Long before Japanese and European musical instrument makers flooded the U.S. market with cheap starter guitars in the mid 1960s, we had our own budget-minded companies right here in the states.
Danelectro is the guitar maker most people think of when it comes to cheap-and-cheerful axes, but there were many others, including Harmony, Supro and — the subject of this month’s column — Kay.
In fact, Kay was a very well-established musical instrument manufacturer, with origins dating back to the 1930s.
Despite being remembered for budget axes, Kay built some nice guitars in its early years, like the elegant and sought-after Barney Kessel model.
As the rock and roll craze caught on, the company had the foresight to offer several stripped-down beginner guitars, like the bizarre 1958 Solo King model shown here.
You’d be forgiven for looking past the huge Gumby-shaped headstock and focusing on the Solo King’s body shape. It’s definitely weird.
Even stranger is the brown Zolotone finish: Zolotone is the paint you’d typically use to line the trunk of a car or the interior of a fishing boat.
The body, incidentally, is Masonite, the same material Danelectro used on its builds, while the pickguard is simply plywood stained a cheesy orange.
Playability & Sound
Remarkably, the Solo King actually plays well and sounds pretty good. The 19-fret maple set neck is quite wide, more like a Gretsch acoustic 12-string, and the rosewood fretboard is completely flat.
That chunky build is undoubtedly why the neck has remained straight and true for more than 65 years despite the absence of a truss rod.
As if to underscore the Solo King’s spare utilitarian vibe, the body has one single-coil pickup, a volume knob, a tone knob and a floating non-adjustable bridge.
Played clean, it has a tone almost like that of an acoustic guitar. With overdrive, this thing gets dark and dirty. It’s not very articulate, but if you like chunky and muddy (could be the name of a new ice cream flavor) then this guitar could be for you. And despite its construction, the Solo King is really light.
The Solo King had an MSRP of $75 in Kay’s 1958 catalog. Today you can pick one up for anywhere between $750 and $1,500, depending on its condition.
Why It Rules
From its striking looks to its cool tones, the Solo King is unlike any other guitar. More than that, it’s an American-made guitar from the 1950s that is still quite affordable.
Thanks to Dinette Guitars for helping me procure this freaky piece of Americana
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