So what guitar did Blues legend Robert Johnson actually play? He was photographed with only two guitars, a studio shot in a smart suit using a 1928 sunburst Gibson L1 and a less formal photo with a Gibson made Kalamazoo KG-14. The former could have been owned by the studio as was the norm in those days so the latter may have well been the guitar Johnson actually used on his recordings.
Whilst both guitars were made by Gibson on the same workshop benches, the price difference between the two at the time was considerable. The Kalamazoo brand was sold to non-Gibson dealers and to be honest, this was the guitar that was more affordable and accessible to the poorer musicians at the time. It may well have been the fact that neither of the guitars Johnson was photographed playing were the ones he actually owned, as the vast vast majority of African American Bluesmen at the time played Stellas as the average price for them was around the $1.50 mark. Both guitars have 00 body sizes and both take fingerpicking and slide styles well. My Kalamazoo KG-14 is from the ’30s and is demonstrated in the video using a Blues picking style,
Stella guitars during the 1920s and ’30s were the main guitars played by the Bluesmen. They were made by the Oscar Schmidt Company in New Jersey. These now iconic guitars are the stuff of legend as the music played on them by the people who played them triggered genres and trends that formed the foundation for most of the modern popular musical styles we hear today. Schmidt also made, apart from Stellas, a higher end range that were branded Sovereigns and La Scalla. The Ferry Street based Factory also made for other brands as did most of the large companies at that time.
I have a varied selection of Stellas and Sovereigns in my personal collection which I have collected over many years, including some rare 12-strings. Many early Stellas are made from birch and are ladder braced which does give you the authentic sound of early Blues that many modern players desire. Rough and ready, raw and meaty is they sound they produce. Sovereigns are also able to handle that genre but as the woods used were of a higher grade, they can also handle a wider style base as I have demonstrated in the video that accompanies this article.
Kay was also a major force in guitar manufacture right up to the 1960s, producing many instruments in both the electric and acoustic genres. The ’30s Kay Kraft style B Venetian cutaway model is probably the one that is more readily available to collectors today than the rarer Spanish style non-cutaway model. Used by the legendary Ry Cooder, these guitars are great for picking and slide too. They have a unique neck adjustment system which raises and lowers the playing action by the turn of a screw, located under the heal of the neck, outside the guitar. This is why it was probably popular with pickers and slide players, because of the ease of adjustment to higher or lower the action, depending on the style you are playing. Some of these guitars also carried gold leaf decals on the table which added to the visual image.
Kay also made some iconic electric guitars like the K -136. The Upbeat, Barney Kessel Signature guitars. the Jimmy Reed ‘lipstick’ pickup model and the Jazz models. The guitar I demonstrate in the video is played in open major tuning in fast fingerpicking style.