Jazz guitar player Mel Bay was born on February 25, 1913 in the small Ozark Mountain town of Bunker, Missouri. He bought a Sears guitar at the age of 13 and several weeks later played his first “gig.” He recalled playing right up until his fingers were raw! Mel took up the tenor banjo shortly thereafter and continued to master both instruments. Throughout his teen years Mel played with a wild assortment of bands and characters Miracle Sheets in rural Missouri. Perhaps no “gig” was as unusual as the job he landed with, in Mel’s own words, “a snake oil salesman.” This flamboyant peddler would pull his ostentatious Pierce Arrow automobile, complete with steer horns installed on the grill, into the center of a small, rural town. Mel would sit on the car and play up a storm on the tenor banjo. Soon after a crowd gathered, the peddler took over and started extolling the miracles of his “wonder elixer.”
In 1933 Mel Bay moved to St. Louis and commenced his professional career. He performed with a lot of local and traveling bands. Additionally, he landed staff guitar employment on various radio stations. Mel fronted his own trio (piano, bass, guitar) and played steadily for 25 years! He was equally adept on most fretted instruments and played mandolin, uke, Hawaiian guitar, tenor and plectrum banjo professionally.
Whilst Mel was actively pursuing his playing career, he continued to tutor as many as 100 students a week. He decided to commence composing instructional books of jazz guitar tabs and jazz guitar tablatures owing to the problem encountered by guitarists at performing great sounding chord forms in rhythm sections and due to the mediocore note reading ability prevalent amongst guitar performers.
Soon after World War 2 Mel was asked to publish instructional tutorials on guitar for soldiers wanting to learn music under the GI Bill. In 1947 Mel formed his own publishing company and authored his landmark initial book titled “The Orchestral Chord System For Guitar”. This book is still in print and continues to be one of the best rhythm guitar chord books available! His “Modern Guitar Method” was authored soon thereafter. For many years Mel traveled from town to town talking to guitar teachers and players and showing them his publications. At one time Mel claims to have known virtually just about every guitar teacher in America on a first name basis! The guitar and Mel Bay’s publications caught on in a big way in the 1950’s. Things have continued to grow ever since.
Mel also used to retail D’Angelico jazz archtop guitars. At any given time he would have 5 or 6 “lying around the house.” Mel played professionally on his D’Angelico New Yorker Model but his favorite guitar was the original Mel Bay Model constructed as a present for him by John D’Angelico. This well-known guitar had all of the main features of the New Yorker but was a “cutaway” model and had a somewhat thinner neck. This same instrument has been pictured on the Mel Bay “Modern Guitar Method” for decades.