[JPL] Mel Bay Publications / Associated Press Feature
gmiller at melbay.com
Tue Sep 4 09:46:09 EDT 2007
The Associated Press posted a great feature on our parent company over
Mel Bay Records
At 60, Mel Bay Publications still teaching world to play guitar
By JIM SALTER
Sept. 2, 2007
For six decades, Mel Bay Publications has taught much of the world to
play guitar _ and accordion, banjo, even the pan flute, for that matter.
Mel Bay Publications, housed in a nondescript industrial park surrounded
by farm fields 35 miles (562 kilometers) southwest of St. Louis, is
celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
It has expanded beyond the how-to-play format with sales of CDs, DVDs
and an increasing online presence. Its catalog of music books is 3,000
deep, and the company recently opened an office in London to expand
marketing efforts in Europe.
In the 1940s, fresh out of World War II, Mel Bay was teaching guitar in
St. Louis County when he developed his own method and put it into
writing with "Mel Bay's Orchestral Chord System for Guitar," intended to
teach guitarists more powerful-sounding chords for use in big bands and
show orchestras. He went to New York's three largest music publishers.
"They all said, 'absolutely no way. There's no future for the guitar,'"
Bay's son, William Bay, recalled.
Bay decided to self-publish. He made a go of it by taking the train to
other cities and meeting face-to-face with guitar teachers, pitching his
"A city like Cincinnati might have three people teaching guitar at that
time," William Bay said.
Then along came the King.
Elvis Presley burst onto the popular music scene in the 1950s, ushering
in rock 'n' roll. Suddenly the guitar, previously considered by the
music elite as little more than a rhythm instrument, was all the rage.
Thanks to his personal contacts, guitar teachers around the country were
turning to Bay as students by the thousands took up the instrument.
"These teachers had more than they could handle, and they all wanted
dad's methods," William Bay said.
The Beatles arrived in the early 1960s, bringing along another wave of
popularity for the guitar that wavered only once _ in the early 1980s
when small, portable keyboards briefly were the rage. The company's
biggest seller, a book for beginners called "Modern Guitar Method Grade
1," has sold 8 million copies since it came out in 1949. It has been
revised four times.
"The guitar is the driving force in popular music," William Bay said.
"It's a lifelong instrument. You can play by yourself. And it's an easy
instrument to get to sound pretty good in a relatively short time."
Frank Vignola, whose recordings have ranged from jazz to bluegrass, said
he learned guitar starting at age 6 using the Mel Bay method.
"I still use some of the Mel Bay products for study," Vignola said. "I
do believe that Mel Bay is the leader in guitar studies."
The how-to books have changed over the years. Once strictly written
instruction, many now include CDs that allow the students to hear how
the tune is supposed to sound and play along with it.
Mel Bay died in 1997 at age 86. William, now 62, runs the company along
with his son, Bryndon, 33. Another son, Collin, is studying jazz guitar
at New School university in New York.
Mel Bay Publications has expanded well beyond the guitar. Its books
teach dozens of instruments and styles. There are books for the
clarinet, the banjo, the sax, but also for the pan flute, dulcimer and
darbuka, a Middle Eastern drum. You can use a Mel Bay book to play jazz
or rock, but also bluegrass or Celtic music.
In recent years, Mel Bay expanded into recordings. Its "MB3" featuring
jazz guitarists Vic Juris, Corey Christiansen and Jimmy Bruno was No. 1
on the Jazz Week album chart earlier this year. It also offers DVDs
featuring concerts, anthologies, jam sessions.
"We're making changes," William Bay said. "Right now, it's in
transition. We believe that in five years, this company will look quite
different than it does now.
"The old way of doing business _ printing a book and letting the music
store know about that book _ that's changed," William Bay said. "We've
got to do a lot more marketing. Now, it's a worldwide market."
William Bay declined to offer specific figures but said annual sales in
the $10 million (euro7.3 million) to $15 million (euro10.94 million)
range have held steady over the past several years. The company employs
70 to 80 people, depending on the season _ the start of school semesters
and Christmas are the busiest times.
Most workers juggle a variety of tasks. That goes for William Bay
himself. On many days, he will go into the studio with one of his
guitars, performing the etudes and lessons he often writes for CDs that
students play along with as they learn the instrument.
He began in music playing trumpet. "In college I decided I probably
needed to learn to play guitar if I wanted to remain in the family," he
He taught himself using his father's method books. He also had the
author on stand-by if needed.
"When you took a lesson from dad you had to make sure you never made a
mistake _ he'd take over and play one tune into another. You'd never get
the guitar back again," William said.
That love of playing remains evident inside the company. William keeps a
guitar next to his desk and often stops to play. He recalled a company
Christmas party where so many of the worker/musicians took turns the
party kept going long into the night.
"We ended up with so many people playing I wasn't sure when it would
end," he laughed
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