1930s Kay Kraft, Recording King, Deluxe
and other bolt on neck designs
Stromberg-Voisinet Modern Bolt on Neck Designs

 

In the early 1930s when the depression was well underway and many instrument makers were struggling to survive Kay contracted Stromberg-Voisinet a violin maker to build a deluxe arch top acoustic instrument with an adjustable neck other innovative design features. Sorry folks but Bob Taylor Guitars didn't invent the bolt on neck. This Kay bolt on neck system is simple, effective and works! In fact this Kay system works so well you don't even need a service technician to perform a neck reset. You can do it in about 3 minutes. Just loosen the strings, reach inside and loosen the giant wing nut, adjust the neck how you want it and retighten, done!

As far as tone and playability these guitars play better and have more volume than many modern guitars. I'd love to take a few minutes and described these guitars for you. They are truly a huge part of blues history.  We are really talking about more than one model with this bolt on system but the most famous is the double Venetian cutaway model known as the "Kay Kraft" which was also sold in limited numbers as the more rare "Kay Recording King". They came with and without the fancy decal work and some came with a large arch top style pickguard shown in the photo gallery. Much to my surprise they come with a 14 and 12 fret configuration and the bracing and bridge plate location are different for those two variations. The top on the 12 fret model has the bridge plate farther back toward the but end and an X bracing pattern that reminds you more of a Martin than a Kay. What we now call a modern Martin style X bracing system was invented by in the 1800s and later made an industry standard by the C.F. Martin company beginning in the early 1930s. For the most part X bracing is stronger allowing the construction of larger guitar bodies and produces a more complex tone. In the case of this 12 fret model Kay Kraft the complex tone is debatable. They sound to be more like an old Stella than a Martin. To my great surprise I bought a few of these and discovered they come in a 14 fret model too and labeled as Kay Kraft and Recording King. Most of these have a black bakelite pickguard and gold leaf scroll work and often a black bakelite bridge that flips two ways for compensated and non-compensated. The notable difference is the bracing pattern of the 14 fret not being an X brace system. It has a cross brace much like ladder braced guitars and the bridge plate is much farther forward toward the sound hole. It also has a longer trapeze tailpiece to compensate. Just tapping the two bodies tells me the 12 fretter is going to sound better and it does. The 12 fret model is more open, has more volume and not as bright and ragtimey as the 14 fret model. I've had to come back and completely rewrite this article and add new photos to properly document these.  These also have no back bracing and the top and back are solid wood that has been steam pressed to have an arched shape. This lack of bracing on the back explains the great projection and the arch top and overall design create a very focused high end. 

It's also important to note that modern artists such as Ry Cooder and others have used these guitars for recordings and luthier Rick Turner even has a new guitar heavily influenced by this design with the dual cutaways and styling. A friend of ours David "Dberch" on the APM acoustic forum posted this wonderful recording on his Recording King 14 fret model shown in the photo gallery below.  His 14 fret model has an exaggerated rag time blues sound which is quite wonderful when you play the right styles. Check out this mp3 and see if you agree.

Mp3 Sound Sample 1930s Kay Kraft (DBerch)

More mp3 samples of the 12 fret model in various styles

Somehow with extreme luck I was also able to locate a non cutaway version of this design (right) which is basically a Kay archtop with a more traditional  shaped headstock and body shown to the right and in the photo gallery. To my surprise these have a loud bright blues ragtime sound that's not what you would expect from an archtop. An almost toyish sound which just screams 1920s. I used to watch a legendary local blues star play one like this years ago and this was a very sentimental find for me. I am hoping to display these guitars and allow other people to enjoy them in the Curley Weaver blues museum one day. Cora Mae Bryant has a small museum in her home in Covington Ga but I believe eventually it will become a historic landmark or all of her items will be moved to a more permanent location. If you come to the annual LB acoustic jam you'll see all these guitars in person.


DECAL ART WORK

I've attached a high resolution photo of the artwork on these Stromberg Voisenette made guitars which appears on a half dozen different models during the 1930s including Stromberg, Kay and even Ouhu. I removed the tailpiece and pickguard so you can use this photo as a high resolution reference to repair or restore your own guitars. This decal work appears painted on if you ask me because the head of the Indians is accented with shadows and great facial details. The workmanship on this artwork goes far beyond simple decals in my opinion. I lean toward the opinion these were all hand painted on by very skilled furniture artisans of the day working for the guitar makers. It looks more like artwork you would find on very high end furniture. 

New! DOWNLOAD HIGH RES PHOTO OF ARTWORK ABOVE


PHOTO GALLERY WITH DESCRIPTIONS

Below is a record label displaying it's legendary blues artists and top center is the King Wizard of them all Curley Weaver who is said to have loaned several of the other artists his guitar for the photos. It's a Kay Kraft with no pickguard. Curley Weaver is not as famous as Blind Willie McTell in many ways but he was the premier blues guitarist and singer in the hey day of Atlanta Blues in the 1920s. His voice was equally amazing as his guitar work and he was famous for being a wonderful session musician and anytime you hear Blind Willie say "kick it six" that's him talking to Curley Weaver. Even in McTell's last recordings he still said "kick it six" and left a blank solo area where Curley Weaver belonged. They were truly best of friends. Buddy Moss shown on the left was the other pillar of ATL blues and also a member of their famous trio called The Georgia Browns. Buddy Moss was the only one that lived long enough to enjoy a rediscovery in the 1960s. Unfortunately most pop culture is oblivious to these fantastic players.

New! Download HIGH RES PHOTO OF HEAD STOCK (PEG HEAD)

Atlanta Blues - In the 1920s before the crash blues recording was paying well in the hey day of Atlanta recording and every great artists from the Carolinas to the Delta traveled to the ATL making connections. That included the mingling and jamming of the father of country music  Jimmie Rodgers who played with many Atlanta artists. The depression dried up this gold mine and all the recording companies moved North to Chicago and most of these artists followed to do all their recording then traveled back home. WWII gave this old style of blues the final death blow and many of these fantastic artists almost got lost in history. It's a crying shame because it's some of the best music in the history of mankind and the instruments, tone, playability matched these fast, choppy fun styles. You think blues is slow and boring? Well it was the rock and roll in those days and far from boring. Listen to the recording by Curley Weaver of "Tricks Aint Walkin No More" or McTell "Honey It Must Be Love" or even Tampa Red "Boogie Woogie Dance" and tell me what you think.  Below seems to be a 12 fret version with no pickguard. The light makes it look like a perloid fretboard but it's not. You can see in the McMullen photo the guitar has a brown fretboard. This was taken about 1933 or before during the New York or Chicago sessions. So this is why I think that model was the older style. I'm pretty sure the 14 fret and Recording King models came later but the facts I have researched conflict a little.

Top Row L to R: Spark Plug Smith, Curley Weaver and Fred McMullen, Curley Weaver, Ruth Willis. Bottom Row L to R: Buddy Moss, Coot Grant and Sox Wilson, Fred McMullen, Joshua White.

NEW INFO: Tired of seeing EBay auctions use this article to sell guitars with issues. So here's some helpful info in addtion to what is below. Main issues to look for when buying these guitars are hidden signs of past or future repairs. In the photos below you will see the neck joint which can become loose and the wooden shim can become problematic and making another requires the same skill as resetting the neck on any Martin. Next the upper bout can start to cave in with wavy deformation and dipping around the sound hole and upper bout including cracks in the worst cases. The next common issue is a crack down the middle of the fretboard which I describe below. Not all Krafts have these issues but most will have at least one or more. These guitars are great for people with some good repair skills. They are a little quirky for the average player that just wants a cool blues guitar.

Here's a closer look at the wingnut you tighten. It really seems to stay tight and snap loose easily. I was expecting a nightmare but it was much easier and better working than I ever imagined. The fretboard extension just extends over the top freely and the playability is quite good. The next several photos show the system in great detail. What appears to be an ebony plate is tacked to the neck block area to keep the neck from twisting or rotating. Then the neck rides on this track you see below. You can also see the screw on the heel cap that you are NOT suppose to loosen. That screw simply acts as a pin that holds in the long heavy bolt shaft and prevents it from turning. You would think this system would be heavy yet the entire guitar is still very balanced and light.

See how the fretboard extension just hangs over the upper bout and after 75+ years still working great.

I broke the system down so you could get a really good look at the total parts list.

Below you see 3-4 dots where tiny brad nails hold this wooden plate in place on the neck block. The face of that plate is curved to match the end of the neck. This makes the neck slide on an arch. Very cool design for it's time.


See Below: This joint is where most of these begin to fail pushing the top of the neck block toward the butt. Below is a 12 fret model which has less mass and wooden support inside the upper bout and has been repaired by installing a thin angled mahogany shim. The resulting crack in the upper bout was  repaired and reinforced. The compression of the top also buckles the area around the sound hole making it kinda wavy. By repairing this and installing the shim you can stop the damage from getting worse and restabilize the guitar. The 14 fret model has a larger piece of wood supporting the upper bout but still does not prevent this failure. The also makes the upper bout tend to rise or belly up a little beneath the fretboard extension. When buying these pay close attention to these details to understand what work will have to be performed and adjust your price accordingly. 

Below is the angle you can see if the neck block is being caved in at the top. I caught this one before it started doing damage and you can also see the original ROPE STRAP that came with these.

 

Below I have removed a fretboard from the neck that needs to be reglued back down. The wood in the neck shrunk over 70+ years and makes the square steel rod push the fretboard off. This is something I notice in many of these. You have to remove the fretboard and level the steel rod again then reglue the fretboard and that will fix it for good. 

 

I have to chisel all the glue off then glind this rod down until it's flush with the wood again then reglue the fretboard. The neck is straight as an arrow so this system does work.

WARNING: The most common failure of these Kay Kraft made necks is the support rod pushing up on the fretboard and cracking it. This is a sign of the neck slowly failing, wood shrinking and need for a good 200-400$ in repairs. Also the old National El Trovador resonators have the same issues and just so happens they were made by Kay for National in the early 1930s. A crack down the center of the fretboard is NOT just a cosmetic non issue.


 

Below is an original case. Now you'll know what one looks like.

Below is a photo of a 12 fret body on the right and a 14 fret on the left. Notice the difference in the length of the tailpiece. The 12 fretter has the bridge and bridge plate closer to the butt end. In many ways these are two different guitars. 

 

Below; An original early 1930s bakelite bridge with this reversible saddle which is angled for tuning compensation on one side and straight on the other. Very cool feature indeed. These are a valuable find in perfect condition and could actually add to the collector value. Although I wouldn't sweat having the original bridge too much.


Below: The original style tuners with SAFE-T-STRING stamp. Also all flathead screws.

Below: Original pickguard simple mounting system, 2 spacers and 2 screws. Some models did not come with a pickguard. This is a bakelite plastic material.

 

No Back Braces!

Modern X Brace System! 12 fret model

 

Below: 12 fret model infrared photo of bracing and bridge plate location. You can also see the crack repairs on the upper bout. This one has a shorter tailpiece to accommodate the rear shifted bridge plate. This is the louder and more responsive of the two models but less fancy and did not come with a pick guard or bakelite bridge. I still think this is tonally superior in every way to the higher end version. This one below has be repaired on the upper bout treble side and you can see those additional braces. These are also not laminated guitars like some people state in museum and other sites. Some of the other Kay models did have laminates like the full archtop above indeed had laminated back when I got it. It also does not even compare tonally to this 12 fret model.


Below is a 14 fret model with a completely different bracing arrangement and to accomodate the bridge plate being farther forward for the 14 fret model they moved the X braced aft and caused the guitar to be more restricted and less bass. I have to wonder if real luthiers made this decision but it cuts the bass out of this guitar compared to the 12 fret model giving in a sound that's really not much good for anything but rags and slide. It's funkier but lacks volume and bass of the 12 fret model. Now I am feeling very fortunate I found a 12 fretter or I'd never realized this huge difference. The bracing here reminds me of a Dell Arte more than anything. Notice the dark area at the neck block area. They added a big support there to prevent the top from caving in which is something these are very prone too from neglect and abuse. Notice the longer and shorter tailpieces too.


Below is one of my personal guitars that I play all the time (12 fret model). It never had the decals or pickguard. I also bring this guitar out to gigs and visiting Cora Mae Bryant's house. She's the daughter of the Georgia guitar wizard of the 1930s Curley Weaver and a legendary blues singer and player in her own right.

Here's the back of the 12 fret model I own. This one is made of mahogany but they came in Maple, Rosewood and Mahogany. The Rosewood models (see photos below) were more rare and I assume more prone to damage and not many of them are in existence. Mahogany and maple are very stable woods and sound great for blues.

VIDEO TOUR OF THIS MODEL

 

To vary height of strings above fingerboard, loosen strings and wing nut inside of body. Push heel of neck backward or forward to desired string height. Retighten wing nut. Never loosen wood screw in neck. Patent applied for Kay Musical Instrument Co. Chicago, Ill


 

 

Here's another version I scored without the two cutaways and fancy headstock. This is a fantastic blues guitar and I'm going to enjoy it for many years. They are built light as a feather and loud as hell. This was a major score and these can be had well under 750.00 if you look hard enough. I've only seen a few of these ever. There is a decal version of this model played by a famous bluesman from my area and I've always wanted to get one.

NEW VIDEO OF THIS GUITAR AFTER RESTORATION

 

A cool headstock design but less flash that then Kay Kraft. This says Kay Deluxe.That headstock design is actually pretty smart because it helps the angles of the strings to the nut improve. Some modern headstocks they call "Snake Head" do the same thing. It's actually quite a bit smarter than many of the Gibson and Martin shapes which have string angle issues and no imagination what-so-ever.


Below is the peg head of an old Recording King I rescued and still in the process of restoring. These were even more rare than the Kraft but actually the same model.

Below: Here's David's (DBerch) Recording King (14 fret model) heard in the recording mp3 above. You can see how the pickguard looks. Many of the Kay Krafts had no pickguard or holes drilled for them. This one may have a non original replacement bridge. They came in a unique carved wooden shape with a bone saddle or an adjustable two way black bakelite bridge. That does not hurt the value at all. 

There were other models later with the Kay Kraft logo but did not have the same design. There were even mandolins and tenor guitars with this model name and with the bolt on necks on some of them. See photos below.

 

Please visit VintageInstruments.com to see the full display of photos of this ultra rare rosewood model below. This rare model has more appointments, banjo tuners, patent applied for label and other features. Quite an impressive work of art if you ask me. Way ahead of it's time. Breedlove has nothing on these guys.

 

More links and info on this model

http://www.musurgia.com/products.asp?ProductID=659&CartID=886659672005

http://www.vguitar.com/gallery/details.asp?id=254&firstTopic=1

 

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