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Early-'60s Kay Value Leader

For several years, I’ve been Jonesing for an old blonde Kay Value Leader triple-pickup guitar.

For several years, I’ve been Jonesing for an old blonde Kay Value Leader triple-pickup guitar. I’ve searched the web—particularly eBay—a lot, but never could find one in my bottom-feeder price range. But a few months ago, I found one that was in parts on the ’Bay and it intrigued me. It was blonde, looked really old, and seemed to have all the parts. The guitar just needed to be put back together correctly.

Noting that the seller had excellent feedback, I then checked to see what kind of stuff he had been selling. I discovered he sold a lot of items from estate sales. Unusually, he was offering this Value Leader in a 30-day auction instead of the typical seven-day affair. Because most bidding takes place on the tail end of an auction, this meant I had time to research the model and deliberate about how much I was willing to spend. Before long, I was able to determine that working models normally sell between $350 and $600.

This seller had a Buy It Now price of $375 or Best Offer. I love to see “or best offer” on an auction, because this allows me to make a lowball bid to test the waters. So I offered $185, plus shipping (it was listed at $45, which I thought was high). He shocked me with a rude reply, insinuating I was an idiot who didn’t know much about guitars. I was going to respond in an equally rude way, but decided to just let it go.

Bottom Feeder Tip #2781: Try not to be a smart-ass. It has a way of biting you later.

The great Lonnie Johnson was one of many bluesmen who performed with a Kay Value Leader. The guitar was available in single-, dual-, and triple-pickup configurations.

Kay built the triple-pickup Value Leader with seven controls: three Volume knobs, three Tone knobs, and a rotary pickup selector. This model is missing one Tone knob and the original paddle-style selector. A previous owner cut the checkerboard metal pickguard in half. Why, we’ll never know.

Interestingly, after five or six days the seller wrote back. He apologized and asked if I was still willing to buy the guitar for $185. I replied that if we could lower shipping from $45 to $25, I was interested. He agreed and I sent him $210 via PayPal.

When the guitar arrived, I immediately dug its old, faded, beat-up finish. It just screamed cool. Alas, I was less than thrilled with the electronics. I could only get one pickup to work and was baffled by all the rewiring that had been done over the years. Also, a previous owner had inexplicably cut the metal pickguard in two.

I took the Kay over to guitar tech Jack Dillen for evaluation. I watched him mutter and shake his head a lot, and then he confirmed that two of the three pickups were dead. I left it with Jack and asked him to put the working pickup in the neck position and to wire up all the pots so that when I found replacement pickups, I could just drop ’em in. He said he’d get it up and running for $75, which sounded good to me. I knew Jack would put the old Kay back together better than I could.

When I picked it up a week later, I was pleasantly surprised at how much fun it was to play. The neck (which has a non-adjustable truss rod) was a bit warped, but it wasn’t too bad. The neck pickup sounded very bluesy and thick, just as I had hoped.

This Value Leader simply oozes attitude, but is it a keeper? Maybe. I’ll have to see if I can find two replacement pickups— on the cheap, of course. But at least the guitar has temporarily satisfied my G.A.S. for this model Kay. And it has no shortage of vibe.

Will Ray is a founding member of the Hellecasters guitar-twang trio. He also does guitar clinics promoting his namesake G&L signature model 6-string, and produces artists and bands at his studio in Asheville, North Carolina. You can contact Will on Facebook and at