Mel Bay

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Mel Bay
Birth name Melbourne E. Bay
Born (1913-02-25)February 25, 1913
Bunker, Missouri, US
Died May 14, 1997(1997-05-14) (aged 84)
St. Louis, Missouri, US
Genres Country, Classical, Folk
Occupation(s) Musician, Songwriter, Educator
Instruments Guitar

Mel Bay (February 25, 1913 – May 14, 1997) was a musician and publisher best known for his series of music education books. His Encyclopedia of Guitar Chords remains a bestseller.


Childhood and early life[edit]

Melbourne E. Bay was born on February 25, 1913 in the little Ozark Mountain town of Bunker, Missouri.[1] He bought a Sears Roebuck guitar at the age of 13 and several months later played his first "gig". Bunker didn't have a guitar teacher so Bay watched the few guitarists he knew and copied their fingering on the fret board, teaching himself chords. Once he felt he knew the rudiments of the guitar, he started experimenting with other instruments, including tenor banjo, mandolin, Hawaiian guitar and ukulele.[2]

Bay played in front of an audience every chance he got, including a stint with a snake oil salesman in and around his hometown. The man hired Bay to play the banjo while sitting in the salesman's car. Once a crowd gathered to listen, Bay would stop playing, and the salesman would pitch his cure-all.[3]

St. Louis and Kirkwood, MO[edit]

Bay knew that to make it as a professional musician he would have to be in a large city. So he moved to St. Louis in 1933, and later to suburban Kirkwood, MO, to find his audience. He played with numerous local and traveling bands. In addition, he landed staff guitar jobs on several radio stations. Mel fronted his own trio called The Mel Bay Trio (piano, bass, guitar) and played steadily for 25 years.[1][4]

While Mel was actively pursuing his playing career, he continued to teach as many as 100 students a week. He decided to begin writing instructional materials due to the difficulty encountered by guitarists at playing good-sounding chord forms in rhythm sections and the poor note reading ability prevalent among guitarists at that time. These books became the basis of the Mel Bay instructional method and the Mel Bay publication house.[1]

Mel Bay Publications[edit]

After the war, Mel was asked to write instructional materials on guitar for GIs wishing to learn music under the GI Bill. However, when he approached the three major music publishers in New York, all three turned him down, saying there was no future in guitar.[3] In 1947, Mel formed his own publishing company, Mel Bay Publications Inc., and wrote his landmark initial book titled The Orchestral Chord System for Guitar. This book is still in print under the title Rhythm Guitar Chord System. His Modern Guitar Method was penned shortly thereafter in 1948.[1] After the success of Elvis Presley in the early 50s, the guitar's popularity took off, helping to ensure the success of the company.[3] For years Mel traveled from town to town talking to guitar teachers and players and showing them his publications. At one time, Mel claimed to have known virtually every guitar teacher in America on a first-name basis.[1]

Today, Mel Bay Publications is an American publisher of materials for musical instrument playing, particularly instructional books that teach a particular instrument or style. It was founded in 1947 and is based in Pacific, Missouri. Mel Bay Publications' books target musicians of varying levels of proficiency, from the beginner who is unfamiliar with musical notation to those with advanced performance skills. Available introductory material includes methods for classical instruments such as the violin, clarinet and trumpet, folk instruments such as the harmonica, mandolin, banjo, and accordion, as well as material for various types of guitar. This material often emphasizes styles such as classical, rock, blues, jazz and folk music.

Later career[edit]

Mel used to sell D'Angelico guitars. At any given time he would have five or six "lying around the house". Mel played professionally on his New Yorker model, but his favorite was the initial Mel Bay Model crafted as a gift for him by John D'Angelico. This famous guitar had all of the main features of the New Yorker but was a "cutaway" model and had a slightly thinner neck. This instrument has been pictured on the Mel Bay Modern Guitar Method for decades.

Mel Bay was still playing guitar every day until his death in 1997 at age 84.


Mel Bay received many awards during his career which include the “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Guitar Foundation of America, "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Retail Print Music Dealers Association, the "Owen Miller Lifetime Achievement Award" from the American Federation of Musicians, "Certificate of Merit" from the St. Louis Music Educators Association, a resolution from the Missouri House of Representatives honoring his achievements, a proclamation by mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. making October 25, 1996 "Mel Bay Day" in the city of St. Louis, and a letter of commendation from President Bill Clinton.


Many guitarists have, at some point, studied from Bay's method books.[3] Guitar Player magazine referred to him as "the George Washington of the guitar".[5] Sales of his Modern Guitar Method series are estimated to be well in excess of 20 million copies. Mel Bay established the structure for modern guitar education and by so doing, helped create the foundation for the continued growth and advancement of the instrument.[2]

The song "Ode to Mel Bay" (written and first recorded by Michael "Supe" Granda of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and featured on the album The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World by Tommy Emmanuel and Chet Atkins), pokes fun at Mel Bay's books.

In De Soto, Missouri, an annual Mel Bay Jazz Festival is held. Also, at the De Soto High School, the music center was named in his honor.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Bay, Mel. Mel Bay's Modern Guitar Method: Grade 1. Pacific: 1948.
  2. ^ a b Mel Bay Blog. "100th Anniversary of Mel Bay's Birth", Mel Bay Publications, 1 February 2013. Accessed on February 9, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d NPR. "Music Instruction Series Marks 60th Anniversary", NPR, 10 July 2007. Retrieved on February 8, 2014.
  4. ^ Lori Rose (June 22, 2011). "Star Power: Kirkwood's Mel Bay Joins Walk of Fame". Kirkwood Patch. Retrieved April 1, 2015. 
  5. ^ Johnson, Kevin C. "New St. Louis Walk of Fame inductions include Mel Bay, Robert S. Brookings", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 14 June 2011 (accessed on February 9, 2014).

External links[edit]