AKRON, Ohio – The late Virgil Lay was a steel-pedal guitar player who became widely known for repairing, restoring and building guitars. A transplant from Alabama, Lay started two businesses in Akron during his lifetime, both of which are still going strong—Lay’s Guitar Shop and SIT Strings, which stands for “stay in tune.”
On Friday, July 1, Lay will take his place among Akron’s music-industry royalty when Mayor Dan Horrigan officiates at a ceremony to rename a street off Kenmore Boulevard “Virgil Lay Way.”
The event will begin at 5:45 p.m. during the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance First Friday event on the Boulevard.
“Before Kenmore Boulevard started evolving into Akron’s Music Row, Virgil Lay was pumping out guitars and strings from the basement of the old Kenmore Coffee Shop,” Tina Boyes, executive director of the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance, said in a release.
Currently, the Boulevard houses six recording studios, two guitar shops and a regional live music venue.
“July 1 will be a fitting tribute to a legacy that continues to grow with time,” Boyes said.
The street to be renamed is adjacent to Lay’s Guitar shop, which has served musicians around the world since the 1960s.
“I think he would probably be pretty humble about it, but I think he would actually love it,” Eddie Speedy, Lay’s grandson, said of the street renaming.
Speedy started working with his grandfather at age 17 and continued until his grandfather’s death in 2009, he said.
“I just think he was all about people giving an honest, hard day’s work, you know, and doing what they love,” Speedy said.
His grandfather moved to Akron in 1946 when he wasn’t yet 20 years old. Lay played in bands, at least one with his wife, the late Barbara Lay, who also played guitar, Speedy said. The couple had three children, including Patricia, Speedy’s mother.
In 1962, Lay went into business with his brother, Ray Lay, and Lee East in 1962, founding Staff Music, a guitar retail and repair shop on High Street in Akron.
Lay enjoyed knowing how things work so he took those things apart to find out how, Speedy said. He naturally enjoyed repairing instruments far more than the retail side of business.
The Lay brothers eventually amicably split with East, whose interest was more the retail side, and opened Lay’s Guitar Shop at the corner of 13th Street and Kenmore Boulevard.
At the repair shop, when customers arrived to pick up their instrument, Lay would hand the repaired piece out a service window where he had an amplifier plugged in, ready for a sound test, Speedy said.
Observing how strings went out of tune sparked Lay’s interest in developing strings that stay in tune longer, he said. It wasn’t long before he started making strings in the basement of the repair shop and created a propriety method so they stay in tune longer.
Speedy now runs SIT Strings, which has tripled in size since Lay launched the company in 1980.
The company makes strings for all fretted instruments — bass guitar, mandolin, banjo and dulcimer, he said. The strings, still manufactured in Akron, and now ship to nearly 50 countries.
Joe Walsh, Alice Cooper, Megadeth’s Davis Ellefson and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach are among the many well-known names who patronize Lays and/or rely on SIT Strings, Speedy said.
“We have a pretty decent artist roster,” he said.
The street renaming event is one of the highlights of the First Friday series, said Corey Jenkins, Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance promoter & experience manager. The June event drew more than 1,000 people to the Boulevard.
“Since Virgil opened that shop in the 60s, I think Kenmore Boulevard’s really had a bond with the guitar and the people who play them ever since,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins recalls hearing people talk about Virgil Lay when he took guitar lessons at 14. He later got a job at SIT Strings.
“When I went to work at SIT and met him, I felt like I was meeting a celebrity,” he said. “He was this master repair person and Joe Walsh took his guitars to him.”
Working at SIT, Jenkins learned the first guitar Lay built was for his wife, Barbara.
Lay also told Jenkins the story of Joe Walsh telling Lay not to repair his broken guitar too well, because he planned to break it again, Jenkins said.
“He said ‘as long as you’re paying, I’ll keep fixing it,’” Jenkins said.
The Kenmore First Friday event in the Kenmore Boulevard Historic District will feature music, food and family activities throughout the day, featuring, food trucks Macho Nacho and Johnny Lóte’s Latin Street Corn, the Lock 15 Beer Garden and Torchbearers Community Volunteer Fair, organizers said.
- noon to 5 p.m.: Lay’s Guitar Shop will host a guitar workshop and live music on the Main Stage on 15th Street
- 5:45 p.m.: The Virgil Lay Way dedication will take place at the intersection of Kenmore Boulevard’s South Alley and 15th Street.
- 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.: Open mic at the Rialto Living Room
- 6:45 to 9 p.m.: Big Pop and The Buffalo Ryders will perform on the SIT Strings 15th Street Main Stage.
- 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.: The Electric Company recording studio will host live music in the McCutchan Courtyard
- 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.: Youth-based nonprofit First Glance’s hip-hop program will run at the Live Music Now Courtyard
- 9 p.m.: The Rialto Theatre will feature The Beyonderers and Purple k’niF, a New York-based instrumental band featuring The Waitresses founder Chris Butler and Kenmore native Johnny Teagle