily called close to a "9". All the hardware is original right down to the end pin and its arched chipboard case is one of the nicest I've seen from this period. Absolutely no neck wear which is not the case with the next guitar, an early 1950s Harmony made Silvertone 1348 also sold by Sears.




The pickup is what immediately attracted me to this Harmony model. It looked very familiar yet different due to the use of a solid center bar with raised square pole pieces. I knew that Gibson sold their leftover prewar pickup inventory to Kay and Harmony shortly after the war. The pickups ended up in lap steel and archtop guitar models by both manufacturers for a short period before they switched to DeArmond. Although the prewar Gibson version used either adjustable (screw) pole pieces or none at all, this appears to be what has become referred to as the P-13 or at least a variation. It is surprisingly hot with an even tone across all strings. Very warm with what I'll described as a thick tone, it showcases a prewar pickup design that lead to the development of the P-90 and then humbucker in the 1950s. Being a prewar Gibson kinda fella, I found the tone to be as familiar as the appearance of the pickup. Fit right in with my insanity!

Although stamped with model H59, which became their Rocket model designation by the 1960s, it was advertised in the 1952 Sears catalog under their model number 1348. Sold as the top of the line model, its 16 1/2" body with a spruce top and maple back/sides, it was discontinued by 1954 making this one a very seldom seen guitar. It also features a tortoiseshell headstock overlay with an embedded art deco design which like Kay, is quite regal. Triple ply binding and large block MOP inlays as fret markers adds to the guitar's elegance. The pickguard is very unusual since it is twice as thick as a standard guard and covers a much larger surface area which includes the pickup itself. Big brown period bakelite knobs are marked for volume and tone. The adjustable rosewood bridge has a bone saddle which is a nice change over just notched rosewood.

Not quite as clean as the K-42, the neck shows finish loss from playing however the rest of the guitar is fairly clean with just typical nicks, dings and scratches. It does have however one substantial 3" crack that needs attention near the input and a tiny piece of binding missing on the top back edge. Not too shabby considering its age and I can't expect all of them to be cream puffs like the K-42. The neck is no where near the thickness of the Kay and much closer to a Gibson of the period. Overall the guitar exhibits a level of craftsmanship and features that do not suggest it is a budget instrument but rather one aimed at the working musician of the era.

Once again venturing outside my elitist collecting box I've found some wonderful additions which together cost less than an entry level Gibson ES-125 from the same period. Two for the price of one? Heck yeah! Take it from a <former>guitar snob, there are gems to be found among the plethora of catalog guitars! If only I had known then what I know now...

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