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 and enrolled in the School of Classical Woodcarving, and later started his lifelong quest of acquiring tonewood for violins, double basses and guitars. "Since then I have made them all," says McKay. "From violins to double basses, classical and fingerstyle guitars and my 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; now they are ready!"
McKay opened Up North Strings after loading up the tonewood, wife, and kids, and moving to Traverse City Michigan. "We primarily serviced and sold student stringed instruments and I made plenty of time for 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.
Recently, the McKays moved to the Detroit area, a hotbed for manufacturing, and set up a new shop. There he has help from the next generation, his boys Quinn and Sean and now specializes in reproducing great guitars and wants to construct yours.