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Mel Bay – The Most Incredible Jazz Music Guitar Player Ever!
Jazz guitarist Mel Bay was born on February 25, 1913 in the small Ozark Mountain town of Bunker, Missouri. He bought a Sears guitar at age 13 and played his first “concert” a few weeks later. He remembered playing until his fingers were raw! Mel took up tenor banjo shortly thereafter and continued to master both instruments. During his teenage years, Mel played with many bands and characters in rural Missouri. Perhaps no “gig” was as unusual as the job Mel landed as a “snake oil salesman,” in his own words. This flamboyant salesman pulled his ostentatious Pierce Arrow, with its grille-mounted steering horns, into the center of a small country town. Mel sat in the car and played up a storm on the tenor banjo. Soon after a crowd had gathered, the hawker took over and began extolling the wonders of his “miracle elixir.”
In 1933, Mel Bay moved to St. Louis and began his professional career. He has performed with many local and traveling bands. He also employed guitarists at various radio stations. Mel led his own trio (piano, bass, guitar) and played continuously for 25 years! He was equally adept on most fretted instruments and played mandolin, uke, Hawaiian guitar, tenor and plectrum banjo professionally.
While Mel was actively pursuing his playing career, he continued to teach 100 students a week. He decided to compose jazz guitar sheet music and jazz guitar tablature tutorials because of the problem guitarists experience with performing great-sounding chord shapes in rhythm sections, as well as the average note reading ability common among guitarists.
Shortly after WWII, Mel was asked to publish guitar tutorials for soldiers who wanted to learn music under the GI Bill. In 1947, Mel founded his own publishing company and wrote his landmark initial book, “The Orchestral Chord System For Guitar”. This book is still in print and remains one of the best rhythm guitar chord books out there! His “Modern Guitar Method” was soon born. For many years, Mel traveled from town to town talking to guitar teachers and players and showing them his publications. At one point, Mel claims to have known almost every guitar teacher in America by first name! The guitar and Mel Bay’s releases were of great interest in the 1950s. Things have continued to improve ever since.
Mel used to sell D’Angelico jazz archtop guitars. There are 5 or 6 “lying around the house” at any given time. Mel played D’Angelico’s New Yorker model professionally, but his favorite guitar was the original Mel Bay Model that John D’Angelico built for him as a gift. This well-known guitar had all the main features of the New Yorker, but was a “cutaway” model and had a slightly thinner neck. The same instrument has been featured in Mel Bay’s “Modern Guitar Method” for decades.
Someone once calculated that sales of guitar publications written by Mel Bay exceeded 25 million copies. When asked, Mel usually explained that she stopped counting a long time ago. Sales of “Modern Guitar Method” alone exceeded the 7 million mark! It’s safe to say that Mel Bay is one of the cornerstones of the world of guitar music and tutorials in this or any other century!
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