Ken McKay bought his first guitar in 1972, a Fender Jazzmaster, and proceeded to "mod" it, which of course required he later restore it back to original. This set the stage for his lifelong interest in lutherie. Realizing the gap between interest and proficiency, he decided to study woodworking formally. He enrolled in the School of Classical Woodcarving under Master Carver Ian Agrel which opened his eyes to design principals, trained his hands to work wood and provided the fundamentals for work as a luthier. As a bass guitar player he ventured into playing the double bass. After purchasing an antique store basket-case double bass he had acquired enough wisdom to go straight to restoration and skip the "modding". "I think I removed two hundred little screws from that thing, but in the end it taught me a lot and it actually turned out pretty good," says McKay. He started his lifelong quest of acquiring tonewood for violins, double bass and guitars. "Since then I have made them all," from violins to double basses, classical and fingerstyle guitars and his special passion, electric guitars. "I let the wood stare at me for sometimes up to a decade before it tells me what it wants to be. Yet other woods, like a chunk of old growth mahogany tells me right away." He adds, "some of the brazilian rosewood I have here is very old and has been stickered and curing for decades. I chopped down a huge white pine tree a couple of years ago and I am pretty sure those billets want to become double bass tops, I will make you one when they are ready!"
Ten years ago McKay opened Up North Strings after loading up the tonewood, wife and kids and moving to Traverse City Michigan. "We primarily service and sell student stringed instruments and my special passion, making double basses, but making guitars, and guitar parts for other luthiers has always been a big part of my business, especially laminated guitar plates for archtop makers," says McKay. Having made some laminated guitars of his own design he started to think about paying tribute to some of the guitars that have risen to the top. "I wanted to see how close I could get to the original designs; I tried to get everything just right. Building jigs and acquiring more tonewood, including custom ordered veneer for laminating now takes the place of some of the violinmaking stuff. It is hard to make just one of the laminated guitars, it takes a lot of jiggery which is really hard to justify for just one tribute guitar. The first tribute guitar turned out so well I want see how far I can take this," says McKay, and he adds, "I have some pretty interesting designs of my own."