NOT EVERY NEW ARRIVAL FLICKS OUR “WOAH,” “WAIT,” “wow,” and “what?” switches all at once, but this Kay Jazz Special Bass reissue— with its strong combination of kitchy looks, classy construction, and classic tone—is guaranteed to inspire a wide range of reactions. From the huge “K” headstock chevron and pencil-thin neck to its shapely body, beautiful binding, and “luncheonette counter” pickguard, this double-cutaway Kay announces its affiliation with bygone times. The good news is that it comes by its old-school looks honestly.
A PIECE OF HISTORY
The Kay Musical Instrument Company made amplifiers and a wide variety of stringed instruments from the 1930s to the 1960s, but among bass players, the company is best known for its uprights. Kay was also an early purveyor of electric basses, however: The K-162 “Electronic” Pro Bass, unveiled in 1952, was the very first production hollowbody bass; its association with Howlin’ Wolf bassist Andrew “Blueblood” McMahon led to its being nicknamed the “Howlin’ Wolf bass.”
Five years later, the company introduced the apparently higher-quality gold “K” series, which included the K5970 Jazz Special Bass and its distinctive, oversized headstock. The entire line was discontinued in 1962, but the Jazz Special Bass has enjoyed a couple brushes with fame: In the summer of ’63, Surfaris bassist Pat Connolly used one to lay down the bass line for “Wipe Out,” while Paul McCartney played one in the video for “Ebony and Ivory” in 1982.
When Kay decided to reissue the Pro Bass and the Jazz Special Bass a few years ago, they brought in Fritz Brothers honcho Roger Fritz, a luthier and bass player who has made instruments for luminaries like Darryl Jones, Randy Jackson, and George Harrison. Fritz, a fan, had already built high-end Kay copies for his customers, so his affection for the look and the sounds of yesteryear were a perfect match for this instrument.
OLD-TIME ROCK & ROLL
The Jazz Special Bass may get some of its sophisticated vibe from its arch-top-like body, but at 2½ inches thick, the Kay is slimmer than many archtops and yet too thick to fit in a solidbody gig bag. (Fortunately, it comes with a gorgeous hardshell case.) It’s cool that the body, comprised of a parabolic arched maple back, maple sides, and 3-ply curly maple top, doesn’t weigh much, but I couldn’t help but notice just a wee bit of neck dive.
Once I actually put my hands on the neck, however, I was too busy being surprised by its thinness to notice anything else. The 1½” nut just about matches my ’62 Jazz Bass, but the combination of the slim neck profile, the light-gauge strings, and jumbo frets threw me for a loop. When I tried to put standard-gauge strings on the Kay, the nut rebelled; likewise, though I dug the stud-mounted rosewood bridge with adjustment thumbwheels and the cool chrome trapeze tailpiece, I decided not to force thicker-gauge strings into the tailpiece.
Once I got over the thin strings, I enjoyed how easy it was to get around the neck. I got the best tone (and the best string tension) when my right hand was directly over the single-coil “blade” pickup. Even when unplugged, the Kay’s articulate thump inspired melodic walking lines and reggae ostinatos, and the pickup ably amplified the instrument’s natural tone. Something about this bass inspired me to stay below the 9th fret and solely on the E, A, and D strings. The Jazz Special Bass’s sonic signature is warm and focused, especially with the tone closed, and I can imagine that standard-gauge strings could bring out even more of the instrument’s best qualities.
The proof of the pudding was at a recording session where my job was to groove over ’50s-type “ice cream” changes and an updated, tambourine-enhanced Motown backbeat. It was the sort of track that artists like Outkast and Janelle Monae have taken straight to the bank, and the Kay—quirky but minimal, fun but muscular, business and pleasure all at once—was just what the doctor ordered. Like the simpler times that inspired it, the Kay Jazz Special Bass’s tone had plenty of character and was yet refreshingly uncomplicated. In other words, it was right on time.
KAY VINTAGE REISSUE
JAZZ SPECIAL ELECTRIC BASS GUITAR
Pros Warm, thumpy tone; fun to play.
Cons Use of standard-gauge strings requires slight modification.
Bottom Line The Kay Jazz Special Bass reissue is a blast from the past that’s lightweight, eye-catching, and built for roots music.
Construction Set neck
Fingerboard radius 12"
Width at nut 1.5"
Scale length 31"
Pickup Thin Twin blade
Tuning keys Wilkinson extra light
Weight 8 lbs
Finish High-gloss polyester protective polymer, in black or blonde ($100)
Made in China