Gene Leis (April 19, 1920 – March 15, 1993) was an American jazz guitarist, teacher, bandleader, composer, producer and entrepreneur. Known primarily for his influential publications and recorded guitar courses in the 1960s, Gene was also a popular performer and a mentor to a large number of musicians through his teaching studios in Manhattan Beach, California.
- 1 Early life
- 2 War Years
- 3 Preston Foster
- 4 The Nexsus Recorded Course
- 5 More Courses, Publications and Albums
- 6 The Local Scene
- 7 Performing
- 8 Retirement
- 9 Publications
- 10 Discography
- 11 For Further Reading
- 12 References
- 13 External links
Gene was born into a musical family in Sedgwick, Kansas, just outside Witchita. His parents had a family band and played at local dances, weddings and other events. At 9, Gene joined the family group on mandolin, an instrument whose neck was small enough for him to play comfortably. In his early teens he took up tenor guitar and began playing with other small groups. His father wanted him to play cello, and Gene negotiated a series of banjo lessons in exchange.
During the late 1930s Gene listened to the swing bands of Goodman and others and to guitarists Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. The introduction of the electric guitar changed the nature of the guitar player in dance bands, who could now play loud enough to be heard over the other instruments. Gene decided to focus on guitar.
In early 1941, this 21-year-old musician enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in Galveston, Texas, and was sent to Muroc Army Air Field, in the desert north of Lancaster, California. Later this airfield would become known as Edwards Air Force Base, but in 1941 it was an airfield used to train bombing and gunnery maneuvers.
While at the base, Gene took lessons from Dave Saunders, a student of George M. Smith, a studio and performing guitarist and author of “George M. Smith Modern Guitar Method”. These lessons formed the core of Gene’s later teaching system. Smith’s method focused on teaching players the chord techniques necessary for rhythm playing and improvising in contemporary jazz. His focus was on thoroughly knowing and using chords as the basis for rhythm and chord improvising. Gene would later say, “If you don’t know your chords you’ll never play enough guitar to be dangerous”.
Promoted to Staff Sergeant, Gene formed a band, “Gene and his Jive Bombers”, composed of GIs and civilians and toured the area for the next three years. Typically, Gene arranged, directed, produced and emceed at these appearances.
Later, Gene was sent to India to organize entertainment for various airbases in the China-Burma-India Theater of the war, playing in many different kinds of bands and at one time touring camps for several months with popular movie star and singer Tony Martin. Discharged in December 1945, Technical Sergeant Leis moved to Lancaster, California and started a dance band that played around the local area.
In 1948 he met actor/singer Preston Foster and taught him some guitar.
Foster created a trio with himself, Gene and Foster’s wife, actress Sheila Darcy. Gene arranged the songs, and they played on radio and in clubs, appearing with Orrin Tucker, Peggy Ann Garner and Rita Hayworth. It was during these times that Gene learned a lot about performing from watching the professionals in action.
Eventually, Foster broke up the act to do television, starring in the mid-fifties series “Waterfront”. Gene, tired of touring, returned to a rapidly growing Lancaster and sold Real Estate.
The Nexsus Recorded Course
At night he worked on a project – a teach-yourself guitar course on records.
Using records to teach and selling them via mail order was a new idea – the old 78’s were so brittle they would break when shipped, and they were heavy, which made shipping costly. The new vinyl records were much more forgiving, and the 12” version could hold a lot of play time. In 1955 Columbia Records created the Columbia Record Club, a new division of Columbia Records whose purpose was to test the idea of marketing music through the mail. The public’s response proved that mail-order record distribution was an effective way to market music. By the end of 1955, the Columbia Record Club boasted 128,000 members who purchased 700,000 records. This proved to Gene that his idea, teaching guitar to students using recorded courses, could work.
As Gene began developing his recorded guitar course, he worked hard to develop certain skills in order to create the kind of quality course he knew students would need. He enrolled in a school of broadcasting to learn to develop his narration skills. He took courses in writing to improve his communication ability. He studied photography for two years. He learned print layout and composition, using a Varitype machine to create his printed text, and laying out all the pages himself.
Gene called his project the Nexsus course. Nexus meant, “a connecting link or a connected series”. Gene initially sold the course through mail order, taking out ads in magazines like Playboy, Esquire, downbeat, Diner’s Club Magazine and True.
The Complete Nexus Method Course included 10 records, a 132-page instruction book, a 36-page chord book and three Chord Maps. There was also a Primary Course and an Advanced Course, both based on these materials. In it, Gene taught you how to hold, tune and play the guitar from the basic rudiments to the more intricate chord patterns used in folk, blues, western, pops and ballads. His course centered on the song as the primary way to learning guitar and he often referred to this approach as learning recreational guitar.
Tom Scanlan, noted jazz critic for the Army Times and downbeat magazine gave the course a very favorable review, singling out the high quality of the privately produced records and the clarity of Gene’s explanations and demonstrations.
More Courses, Publications and Albums
Gene quit real estate to work on selling the course full-time, moving to Manhattan Beach, California, and in 1961 he opened Gene Leis Studio, Inc., where he built a recording studio, an office and used the remaining space to store and mail out his courses.
The courses proved to be popular; in the first several years, Gene sold over 7,000 courses. Gene received many requests for just the chord book, so he sold the Nexsus Chord Book separately as well.
The guitar’s popularity soared as it was featured in a variety of popular musical formats: rock’n’roll groups, folk music artists and the surf music/guitar groups of the late fifties and early sixties. In 1962, with the encouragement and assistance of Jessy Stidham, one of his students, Gene introduced two new albums aimed at a younger market, “Play Guitar: Sounds of Today”, designed to teach younger students how to play single string melody without going into a lot of complicated chords. Gene also recorded an album, ‘’Beautiful Guitar’’, playing all the parts himself using a multitrack approach that Les Paul had pioneered earlier. The album included an insert that featured the orchestrations of the 13 songs on the album, for “the guitar player who plays just enough guitar to be dangerous”.
In 1964, Gene incorporated Gene Leis Distributing with the aim of offering a full range of accessories and instruments. He designed or created a line of guitar amplifiers (which appeared under the names Rodeo Music or Gene Leis), guitars and accessories which were distributed through White Front, Montgomery Ward and other retail stores. He sold over 8,000 amplifiers before leaving the crowded amp market.
In 1964 he revised the Chord Book, incorporating many more instructional elements, and called it the “Instructional Chord Book for Guitar”. He also created two new books, Teacher’s Pet Manuscript and Chord Diagram (Primary and Advanced) for students to write out their own arrangements. By 1965, the Instruction Chord Book had sold over 250,000 copies.
In 1966 Gene introduced Guitar for Two, featuring a book and a record that taught learners 16 songs, focusing on teaching single-string melody, and Guitar for Fun, the Guitar for Two package with the Instruction Chord Book.
To promote his courses, books and accessories, Gene toured the west coast, making personal appearances where he performed with his sons Larry on drums and Bill on guitar. Their repertoire ranged from rock’n’roll numbers that “resembled a small earthquake” to ballads like “Misty” or “Over the Rainbow”. After the mini-concert, while the boys signed autographs and gave out complimentary books, Gene conducted question and answer sessions. These sessions gave Gene valuable insight into what guitar students wanted, and he used these ideas when creating new courses. Gene considered the comments and letters he received from guitar students all over the world his greatest assets. In 1965, Decca Records started a division known as Decca Home Entertainment Products, which for several years imported Japanese acoustic and solid-body electric guitars aimed primarily at the beginner market. Gene acted as an advisor to Decca, who sold over 30,000 of his chord books a year. Similarly, Columbia Record Club, the mail order arm of Columbia Records, bought 50,000 of his courses to pair with a line of guitars that it offered. In 1966, Gene collaborated on the book, A Guitar Manual, with Daniel Mari and Peter Huyn. Published by E&O Mari, the manufacturer of La Bella guitar strings, the book focused on the history, anatomy and use of the guitar. The wood veneer cover design, by George Macias, was unique, and represented the face of a guitar, with the title and author’s names visible through a round hole in the center.
In 1967, Gene produced two albums for Music Minus One, a company that created recorded courses with one instrumental part missing – students could practice soloing against the recorded accompaniment. These two albums included “Let’s Duet” (MMO60) and “Learn to Play Guitar” (MMO4018).
Also in 1967, Gene became a contributing editor to Bud and Maxine Eastman’s fledgling Guitar Player Magazine, serving on the advisory board and contributing articles like Why Don’t You Read Music?”
By the mid 1970s, Gene had sold over 225,000 of his recorded courses and over 2 million copies of the Instruction Chord Book for Guitar.
The Local Scene
Gene’s Studio in Manhattan Beach, which had served as his distribution center and recording studio, now boasted some retail space, and in the late 60s, Gene built a number of small teaching studios and brought in local guitar teachers such as Brian Hartzler, Tami Smith (now Tami Michelle), Craig Welch, Caren Armstrong and others. Within a short time the studio boasted 10 teachers and over 140 students each week – the store hummed with activity. Gene, with his colorful personality and great charm, presided over everything.
Gene became a mentor to many in the small South Bay music community. Recognizing talent and passion in young guitarist Jeff Linsky, Gene encouraged him and introduced him to important players who influenced his music; players like Ron Anthony, Johnny deRose and Jimmy Stewart. .
In his studio, Gene recorded his own albums also recorded some local talent. In 1970 he recorded “Gene Leis Plays Beautiful Music”, also known as “Music to Iron By”, a collection of a number of beautiful ballads and standards done in Gene’s own style.
Gene wrote or supervised the arrangements included in a number of easy guitar songbooks for West Coast Publications, whose publications included a series of songbooks featuring current popular songs arranged for guitar, including “Country Guitar”, “Getting’ Together for Easy Guitar” and others. The studio teachers contributed the actual arrangements, which Gene edited.
With the studio and his other enterprises running well, Gene was able to get out and play more. He teamed up with well-known guitarist Ron Anthony, who had played with Frank Sinatra and George Shearing, and bassist Louis Kabok, who had played with guitarist Gabor Szabo for many years, in a long-running engagement at the popular Beach Bum Burt’s in Redondo Beach, California. Over the years other guitarists would play with Gene as well, guitarists like Jimmy Stewart, Johnny deRose and others. These club dates were very popular week in and week out. Occasionally the trio would add a vocalist such as teacher Caren Armstrong, and the joint would really be swinging! 
Gene retired and sold the studio in the late 1970s, moving to Santa Maria, California, where he continued to sell his books, play at local clubs and record others.
Able to play his music until the very end, Gene died in Santa Maria, California, California on March 15, 1993, at the age of 73.
Teaching Materials and Books
- Leis, Gene (1961). ‘’Nexsus Theory Instruction Book’’, Gene Leis Studio, Inc., Manhattan Beach, CA - Cover illustration by noted artist David Ligare.
- Leis, Gene (1961). “Chord Book; Nexsus Theory”, Gene Leis Studio, Inc., Manhattan Beach, CA.
- Leis, Gene (1964, 1974). ‘’Instruction Chord Book for Guitar’’, Gene Leis Studio, Inc., Manhattan Beach, CA.
- Leis, Gene (1964). ‘’Teacher’s Pet Manuscript with Diagrams for Guitar, Book 1, Primary’’, Gene Leis Studio, Inc., Manhattan Beach, CA.
- Leis, Gene (1964). ‘’Teacher’s Pet Manuscript with Diagrams for Guitar, Book 2, Advanced’’, Gene Leis Studio, Inc., Manhattan Beach, CA.
- Leis, Gene (1966). ‘’Guitar for Two’’, Gene Leis Studio, Inc., Manhattan Beach, CA.
- Huyn, Peter; Leis, Gene; & Mari, Daniel (1966). ‘’A Guitar Manual’’. E. & O. Mari, Inc. Offset book with wood veneer covers; designed by George Maciunas.
- Leis, Gene (1967). ‘’Guitar for Fun’’, Gene Leis Studio, Inc., Manhattan Beach, CA.
- Hartzler, Brian; & Leis, Gene (1970). “Wine + Bread + Cheese, a Guitar and Thee”, West Coast Publications, Inc., Los Angeles, CA.
- Leis, Gene (1972). ‘’Makin' Tracks - Hit Songs for Easy Guitar’’, West Coast Publications, Inc., Los Angeles, CA.
- Leis, Gene (1972). ‘’Country Guitar ’72’’, West Coast Publications, Inc., Los Angeles, CA.
- Leis, Gene (1972). ‘’Getting’ Together for Easy Guitar (Collector’s Series #34)’’, West Coast Publications, Inc., Los Angeles, CA.
- Leis, Gene (1972). “What’s Your Hangup?? A Guitar?? (Collector’s Series #86)”, West Coast Publications, Inc. Los Angeles, CA. – various songs arranged for easy guitar by Brian Hartzler, Jeff Linsky, Ed Thompson, Janet Welch and Cliff Woolley.
- ‘’Nexsus Course’’ (1961) - Complete Course; comprising Primary Course and Advanced Course.
- ‘’Play Guitar - Sounds of Today, Volume 1’’ (1962) – GL Vol.1 ST.
- ‘’Play Guitar - Sounds of Today, Volume 2’’ (1963) - GL Vol.2 ST.
- ‘’Guitar for Two’’ (1966) – GT–1R.
- ‘’Let Me Teach You to Play the Guitar’’ (1966) - Music Minus One MMO 60.
- ‘’Let’s Duet - Music Minus One Guitar’’ (1967) - Music Minus One MMO 4018.
- ‘’Beautiful Guitar by Gene Leis’’ (1962), GL-EXCR-1.
- ‘’Gene Leis Plays Beautiful Guitar’’ (1970), LPS570 – also known as “Music to Iron By”.
For Further Reading
- Ferris, Leonard (October, 1971). ‘’You know the name, now meet the man…Here’s Gene Leis’’. Guitar Player Magazine, pp. 31-33.
- “How to Learn with Records” (1963). “Country Song Roundup”.
- Leis, Gene (October, 1967). ‘’Why Can’t You Read Music?’’. Guitar Player Magazine.
- Leis, Gene (1974). ‘’Instruction Chord Book for Guitar’’. Manhattan Beach: Gene Leis Studio, inc., p.2.
- Linsky, Jeff; & Carlson, Lenny (2003). ‘’Jeff Linsky Fingerstyle Jazz Guitar Solos’’. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publishing.
- Lord, Tom (2001). ‘’The Jazz Discography’’. Lord Music Reference. (Originally from University of Michigan). ISBN 1-881993-16-7, ISBN 978-1-991993-16-2
- Marmorstein, Gary (2007). ‘’The Label: The Story of Columbia Records’’. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press. ISBN 1-56025-707-5
- “Master Jazz Guitarist at Beachbums” (November 18, 1976). ‘’Long Beach Press-Telegram’’, p. A-29.
- “Red Cross Benefit Successful”, “Calling all Hep Cats”, “Halloween Dance” (October 30, 1942). ‘’Muroc News’’, vol. 1, No. 21, pp. 2-4 - newsletter for Muroc Army Air Field, later Edwards Air Force Base.
- Rodgers, Jeffrey Pepper (September, 2008). ‘’Have Guitar, Will Travel (interview with guitarist Jeff Linsky)’’. Acoustic Guitar Magazine, pp.70-72.
- Scanlan, Tom (1963). “Any Interest in Guitar?” In “Beautiful Guitar” [Album Insert]. Manhattan Beach: Gene Leis Studios, inc.
- Smith, George M. (1942–1962). ‘’Most Complete Modern Guitar Method for Rhythm and Chord Improvising’’. Santa Fe Springs, CA: Guitarists Publications.
- Stefani, Mark (November 2006). “Just Jazz Guitar – Interview with Jeff Linsky”. Retrieved March 5, 2010.
- [Ferris, Leonard (October, 1971). ‘’You know the name, now meet the man…Here’s Gene Leis’’. Guitar Player Magazine, pp. 31-32]
- [“Red Cross Benefit Successful”, “Calling all Hep Cats”, “Halloween Dance” (October 30, 1942). ‘’Muroc News’’, vol. 1, No. 21, p. 2]
- [Ferris (October, 1971), p. 32]
- [Marmorstein, Gary (2007). ‘’The Label: The Story of Columbia Records’’. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, p.221]
- [Scanlan, Tom (1963). “Any Interest in Guitar?” In “Beautiful Guitar” [Album Insert]. Manhattan Beach: Gene Leis Studios, Inc.]
- [Leis, Gene (1962). ‘’Play Guitar: Sounds of Today, Volume1’’. Liner notes.]
- [Ferris, Leonard (1971), p. 32]
- [Ferris (1971), p. 32]
- [Leis, Gene (1974). ‘’Instruction Chord Book for Guitar’’. Manhattan Beach: Gene Leis Studio, inc., p.2]
- [Rodgers, Jeffrey Pepper (September, 2008). ‘’Have Guitar, Will Travel (interview with guitarist Jeff Linsky)’’. Acoustic Guitar Magazine, p.70]
- [“Master Jazz Guitarist at Beachbums” (November 18, 1976). ‘’Long Beach Press-Telegram’’, p. A-29]
- Caren Armstrong website. Accessed March 10, 2010.