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The Airline Barney Kessel Pro

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The story of this guitar starts in the year 1952, around the time that Gibson was breaking new ground with its single-cut solid body Les Paul. It was this year that the Kay Musical Company released their K-121 ThinTwin model to great success, as it became their longest lasting instrument being produced from 1952-1958. Perhaps the earliest form of the Airline shown above, the ThinTwin did not in fact have a thinline body. Featuring a semi-hollow body more than 2” in width, the “thin” in the name refers to the slimness of its dual pickups. The guitar was made famous by legendary bluesman Jimmy Reed, and was aptly nicknamed the “Jimmy Reed” model.

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Jimmy Reed with a Kay K-121 ThinTwin


Fast forward a few years to 1955, Kay was undergoing a drastic shift in its administration. After 33 years with the company, President Henry “Hank” Kuhrmeyer resigned and passed on his role to University of Chicago graduate Sidney M. Katz. Katz had previously been an employee of the Harmony Company, and was described by Kuhrmeyer as being “an aggressive, experienced young man who is determined to make Kay an even more important name in the music field.”

One of the biggest successes Katz brought to the company was his idea of associating big name musicians with the brand. Perhaps impacted by the recent hit that Gibson had with its Les Paul guitars, Katz decided to find a name that Kay could endorse.

As the story goes, in 1956 Kay built a special version of their “Kay Professional” model and brought it to a local club where jazz guitar virtuoso Barney Kessel was playing. They gave him the guitar, and worked out a deal for him to endorse a new line of Kay products.

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Barney Kessel at NAMM 1957 with a Kay Barney Kessel Jazz Special


Later that year, they began to see the fruits of their labour with the release of the Gold “K” Line. Three models were produced in this line, one of them being the Barney Kessel Pro K1700. One of the most interesting things about this model is that it is actually a full hollowbody without “F-holes”, made out of a laminate maple. Featuring the Gold K (Kleenex box) pickups, the Kelvinator headstock, Grover tuners, and a pickguard with Barney Kessel’s name emblazoned on it, this instrument originally had a retail price of $200. By 1960, Kessel’s name was removed from the pickguard while production of the guitar continued.

Although Kay typically specialized in less expensive “student” guitars, this “Gold K” line along with some other archtop designs were meant to be Kay’s competition with the high end Gibson and Fender instruments at the time.

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A Kay Barney Kessel Pro K1700 in Sunburst


As did some other brands of the day, Kay later began to produce variations of its instruments to be sold through big box mail order stores Montgomery Ward and Sears. These guitars were branded as Airline and Silvertone, and were often built using older components. A black “Airline” Barney Kessel Pro model can be seen in the title photo, having traded out the Kelvinator headstock and “Barney Kessel” pickguard with Airline lightning bolt logos.

Today, both the original Kay and Airline versions fetch upwards of $2,000USD, and may require a significant amount of work in order to make them playable. At Eastwood, one of our best-selling models continues to be the Airline “Tuxedo”, modelled after the original Kay-Airline of the 1960s. At first glance, you might not notice all the subtle differences, but we’ve updated quite a few key components. We added our metal “Airline” headstock logo, put in our Hi-Gain P90 pickups, gave it a modern tune-o-matic bridge, changed the control knobs and machine heads, and included a more accessible two-way truss rod. Our version still has the full hollowbody design to maintain its unique tone, but we equipped it with a maple top and back and mahogany sides. All this for a cost that’s less than half of what it would cost you to buy an original today.

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