Roger Fritz: Helping Resurrect
the Classic Kay Guitar Line
By MICHAEl Ross
Roger Fritz in his workshop with a Kay Thin Twin Vintage Reissue.
Some years ago, Roger Fritz—a bassist
turned builder who builds custom instruments like the Rat Bastard, Super Deluxe,
and the Roy Buchanan Bluesmaster at his
2000-square-foot shop in Mendocino, CA—
was at a recording session with a famous producer who piqued his interest in Kay guitars
and basses. Before long, Fritz found himself
becoming a key player in bringing the funky-chic brand back from the dead.
If Kay is a new name to you, one thing you
should know is that, at one point in the
1950s, it was among the biggest manufacturers of guitars in the world, building
instruments under a variety of names and
at a wide range of price points. In fact, Kay
was actually the first to mass produce an
electric guitar—a flattop acoustic instrument
with a transducer—long before Fender and
Gibson became household names. Over
the years, discerning players and collectors
have discovered some of the company’s
more upscale models. For example, the
original Kay Thin Twin was a favorite of blues
great Jimmy Reed, and it might just be the
coolest-looking guitar ever made, with its
flamed-maple top, checkerboard binding,
and tiger-striped pickguard. (It sounds pretty
darn good too—just ask T-Bone Burnett.)
Further, the original Jazz II model was
favored by a very young Eric Clapton, and it
can still be seen strutting its Deco stuff on
stage with Sarah McLachlan.
It’s a well-known fact that vintage Gibsons and
Fenders are priced well into the stratosphere
these days, and the aforementioned original Kay
models, as well as the company’s Barney Kessel
series, are likewise becoming increasingly valuable. That’s why it’s so cool that Kay is back in
business and ready to put some of that mojo in
your hands for more down-to-earth prices. Let’s
let Fritz tell us how it all came about.
What attracted you to Kay guitars?
I was working with singer Shelby Lynn, who
was being produced by Bill Bottrell at the
time. Bottrell had an affinity for the Kay 162
hollowbody electric bass—he said it was his
secret weapon. When he was working with
Sheryl Crow, they would try other basses on
a track but would always end up using that
one. I had built Bill a couple of guitars, so one
day he said, “If you did a replica of this Kay
bass, I know it would be a hit.” I said, “You’re
probably right,” and I built one. People
started wanting them, so I built a couple of
dozen, and then a few Thin Twin guitars.
How did you become involved
with the reissues?
My friend Dan Erlewine forwarded me a message from Tony Blair, who had bought the Kay
trade name in the ‘70s. For 30 years, Tony
ran it as an importer of low-end musical merchandise, then he decided that he wanted the
company to get back into making guitars—for
that to be his legacy. His email said he was
looking for someone to help him recreate
some of the popular Kay models from Kay’s
heyday in the late ’50s. I figured that if he
got someone else, my making Kay knockoffs
might become a problem, so I responded to
him. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?
I ended up doing all the designs for this new
line. We are having them made in China, but
I suggested that the people who were real
collectors should be offered a USA-made version. He agreed, so I formed the Kay Custom
Shop. I make the American handmade stuff in
my Mendocino shop.
What would you say are some of the most
unique features of these guitars and basses?
The Kay bass was the very first hollowbody
production bass, and it has a certain sonic