Updated July 2015
In late 2012 I decided that I had all the modern guitars I needed. I’m not gigging much, just writing and recording. There were a couple of vintage guitars I was interested in. A Vox teardrop, especially the Mark IX, and the Fender Coronado. The Voxs turned out to be too expensive for me, especially the Mark IX, which was a 9-string beast meant to sound similar to a 12-string. Those are very rare and priced out of my range. The Coronado, I might be able to afford one day, but I’m not as interested as I was. The new reissues sell for about $700, but they’re different from the originals in several important ways.
Then I remembered Kent Guitars. I thought it would be pretty cool to have a guitar with my last name on it. Although they didn't appear on the U.S. west coast very often, if at all, (I would remember them if they did), It turns out there is a whole crapload of them out there. Information is scattered around the internet in bits and pieces and nobody who was making them at the time is talking about it. So I have started gathering information, limiting myself to the 500,600,700, and 800 series models. The only ones I am interested in owning are the 700 and 800s. I have an 820, 823, 833, and 834. I may never get the chance to buy another.
This is a labor of love. While I strive for accuracy, the conclusions I arrive at are still only guesses based on internet resources (and you know how reliable "internet resources" are), and observations of my own guitars. Undoubtedly there are errors here. Don’t do any betting (or bidding) based solely on the information I present.
If you’re just trying to figure out what model Kent you have, you can go to the Varieties page.
There was no “Kent Guitar” Factory. The Kent brand was established in 1960 by Buegeleisen & Jacobson, a musical instrument distributor in New York City. The 500-series models had a metal “K” badge (like the one at left) attached to the headstock of the guitar. The use of a glued-on logo is a good sign that the guitar could appear under another brand name if the manufacturer so desired. The 600-series Kents had the name in metal script letters attached (probably glued) to the headstock. The 500 and 600 series guitars were almost identical. The headstocks were somewhat shaped like those on Fender guitars. Most of those were low-end solid-body instruments.
The Marathon guitar above is exactly the same as the four-pickup Kent 533 Videocaster. Interestingly, there is a paper label on the backside of the headstock that says "MODEL 533 Videocaster". I’ll add to the “badge collection” above as I come across more examples.
There is a line of guitars custom made in the U.S. by Casey and Gary Kent. It’s unlikely any of those will be confused with the old Japanese electrics being discussed here.
Some of the first Kents to have been imported into the U.S. were made in Sweden by Hagstrom. (Some sources, or maybe just one source quoted all over the net, states that they may have actually been Czech-made and sold by Hagstrom.) The Hagstrom HI, HII, and HIII (those are the letter H with roman numerals representing the number of pickups the guitar had) were branded Kent for sale in the U.S. and as Futurama for the U.K. They had the Kent name on the headstock and sometimes the upper bout. They were similar to Fender Stratocasters. They also made some Strat-shaped basses. There are several photos on the net showing David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust days playing a red Hagstrom with Kent branding on the headstock.
According to an article in Vintage Guitar Magazine, importation of Hagstrom-made Kents began in 1962. Another story is that Hagstrom sold Kent-branded guitars through distributors other than Buegeleisen & Jacobson in the U.S. without permission from J&B and were forced to withdraw them after a short time.
Lately some EBay sellers have been calling the Hagstrom solid-bodies of the time Hagstrom-Kent. They are not. If it says Hagstrom on the body, it’s a Hagstrom. If it is one of the Hagstrom guitars that was sold as a Kent, it’s a ‘Kent, made by Hagstrom’. I wonder if the sellers think they can get more for a guitar by associating the Kent name with it. I don’t see how. Perhaps the fact that there are so many Kents floating around, the sellers wanted a more familiar name to hang on the Hagstrom.
Later, around 1963, rebadged Guyatone and Teisco guitars appeared, both in the U.S. and a few in the U.K., also as Futuramas. That was the beginning of several years of Guyatone-made Kents. The Teiscos seemed to be part of the 1963-64 freshman-class only. After starting with an initial group of both Guyatone and Teisco guitars, the importer seemed to settle on Guyatone as a main supplier.
In the early 1970s, Southland Musical Merchandise Corporation apparently acquired the Kent name and shifted manufacturing to Korea. They may have used existing stock at first because some the the instruments had made-in-Japan necks and/or bodies. The font for the logo changed and emphasis was placed on lower prices with a higher profit margin at the expense of quality. I'm not watching those.
Most of those guitars were knock-offs of Gibson Les Pauls and ES-335s and Fender Stratocasters.
When I first started looking at Kent guitars, the most-often mentioned factories were Kawai, Fujigen Gakki, Teisco, Matsumoku, and Guyatone. While I've narrowed it down to three, there's no way to know for sure which factory made them.
Identifying the makers of these guitars is made more difficult by the use of ‘shadow factories’ all around Japan, which in reality were families working production-line style on just a couple of guitar parts in their homes.
1964 was a pivitol year for Japanese guitar makers, and for that matter, the music business worldwide. That was when four young Brits made their initial impact and music has not been the same since.
Japanese musical instrument makers saw an opportunity and tried to cash in by making electric guitars and amplifiers for a growing Rock ’n Roll market.
At first, the idea was to keep ’em cheap and sell to the beginners and students. Later, as Japanese manufacturers proliferated and competition became hot and heavy, some of them began to copy the Fenders and Gibsons of the time. As quality began to improve, some manufacturers again began issuing their own designs.
One of the “beginners” who got a start with a Kent Polaris I was Bruce Springsteen, left. Alex Lifeson of Rush got started with a Kent acoustic. One of Gene Simmons’ first guitars was also a Kent.
The BBC series “The Seven Ages of Rock”, episode 2, showed Lou Reed (R.I.P) with the Velvet Underground playing a Kent 532 Copa at Andy Warhol’s hangout. (right)
Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth used a Kent Polaris I solid body (with lots of duct tape on it) and several Kent 800-series guitars - a white 820 and a sunburst 821 12-string with 10 strings on it, shown at left. Since the B and high-E strings on a 12-string set are normally tuned to the same note, he left the duplicate strings off. He uses several alternate tunings with his guitars.
An early photo showing Bob Dylan with a Kent 670 bass.
Kawai Musical Instruments Manfacturing Company was established in 1927 in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan. They began by manufacturing pianos. In 1964 they began making guitars and in 1967 they acquired Teisco. Pianos remain the best-known Kawai musical instrument.
Teisco produced guitars that were sold in the U.S. as Teisco del Rey as well as Silvertone, Beltone, Duke, Decca, Heit Deluxe, Jedson, Kimberly, Kingston, Lyle, Norma, Tulio and World Teisco, as well as some of the early Kents. At various times Teisco guitars were made for and sold under the now well-known Ibanez name. They have developed somewhat of a cult following in the U.S. which has resulted in some unrealistic prices for some models.
Fujigen Gakki is a musical instrument maker located in Matsumoto, Japan. They began making violins and classical guitars in 1960 and electric guitars in 1962. Their real heyday of guitar production began in the 1970’s when they began producing guitars for major American manufacturers like Fender and Gibson as well as some Japanese manufacturers. In fact, after CBS acquired Fender Electronic Instruments Company they decided to move to larger manufacturing facilities. Between the closing of the old factory and the opening of the new one, the only Fender guitars being made came from the Fujigen Gakki factory. Other factories have been used to manufacture Fender guitars, some for the Japanese market only. Regardless, Fenders made in Japan are considered top-quality.
Matsumoku was a wood furniture maker that got a contract to make sewing machine cabinets for Singer in Japan. They later became manufacturer of high-quality Japanese guitars and may have made some Kents. The guitar market declined just about the time the sewing machine business collapsed and the factory closed down in 1987.
In 1962 or 63 (possibly as early as 1959) Guyatone guitars began arriving in the U.S.. If you look around the internet you will see that they could be found under a variety of brand names and were sold in drug stores, department stores, even auto parts stores, as well as music stores. There were two lines of Kent guitars: a Standard series and a “Pro-series”. They were made by Teisco and Guyatone. I haven't been able to get my hands on any of these early solidbodies so I don't know if "the Professional Group" guitars are actually worthy of the "professional" designation and slightly higher pricetag or if it was all about marketing.
The Polaris series of early solidbodies did not have adjustable trussrods in the neck, as far as I know. Perhaps that's what sets the "Standard" series guitars apart from the "Professional".
At any rate, Guyatone produced a lot of different guitars under many different names.
|Kent 510 Las Vegas||1960’s Guyatone LG-55W|
The Kent 510 Las Vegas is almost identical to the Guyatone of the same period. There were several similar, but noticiably different, body shapes in the 500 series Kents. They all have the same size little stuck-on logos on the headstock.
The 700 and 800-series Kents were not made by Guyatone. It looks like they may have been made by Kawai/Teisco, as shown below.
The primary means of identifying the model number of Kent guitars is via a label on the back of the headstock. Through the years many of those labels have fallen off or been peeled off. They do not add anything to the appearance of the guitar. The 700 and 800 guitars had a round foil sticker with the model number and sometimes serial number pressed into it, kind of like Dymo tape labels. The look a lot nicer than the white paper one used on earlier models, but they still can fall off over the years.
My interests are in the Kents with the script logo on the headstock, body, and pickups. The headstock is Gibson-ish with tuners on both sides. The pickup nearest the neck is tilted, regardless of how many pickups are on the guitar. One model, the 742 has four pickups with switches, volume and tone knobs for each. Overkill, to say the least, and I have read somewhere that they don’t sound very good. However, I have seen some youtube video where a 742 sounds pretty good in live performance. A lot of the sound comes from a proper setup and the hands of a skilled player. Hopefully I’ll be able to find out for myself someday. Regardless, the 742 is one funky-looking guitar.
The 700-series models were solid-body instruments while the 800-series models were hollow bodied. This is a small enough product range to make a nice little collection and the guitars are made well enough to be used. (Many of the early Japanese guitars were cheap and simply unplayable right out of the box. I know... I had one.) However interest in them seems to be rising and thus, prices are following along.
Around the same time as the 700-800 series of guitars there was also a line of acoustics. The steel-stringed "Folk Guitars" featured necks and headstocks very similar, if not the same as, the electric models. The nylon-stringed "Classical Guitars" featured slotted headstocks with the curly logo squeezed into the middle. The acoustics seem to be pretty well-made and often fetch pretty good prices on Ebay.
There were also a number of guitars that featured the same heatstock style as the 700-800 models that featured symetrical hollow or semi-hollow bodies similar to some of the Gibsons. Gibson aficionados refer to the bodies as having "Mickey Mouse ears". One model had a deep jazz guitar-style body. They all had what appear to be humbucker pickups, some black and some plated. The Kent name only appeared on the headstocks.
I am not studying or describing the acoustics or the later hollowbodies, nor will I be paying any attention to the new-logo Kents.
While I have less interest in the 500 and 600-series guitars, should one appear for sale local to me (which has never happened, so far) I would probably grab it. Then I may have more details on those models.
Some Ebay sellers have read the above statements and taken them to mean they should ask higher prices. Some have gotten really outrageous and yet some have actually sold some Kents at those outrageous prices, so there’s gold in them thar guits... if you’re lucky. If you’re thinking of buying one, be patient and don’t let yourself get carried away.
Some Ebay sellers will leave an ad up for months with an unrealistic reserve or Buy It Now price, figuring that eventually somebody will bite. Often somebody does.
I’ve been keeping track of completed Ebay sales since I started looking at Kents, and have come up with a few average sale prices. The way I figure an average is by first tossing out the highest and lowest sales. If I am left with fewer than three sales I don’t bother. That’s too small a sampling to be worthwhile, otherwise I take the average of the rest. The table below will only be updated when there is a sale that results in a change, so if the table looks like it might be dated, it’s probably because there haven’t been any sales that affected the numbers. Availability of Kent guitars on Ebay seems to ebb and flow.
I have also started searching out sales from other sources. Most of the prices I have seen are higher than more recent sale prices. So maybe the prices aren't rising the way I thought they were.
I don’t log sales on guitars that are incomplete or damaged, and I can't log sales where the best offer is accepted. Prices aren't revealed in those cases. I’ll be keeping this table updated.
The main thing to keep in mind regarding vintage guitars: A guitar is worth what somebody will pay for it. There aren’t necessarily rational reasons behind the value of a particular model. Rarity is only really relevant if the guitar in question is part of a group of guitars that are lusted after by many collectors, and many of those collectors are also considering investment potential, so those guitars will never be played and may end up in museums in Europe or Asia. A rare crappy guitar is still a crappy guitar and if nobody wants it, it’s just firewood. Condition counts for more.
Most collectors of vintage Japanese guitars are a more happy-go-lucky group, buying purely for pleasure. Many will only buy from yard/estate sales and are looking for $20 axes that can be restored and played.
There are a TON of Polaris Is and IIs for sale. Wait for a good one and pay a reasonable price.
600-series guitars are less often seen than the 500s for some reason, but are very similar, including having the same model names. They might be worth a little more than equivalent 500s. Of course, they’re a little newer.
700-Series, which are all solid-bodies are probably worth $250-$350, maybe a little more for the 4-pickup 742 model. I’m pretty sure that they were on the market at the same time as the 800s but not as many are being seen. Recently a 742 sold on Ebay for over $1000, which is absurd and a 740 recently sold for $999. Most of the 700s have been selling for $200-400.
800-series should go for $300-$450.
Bass guitars from all series’ seem to be priced unreasonably high at the moment. For the most part, they aren’t selling at those prices.
Like with other things, you may be willing to pay more for one if you really really want it or if it is in exceptional condition or there is something unusual about it. Beware of getting caught up in a bidding war, especially if nostalgia is your main motivator.
Some Craigslist and EBay sellers have been claiming the 500 and 600-series Kents are made by Teisco. I think we’ve shown that that’s not the case. Some sellers also describe those early Kents as having “Ry Cooder” pickups. As most of you know, Ry Cooder is an incredibly talented multi-stringed-instrument musician. David Lindley, another great talent, gave him a pickup from an old Teisco guitar. The photo at left is exactly like it. Cooder put the pickup into one of his Stratocasters and liked the sound so much that he got another one and put it into another Strat. These pickups are also described as “gold foil” pickups. There are variations in the pattern of cut-outs on the chrome covers of different pickups. I don’t know if the others sound any different, but if I were looking for a “Ry Cooder Pickup”, something like the one pictured here is what I would be looking for. The pickups have become worth more than the guitars they are on, consequently, as the guitars are bought up and trashed for their pickups, their prices are going to rise.
Most of the hollow-body Kent Americana guitars have gold-foil pickups. The early Teisco-made solidbodies also have them. Most of the other Kent solidbodies do not. I’ll bet all of those gold-foil pickups were made by the same manufacturer.
While I’m on the subject of guitar myths... Many sellers of vintage Japanese guitars have been throwing around the term “lawsuit guitar”, although not usually in reference to Kents. In 1977 the Norlin Company, which owned Gibson at the time, sued Elger Guitars, which was the U.S. distributing arm of Hoshino Gakki of Japan. The suit claimed that Hoshino-made Ibanez guitars too-closely copied the headstock design of Gibson. Just the headstock. By the time the suit was brought out, Hoshino had already changed to a headstock more closely resembling what was on Guild guitars of the time. So it was pretty easy for Elger Guitars/Hoshino to promise not to copy the Gibson headstock anymore.
Naturally, if a seller can get more money by calling what they have a “lawsuit guitar”, they’re going to do it. Unfortunately, some writers who should know better have taken to using the term for any old Japanese lookalikes, copys, knockoffs, etc, of (mostly) American guitars. Some sellers are using terms like “lawsuit era” or “pre-lawsuit” which don’t mean anything at all.
As with all sales, know what you’re looking for. Know what you’re looking at. Do your homework beforehand.
Recently while cruising around EBay I was able to find pretty strong evidence that the 700 and 800-series Kents were made by Kawai. Or maybe... the necks of the 700 and 800-series Kents and the Kawais were made by the same manufacturer. I don’t know if Kawai kept the factory that made Teisco operating after it was acquired. It appears that Kawai had more experience building hollow-bodied guitars than Teisco. So I call the 700 and 800-series Kents Made by Kawai. You can call them Made by Teisco if you want. Of course, the possibility exists that they were both made by an entirely different company. Who knows? The 1960’s were like a ‘wild west’ period of Japanese guitar making.
The more I look into this stuff, the more confusing it gets.
Anyway, both guitar headstocks have the same shape and the same little design in the center. They both have the zero fret and, although it doesn’t show in these photos, they both have the same rectangular mother-of-pearl fret markers.
|Kawai||Kawai||Kawai||No-Name||Kent 820||Kent 823|
The only guitars that I have been able to find pictures of that have the little curly thingie on the headstocks have been Kents, Kawais and some kind of no-name guitar that looks like the factory took a red Kent 820 and sprayed black around the edges to create a “redburst” finish. The example above appears to has started as a regular sunburst finish with more red and black added. The neck, headstock, pickups, and body are identical to the Kent 820 except the name ‘Kent’ doesn’t appear on the guitar anywhere. Note that the hardware on it is the same as on the 820 shown. That bridge and tailpiece configuration is a little unusual for Kent 820s. (the 820 there is mine) The bridge and tailpiece on the Kent 823 is the more common configuration.
Thanks to Rob in Canada for sending me the photo of his beautiful 823 which is shown above and on the Varieties page. (It's mine now!)
|Kent 740||Kent 741||Kent 742||Kent 745 12-string|
The 700-series guitars had all controls and pickups mounted on a faux-tortise shell pickguard. That makes it very easy to do any required work on the electronics. By contrast, On the 800-series, with a couple of exceptions, the tone and volume control pots and the jack socket are mounted to the body, a three-way pickup switch, and a lead/rhythm slide switch are mounted to the pickguard; and the pickups are mounted to individual little mounting plates made of the faux-tortise shell material.
It's worth noting that the faux tortise shell material on my four 800-series guitars is actually an image stuck onto a metal plate. Unlike similar pieces from the same time period, which were made of celluloid; these aren't going to break down or shrink. They also can provide a little shielding against RF buzz.
Pickups are selected on the 700-series via individual on/off rocker switches that look like they came from an auto parts store. The 800-series guitars use a three-way selector switch, often called a “toggle switch”, but that’s not exactly right. The three-pickup 823 uses small slide switches on the pickguard, below the strings, to select pickups.
The violin bodied guitars had a control plate which held the pots and the jack socket and another plate for the switches.
|Kent 820||Kent 821 12-string||Kent 822 Bass||Kent 833 bass||Kent 834|
Most 700 and 800 models, except for bass and probably 12-strings, were equipped with a vibrato bar. After 45 years or so the bar has gone missing on many of them. Some model 820s were equipped with a genuine Bigsby vibrato. The advertisement at left features the Bigsby-equipped Model 820. The advertisement on the right is identical except that it showed the stock Kent vibrato tailpiece. According to the catalogue of the time, the Bigsby was only available on the sunburst model 820.
The same catalogue just mentioned describes, but doesn’t display, a Kent 823. It’s the same as the 820 but with three pickups. There are very few photos of them floating around.
The violin-shaped guitar in the advertisement is the model 834 like I have.
As a side note, many guitarists refer to the vibrato as “tremolo” or, worse yet, “whammy bar”. (I sometimes do, too, when my mouth is moving unaccompanied by my brain) Vibrato refers to varying the pitch while tremolo is varying the volume. Leo Fender himself is largely responsible for the misuse of the words. He called the bar on his guitars the “tremolo” and even had the tremolo effect on his amplifiers labeled as “Vibrato”.
The Kent 800-series hollow bodied guitars all had asymmetrical bodies and the pickup closest to the neck was tilted. There are several Kents that had symmetrical hollow bodies and no tilted pickups. The pickups are either humbuckers or wide single coils with covers. They resemble Gibson ES-style guitars. The necks and headstocks are very similar to the Kent 800s. They're probably newer than the 700s and 800s. I won’t be covering those here.