Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

He's Taught Millions to Strum Along

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

He's Taught Millions to Strum Along

Article excerpt

THE PICK of the pickers is a self-taught guitarist who's taught millions of others how to strum tunes of their own, just like Arthur Murray taught thousands how to dance.

Over the years Mel Bay, who lives in Kirkwood and is now 81, has sold more than 7 million copies of the beginners volume of his seven-volume set of instruction manuals. His method book for orchestral guitar topped 5 million back in the 1960s.

"I would say about 30 million have played from my books," Bay says. "That's a lot of pickers. The whole thing is mind-boggling."

Many of the books were bought by people with two left thumbs; some by future stars from every conceivable musical category. One day, they're plunking out "Kum-Ba-Ya" and "Buffalo Gals," the next they're making a living with a Fender Stratocaster.

"There are some trendier approaches, but that's not unusual for method books," says Bay's son, William, who runs the family music-publishing business.

"One of the corniest methods I've ever seen is the Suzuki violin method, yet millions of children learn on it. This is an approach that works."

When the Eagles played Riverport Amphitheatre in early July, they stopped at Bay's music store at 113 West Jefferson Avenue in Kirkwood to pay homage to the master teacher. Same thing when the Who came to town, even though Bay didn't know Peter Townshend from Peter Rabbit.

"These boys from England stood out in the front, wanted a picture of me and gave me their album," Bay says. "I said, `Boy, this is a crazy name for a group.

"The guys in the shop think I'm a little square."

Maybe so. He's also partial to wearing ties dotted with tiny treble clef signs held down by a guitar tie clasp. But don't judge him too harshly on appearance, or on the antiquated tunes that fill his books.

Judge him on the results.

"For guitar methods, he's one of the grand old men of the music industry," says Madeleine Crouch of the Retail Print Music Dealers Association in Dallas. "There's not a print-music store anywhere that hasn't sold a Mel Bay book."

It's been a rich life for Bay, who got his first cheapie guitar from Sears as a 14-year-old in 1927 and now owns a D'Angelico archtop model depicted on the cover of all of his basic instructional manuals - worth $150,000 on the collector's market.

Bay got his start playing the banjo to attract crowds for a snake-oil salesman. …

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