Published On: Fri, Nov 15th, 2013

Kay Vintage Reissue Pro Electric Bass Review

If you’re looking for pure plunk and thud and a look that’ll suit howling blues or hip alt-country, then read on. Review by Gareth Morgan

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Description: Semi-hollowbody bass. Made in China

Price: £1099

Contact: Cranes Music – 029 2039 8215 – www.cranesmusicstore.com

Remember those mail-order shopping catalogues of the ’70s and ’80s? The name ‘Kay’ – at that time a name strictly reserved for not-great copy instruments – had certain connotations that hardly inspired an expectation of quality, nor a sense of a solid and serious historical lineage. But if we look further back, we find that the company was founded in 1928 by Henry Kay Kuhrmeyer in Chicago, USA, and began trading as Kay Musical Instruments in 1931. Up until 1955 KMI produced a dizzying array of acoustic guitars, lap steels, hollowbody and solidbody electrics and basses, plus legions of instruments sold as own-brand models by other Chicago-based makers and even department stores. Kuhrmeyer retired in 1955, but Kay continued to churn out vast quantities of instruments before being broken up at auction in 1969.

There’s been a recent upsurge in interest in Kays of the ’50s and ’60s, especially since luthier Roger Fritz – a long-time Kay fan and previously a producer of quality replicas using his own company, Fritz Brothers Guitars – hopped on board in 2007. Fritz got involved with Kay’s Vintage Reissue models, and this month we’re taking a look at the Vintage Reissue Pro Electric Bass Guitar, originally called the K162… an instrument that was highly regarded by blues bassists from the Chicago area in the ’50s and ’60s.

Visually, the Chinese-made Kay makes a clear statement: this is a bass designed for roots music, whether traditional folk or country or blues. It ideally suits many of these genres or associated sub-genres because it is designed to approximate an upright. It’s a visual feast, with the high-gloss polyester honey sunburst finish accentuating the tiger striping of the two-piece flame maple top. Flame maple is also the wood of choice for the sides and the two-piece back, with multi-ply cream and black binding along both edges. The top boasts a higgledy-piggledy tortoiseshell scratchplate that seems to have been casually dumped randomly in vaguely the right position. Overall this Kay is odd, quirky, even awkward – but also extremely cool.

Though there’s no f-hole, this is a semi-hollowbody with two chambers on either side of a central block that runs to somewhere between pickup and bridge, leaving room for a third, smaller chamber underneath the tailpiece. The Kay is 70mm deep – a Fender Jazz is 44mm – and this takes a little time to get used to, especially as you get neither forearm nor ribcage chamfer provision. If you could look into the chambers, you’d find what Kay describe as their ‘unique feedback-resistant bracing’, a build detail that bodes well for its tone. At the neck end there are two shallow cutaways bordered by a pair of rounded horns.

The neck is secured using the set-in method, being glued into a central block via a mortise-and-tenon or dovetail joint – as it should be for a bass with upright bass pretensions. It’s made from a single piece of Canadian maple, and the heel is capped with a squashed semi-circular cream celluloid cap to match the binding.

In terms of profile, it’s an altogether thinner and more comfortable neck than you’d expect – certainly more friendly than some Kay neck profiles of the ’50s. Aided by the narrower width and the reduced 31″/787mm scale length, it’s actually pretty fast and lots of fun to flail around on, although it may feel cramped to those more used to the regulation 34″ scale.

Another thing that feels cramped – if authentically so – is the string spacing at the bridge… just 15mm, whereas a Fender Precision would measure somewhere in the region of 19mm. It feels like a throwback to the plectrum bass style common in years gone by.
The headstock is big and brash, a widening oblong that, the company says, displays a ‘3-D raised “Kel-von-a-tor” style emblem’. Kay has fitted a set of four chrome

Wilkinson Vintage Style tuners with clover leaf buttons. The bridge is an old-school two-piece unit made of rosewood with fretwire saddles and two adjustment thumbwheels, while the string ends hook into a chrome trapeze tailpiece, so set-up may be a little tricky and might well require the trained eye of your local luthier.

There’s just one pickup – and it’s passive, of course. It’s a blade-polepiece single coil that echoes the one found on the original (and the sister Kay Thin Twin guitar). The controls are simple: one Volume and one Tone.

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Simple trapeze tailpiece and a saddle system that will be familiar to Hofner players



Sounds
The original K162 always had the reputation of being quite upright-sounding for an electric bass, and when it comes to the PEB reissue Kay has gone the right route from the start by fitting flatwound strings to simulate the correct feel under the fingers, though the frets interrupt the legato flow. Plugged in, there’s undeniably an acoustically-biased tone on display, and while it lacks the feeling of a large mass of air being shifted, it offers a decent thud on the lower strings plus plenty of warm, natural lows.

There’s no real growl, probably partly due to the flatwounds, so by contemporary standards the definition is a little unfocused. The bottom E sounds a trifle too forward, but apart from that response across the neck is even and plenty fat for practicality, especially if your technique is on the healthy side of decent. The midrange actually sounds a bit like an old Precision; no cursed trendy nasal honk, but a bit hollow and mellow without great punch and impact (but we’ll take smooth and squashy over honky and nasal any day of any week of any year, thank you very much). The trebles are also very natural-sounding, with just a slight sheen and a bit of spikiness from the frets themselves.

From about 6 downwards the handily-numbered tone control reduces what little bite the PEB has; full cut is all woolly and sub-aquatic. You could easily employ some level of tonal reduction from the amp or preamp to approximate an upright-style EQ, and in terms of space-filling rumble the PEB is a purveyor of much happiness.

Verdict
Does the Kay PEB sound exactly like an upright bass? No, but it’s a viable and definitely acoustically-biased option when that particular feel is required. It’s also very comfortable to play thanks to the thin neck and short scale. The PEB is a splendid ‘character’ bass – a little bit expensive in relation to competition, perhaps, but all the same, it’s a unique flavour to have at your disposal.

 

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