1930s Oahu 65K

“Catalog” instruments from the early- to mid-20th century – those sold through mail-order distributors, sometimes under a distributor’s house brand and sometimes with no name at all – usually don’t fetch high values on the vintage market. With a few exceptions, they were built in large numbers by factories best remembered for their low-end products. Most cost little to produce, and decades of wear and neglect have not improved their playability or sound. That said, there are exceptions.

The Oahu Publishing Company, despite its headquarters in Cleveland, was perhaps the biggest source of sheet music and instructional material for the Hawiian guitar. Although they sold material for other stringed instruments, Oahu (as its name suggests) really capitalized on the boom in Hawaiian music centered around the ukulele and lap-style guitar. Like many other publishers of the era, they attempted to sell everything a musician might need, from books and sheet music to the instruments themselves. From the 1920s into the late 1960s, they sold instruments built for them by Regal, Stromberg-Voisnet (Kay), Dickerson, and Valco. Oahu was somewhat different from other publishers, though, in that they sold a substantial proportion of higher-end instruments along with the usual budget-priced fare.

Oahu’s top-end models were built by Kay, and the early ‘30s catalogs also show a mid-priced Hawaiian guitar from the same builder: the 65M. This all-mahogany guitar had a neck set at the 12th fret and checkerboard binding, a style of decoration favored by Kay. By 1935 the model had been renamed the 65K and was now joined by the slightly larger 14-fret 66K. Oddly, the two similar models had the same price and the catalog gave no indication of why a player should choose one over the other. The 66K had a plainer rosette, and the bridge was positioned father toward the soundhole to accommodate the 14-fret neck joint. The 66K was built by Regal while the 65K continued to be sourced from Kay, but it appears that Oahu had Regal copy the Kay headstock shape and checkerboard binding – which makes identifying the factory rather confusing. In 1940 both models were noticeably redesigned, and both appear to have the silhouette of a Kay body.

The 66K sported a few different features between 1933 and 1939 that were subtle enough not to require a new catalog picture. Some have tuners with white plastic buttons, while a few have the metal T-shaped buttons shown on this guitar. Very few (if any) 66Ks have the “pyramid”-style bridge shown in the catalog; most have the two pearl dots shown on this guitar. Most also have a compensated saddle, which is actually not ideal for Hawaiian-style players who play with a straight bar.

The 65K disappeared after 1940, but the 66K stayed in the Oahu catalog. Both models reappeared after WWII, but there were some changes: both appear to have become Harmony products, and the 65K was reintroduced as the Spanish counterpart to the 66K (the catalog confusingly calls it a “plectrum guitar”). By that point, however, the Oahu catalog was increasingly populated by electric instruments and the era of acoustic steels was rapidly fading. Both models disappeared by 1950, and although Oahu continued to offer cheap Kay-built acoustic Hawaiian models into the 1960s, few were sold.