Other Guitars

gas for american cheese

1

Last Sunday I visited two Big City guitar shops that I'd always wanted to go to. My main reason for going was to check out and play a Silvertone 1446 "Chris Isaak" that I'd been ogling online. I'd never played one before, so it was going to be a new experience for me. The guitar was in really nice shape for its age, and I eagerly took it into a private "amp room" and plugged into a new MagnaTone. The first thing I noticed as I held it was how much it felt like exactly what it was - a catalog guitar. It felt really cheaply made (which it was when new). I gave it the benefit of the doubt and proceeded to tune up. It had been hanging on the wall for a while, and it took several attempts to get it to stay in tune. The tuners were open backed and were really stiff. The Gibson-made mini humbuckers sounded pretty good to me, and the real, original Bigsby was superb. I played it for about 20-30 minutes, and while it had decent action and it was a great looking guitar, it still just felt really cheap to me. I just couldn't get past it. I took it back to the salesman and half-heartedly tried to make a deal for it, but we couldn't come to terms. I left feeling glad that I'd gone there and got to play it, but I wasn't all that sad that I hadn't bought it. So as long as I was in the city, I went to yet another shop I'd always wanted to visit, renowned for its vintage instruments. It was there that I fell in love with a 60s Kay Jazz II. It was a little rough; the binding was cracked in several places due to shrinkage, and there were even a couple of chunks missing on the lower bout. But I picked it up and strummed a chord and it sounded fantastic even unplugged! It had nice, low action with no fret buzz, and the neck just felt great in my hand. It was kind of an Iced Tea burst, with great figure in the maple top and lots of finish checking in the laquer. I waited until an "amp room" was available and plugged into a Fender DRRI (I have one at home), and it sounded great! I really dug the "Kleenex Box" pickups, and it too had an original Bigsby (although the arm felt a bit flimsy). I really, really liked this guitar. But it wasn't without fault either; the headstock had been robbed of its plastic Kelvinator chevron and just painted plain gloss back. It also had no case, but comes with a gig bag instead. I think the missing Kelvinator emblem hurts its value quite a bit. People have told me that you can find them used, but I've never seen one for sale. Another thing was that the fretboard had block inlays instead of the kind of "shark fin" inlays most commonly found on Jazz IIs. An extensive search of Google images turned up two photos of Jazz IIs with block inlays, one a vintage photo of a very young Eric Clapton playing one. So I wonder if the neck is original or if it came from another model? None of these faults really matter to me, what really matters to me is how the guitar plays and feels in my hands. I don't really care about the chunks of missing binding. The missing Kelvinator emblem makes me a bit sad, as I think it's a cool feature, but...am I a fool to want this beat-up Kay as opposed to the much better condition Silvertone? Am I a fool to be considering either one of these Chicago-built guitars? I welcome any and all opinions. - Tom

2

No shame. If it's fun to play, sounds good, and the price is right, that's a hat trick for a guitar. I was on the hunt for a nicer Kay or Harmony when I ended up with my Brooklyn made New Yorker. Value is about the same.

4

Either way, I don't think you're a fool. Some seriously fine guitars out there with budget brand labels. As long as you approach with critical eyes/ears and an open mind.

I too have tried several of the 1446 guitars (and many other silvertones), along with a series of Kay guitars. My buddy has a Kay with two of those kleenex box p/us. It's a fine instrument too. He wouldn't sell it, so I looked long and hard for one as good. Not found yet. The 1446 and Harmony Rockets are so appealing, yet the neck stays narrow high up. Much as I've always wanted one, that's a deal ender.

So mostly, my experience has been that off brand guitars have great appeal, but tend to exempt themselves either functionally (such as the narrow neck), or in terms of iffy quality. The big exception is a 50s silvertone 1427 archtop. I looked for years for a P-13 equipped hollowbody. Several models, Harmony and Silvertone. Most I tried were in sad shape, basically unplayable and/or cheap feel. So I took a big chance, grabbed this one on one of the forums, cheap. It took a fair amount of work and the talents of an excellent luthier, but turns out I chose well. It had issues (fretboard separating from the neck), but is a very solid guitar to start with. And now, an outstanding guitar. I've never seen one remotely as playable as this one is now, regardless of price, in a vintage outlet. They may be out there, but you have to be diligent and patient, also maybe willing to restore or upgrade. MD

5

With some of those models you just have to celebrate the cheapness of it. While some are better than others, it's not really fair to expect to be really nice. BTW a lot of the guys that gig old Harmony's Silvertone Etc, usually update, reneck, refret, rewind pickups, even rebrace from the inside out.

6

You have to keep in mind those guitars are at least 40 years old, or older, and as they were cheap, most of them didn't receive any TLC along the way. Some of the design ideas were a little questionable, but with old Kays and Harmony guitars, I've often found the build quality and consistency surprisingly good.

And there's the pickups of course. The DeArmond "gold foil" pickups (and silver foil, "mustache", argyle, etc...variatons) on a lot of vintage Harmonies are fantastic, the P13 pickups on the bigger hollowbody harmony guitars are well loved by the jump blues crowd, and the "Kleenex Box/Kessel/Gold K" pickups that are on a bunch of different Kay models are killer sounding, well made pickups.

As for the odd design choices/cost cutting measures...there's some odd ones. The Harmony Jazzboxes with set necks and P13 pickups (roughly models H-50 through H-63) usually have no body bracing whatsoever, so you see quite a few with sagging tops. Then again, it's impressive how many have survived with the top arch intact, considering.

Cheaper Kays have brass frets, which is obviously not great, and the set neck Kay hollowbodies are not unlike vintage Gretsches in that the necks get loose, and they often need neck resets. The nicer Kay hollowbodies from the "Gold K" line have the weird truss rods with the drum key truss rod adjuster in the heel, and a lot of those don't work any more (or never really have, who knows?)

The Kay Jazz II you mention is a bit of an odd duck too - great pickups, real Bigsby B6 on a lot of them, but just like the Harmony models mentioned above : no body bracing whatsoever. Don't expect to plug them into a Marshall half stack and be able to keep the feedback under control.

7

So right WB. Some of those old p/us are so worth the effort in seeking out. The kleenex box p/us are sorta P90 (a favorite category of single coil to me), not quite. Not sure what the stock p/us are on my buddy's Kay Thin Twin, but they have a sound I don't hear anywhere else. Same goes for some of the old Supro and Airline guitars. Mostly old single coils, and most are not much like anything you can get today. P-13s are a good example of that.

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Actually there is some bracing on the Harmony Silvertone P-13 type archtops, but it's not very beneficial and ends ups doing this.

9

What model is that? I have a late 50's H-62, and it's nekkid on the inside. Nothing, zilch, nada.

10

Really? I thought they all had this? I think this might be a non cut Roy Smeck type box, not sure though. Think I remember Kid Ramos had his updated with ES-175 type bracing, but again don't quote me.

11

Just grabbed my 55 H62, and it has those braces. Walter they are hard to get to by sticking a finger through the f-hole, but using a pinky through the upper most round part of the hole you can feel it.

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I bought a pair of Kays last year, one a blonde 59 K1700 Barney Kessel Pro...WB describes it well. I got lucky, and didn't hesitate.

And the other a RI Thin Twin...

The 59 is a time warp...Very, very good condition, all original.

The TT an interesting combination of early small body electric guitar attributes circa 1952...very fun to play.

13

Just grabbed my 55 H62, and it has those braces. Walter they are hard to get to by sticking a finger through the f-hole, but using a pinky through the upper most round part of the hole you can feel it.

– JazzBoxJunky

Mine is at my tech's right now, but I'm 99% sure there's nothing. I was as surprised as you are - doesn't have those laminated reinforcement rings around the pickup routs, and no bracing. Top's still perfectly arched though.

14

How many of us started off on one of those---or worse? Sears, Monkey Wards, even Western Auto sold bargain instruments. They are what they are, inexpensive beginners' guitars. You can't expect the same fit and finish as you would on a Gretsch, Guild, or Gibson. You still can find the occasional diamond in the rough, tho. They aren't new, they've led rough lives, but there is just something about the right one when you find it that can be magic. Good luck!

15

Thanks to everyone who weighed in on this - I appreciate all your comments and opinions.


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