Kay Thin Twin

WITH THE COST OF COLLECTABLE FENDERS AND Gibsons entering the stratosphere, lovers of old guitars have been setting their sights on the next tier of vintage American instruments with predictable results. Silvertones, Harmonys, and Kays that could be had for as little as $300 a mere half-dozen years ago are now entering the four-figure range. These funky finds have also seen a stirring of interest among those more into playing than accumulating. You may have spied Marc Ribot ripping it up with Robert Plant and Allison Krauss or T-Bone Burnett on a small-bodied Harmony Stratotone, while Burnett himself holds down the rhythm on a vintage Kay Thin Twin. One of the coolest-looking guitars ever made, the Thin Twin’s flame maple top, tiger-striped pickguard, checkerboard binding, and thin metal-covered pickups create a striking appearance that’s unlike any other hollowbody electric. While the original—which is sometimes referred to as the Jimmy Reed or Howlin’ Wolf model—is still affordabl

The increased interest in this area of axe archeology has led the Kay company to reissue some of its ’50s and ’60’s models, starting with the Thin Twin and the Kay Electronic Pro Bass. The company enlisted the help of Roger Fritz of Fritz Brothers Guitars in Northern California, who had already been making a version of the Pro Bass under his own name. Parts and molds for the original Thin Twins were no longer available, so elements such as the pickguard, knobs, tailpiece, and baseball- bat-style toggle-switch covers had to be manufactured from scratch using the originals as templates. The resulting instrument maintains all the essentials that made the vintage version so unique without attempting to be an exact reproduction. Still in place is the multi-ply checkerboard binding, the flame-maple flat top, and tiger-striped tortoise pickguard. (The model is also available in cherry- red sunburst or black with a cream pickguard.) At first glance, the Thin Twin pickup appears to be an anorexic version of a Danelectro lipstick, however, as with the Kay original, it is an iceberg. More than three quarters of its bulk lies below the skinny metal blade showing on the surface. The bottom part is mounted into a tone-chambered body, and it’s braced to resist feedback.

The few changes evident on the reissue would have to count as improvements. The original wood bridge has been replaced with a metal bridge fitted with adjustable saddles and height-adjustment thumbwheels. The vintage model’s painted headstock, while quite decorative in its own right, has given way to a super-cool gold chevron displaying the 3-D raised “Kelvinator” style emblem— a design originally found only on upscale Kay models such as the Barney Kessel.

The workmanship on this Chinese-made version (an American handmade model is available at a considerably higher price) is superb, save for slightly sticky nut slots. The smoothly finished neck sports a comfortable shape reminiscent of a Les Paul’s, and the frets are well finished, facilitating anything from blues bending to slipping and sliding into swing riffs.

Plugging in the Thin Twin is pure pleasure, albeit of a selective sort. The tones are all pre-1965, with no concession to typical hard rock and metal tones—no matter how much gain you add. But if you are looking for the fat, dark sound of Jimmy Reed/ Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Pat Hare, or any recent record produced by T-Bone Burnett, look no further. The Thin Twin’s neck pickup harnesses all those sub-surface windings to dominate the preamp section of your amplifier, and their particular character encourages breakup by accentuating the amp’s bottom end. Through an Orange Tiny Terror, with the gain set relatively low, I got the kind of vintage dirt that a tune like “Mystery Train” calls for, but without descending into ambiguous murk. Adding the bridge pickup provided further clarity without losing that shadowy mojo. The bridge pickup by itself served up plenty of cut without approaching anything resembling twangy or bright.

Obviously, the Thin Twin is not a Swiss Army knife-type guitar. It probably won’t cut a modern country or Top 40 gig, but if your taste runs towards early electric blues, West Coast swing, or Hank Williams, this baby cries out for a set of .012 flatwounds, a tweed Fender or early Gibson amp, and a gig where you can boogie all night long.