Mel Bay: The Man Behind Modern Guitar Lessons

Americana, Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on January 8, 2010
Courtesy of Mel Bay Publications, Inc. Mel Bay in the 1930s

In 1927, as young Mel Bay tuned in the radio and listened to old-time fiddler Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers, he longed to play his new Silvertone guitar. But the only instructional manuals available were for classical guitar.

Bay overcame that problem for the next generation of guitarists. In 1947, he published The Orchestral Chord System for Guitar, followed by the Mel Bay Method for the Modern Guitar, the first in a series of seven manuals that have helped millions of people learn to play.

"You can hardly find anyone who hasn't learned from Mel Bay," says his son, Bill Bay, 64, CEO of Mel Bay Publications in Pacific, Mo. (pop. 5,482). "Dad has been called the George Washington of the guitar."

Not only did the late Mel Bay help guitarists strum their first C chords, but the company he founded now publishes more than 4,500 different instructional manuals and sheet music for a variety of musical instruments, from accordion to ukulele.

Hard work and a natural ability to sell helped Mel succeed. As a teen growing up in De Soto, Mo. (pop. 6,375), he practiced eight to 10 hours a day to teach himself guitar and tenor banjo. When he got good enough, he played for tips at dance clubs and bootlegging joints during Prohibition. When the Great Depression shattered his college plans, Mel moved in 1933 to St. Louis, where he gave music lessons during the day and performed at night.

"Dad had a rough go of it," says Bill, "and went days on end without food. That put a lifelong fear of failure in him."

One of his favorite guitar students, May Gebelein, made his heart sing, and the couple married in 1937. Their early years were lean as they built the music publishing company.

"Believe me, it was a struggle," recalls May, 91, who lives in a St. Louis retirement home. "Mel would come home at night, dead tired from teaching as many as 100 students a week, and he'd write songs at night."

Mel peddled his books to guitar teachers across the United States, often taking young Bill with him. He also visited New York music distributors, but "everyone turned him down flat and said there was no future in the guitar," Bill says. "Back then, the guitar was a hillbilly instrument."

Then, almost overnight, the guitar moved into the musical mainstream when Elvis Presley took the world by storm in the mid-1950s.

"Guitar was suddenly a big deal, and all these teachers wanted books," Bill says. "Dad and Mom would pack books in the wee hours of the morning, and she'd run to the post office the next day."

Using the Mel Bay guitar method, a student learns the basics, including how to read music, tune the instrument and strum chords. "It was written to be studied with a teacher and includes duets," Bill says.

Anthony Glise, 53, an internationally known guitarist and composer who heads the guitar program at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, is among millions of guitarists who learned to play from Mel Bay's original manual.

"The book is still considered the standard for introducing people to guitar," says Glise, whose own guitar manuals have been published by Mel Bay. "At the time that Mel was starting to play, this nonclassical style was exploding in popularity. No methods taught this new style of playing, and Mel filled that void."

Today, Mel Bay Publications has 52 employees who produce about 120 new music manuals, many accompanied by CDs or DVDs, each year. A third generation, Bryndon Bay, 35, is the company's president.

Though the company continues to expand into international markets and add new titles, its all-time bestsellermore than 9 million copiesis the original Mel Bay Method for the Modern Guitar, the book that Mel Bay conceived more than 60 years ago.