William Bay

Interview with William Bay

I conducted this interview via email, and am thankful that Bill Bay was so generous with his time. First a short biographical note:

William Bay received has undergraduate degree in business at Washington University in St. Louis and his MBA at the University of Missouri. He played trumpet and guitar professionally for many years and has authored hundreds of books on music education and performance. As president of Mel Bay Publications he produced thousands of books dealing with an eclectic array of musical styles, genres and instruments, and performed on many audio and video recordings. He is an accomplished composer and arranger. His books have sold in the millions. He has served two terms on the board of directors of the Guitar Foundation of America and was recently inducted into the Missouri Music Hall of Fame.

RM: Bill, I would like to ask you a few questions about you as composer and guitarist. Let’s start with your influences as a guitar player, before looking at your influences as a composer. I suppose your father, Mel Bay, himself an excellent tenor banjo and guitar player, would have been the earliest contact for the guitar? His role as a publisher is well known, but can you tell us a little bit about Mel Bay the guitar player?

WB: Dad was a terrific guitarist. When he was in his early teens and wanted to play the guitar…mid 1920’s, there was little or no literature for the plectrum guitarist. So he discovered that the clarinet and guitar had a similar range and then he bought every clarinet method he could afford and read through them all. He was a terrific reader and because of this he often got the call to play the travelling shows as they came through St. Louis. It used to really irritate him when some of the musicians would make comments like, “I did not know this was a country show…look, we have a guitarist.” So he decided that one of his missions in life was to elevate the level of note reading ability among plectrum guitarists. His influences were Eddie Lang, Carl Kress and Django Reinhardt. I grew up playing the trumpet and was kind of a child prodigy. I remember playing concerts with members of the St. Louis Symphony when I was about 10 and I had a very fine jazz band throughout high school. Among other really fine young players, David Sanborn played in my band. I took up guitar in college at the urging of my father who said, “Son, if you want to stay in this family, you better take up the guitar.” Of course I fell in love with the instrument and it opened up a whole new world of harmony for me. My influences were Johnny Smith, Barney Kessel, Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery.

RM: I mentioned that your dad initially played tenor banjo, and I’m reminded how much an influence tenor and plectrum banjo styles and techniques had on the development of the jazz guitar. One thinks of the likes of Carl Kress, George Van Eps, or more recently, Frank Vignola, an excellent tenor-banjo player. Is that something you were aware of early on?

WB: Yes, Dad loved the tenor banjo and went back to it in later years. The advantage of the tenor banjo early on was that it was loud! Remember this was before the electric guitar. Dad used to joke that he started playing the guitar long before the electric guitar was invented, and that in his day he played a “gas guitar.” To play the tenor banjo really well you needed a very agile and strong left hand because you did so much chord work when soloing. Dad carried that agility over to the plectrum guitar and he could play chords as quickly and easily as many players could play a single string melody. This was important because in the era before the electric guitar, if you took a guitar solo in a band, you needed to play chords on your solo in order to be heard. So most guitarists who cut their teeth on the tenor banjo have really great chops. I think Howard Alden also started on tenor banjo.

RM: What about other guitar players? I recall you once mentioned Johnny Smith to me…George Van Eps also…

WB: Besides the ones I mentioned earlier I used to enjoy a fairly eclectic array of players. Tony Mottola did some wonderful solo work, and Joe Pass was just an awesome player. I remember dad and I attending a concert of a young flamenco player, Juan Serrano, as he was touring the US. His technique blew both of us away. I got to know most all of these players in addition to many others through the publishing company. It was a great experience. I remember having dinner with Johnny Smith and Johnny reminisced that when he was doing those amazing recordings in New York, there was a union rule that you could not take more than three hours to do a recording. So most of those mind boggling solos he did were done in one or at the most two takes straight through.

RM: Guitarists aside, I imagine you must have a collection of high-quality guitars. What is the extent of your collection today, and which, if any, could be described as your No.1?

WB: I have so many guitars…I think it is the curse of the guitarist…you never have enough. It is kind of like what the great American lute player, Ronn McFarlane, said about the era when more and more strings were added to the lute. He said, “When you start adding strings, you never have enough.” I have my dad’s two D’Angelicos which are wonderful. One is the original Mel Bay model and it features an extremely playable, narrow neck. I have a beautiful 7-string guitar made for me by John Buscarino. I have several Bill Moll 7 strings. Bill makes the guitars for John Pizzarelli. Then I have a score of flattop and classic guitars made by the Pimentels in Albuquerque, New Mexico. More recently I got a 10 string nylon guitar from the Pimentels. I enjoy knocking around on that guitar because of the nice fat sounding bass strings. I tune the bottom four strings to D, C, B and A. So just sitting around improvising ( I call it “rhapsodizing”) on that guitar gives me nice pedal tones to hang melodies on in just about any key I want to play.

RM: Rhapsodizing – I like that! Of course, you played and composed for the seven-string archtop guitar, something I’ve never played. The seventh string has a strong lineage in jazz archtop guitar, from George Van Eps, through Bucky Pizarelli, to the amazing Steve Herberman. From my perspective – which might well be misplaced – the popularity of it seems to have wained slightly in recent years, with many players returning to six strings. Do you feel it still has something to offer younger players?

WB: The 7-string guitar fit the needs of guitarists who were and are great rhythm players. George Van Eps, Bucky and his son John Pizzarelli, and more. Since the 7th string was tuned to low A it gave the rhythm player a huge fat chunky sound on 3 note chords using the 7th , 5 th and 4 th strings. I am told that Lenny Breau put the 7 th string on top, above the high E string and and that would offer interesting possibilities. Other players, especially bluegrass and rock players tune the low 7 th string to B and that is a natural extension of the scale. So if you are improvising and have the 7 th string tuned to low B, you don’t even have to think of what you are playing, your fingers automatically just land on the right notes. I think if the interest in the 7-string guitar has waned it is because fewer guitarists are playing that historic rhythmic style. However, I found the 7-string to be a wonderful concert instrument. Having that low A opens up lots of possibilities in doing a concert piece. I believe John Dearman with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet plays a nylon 7-string and I remember Bill Kanengiser saying that the addition of that low A gave him new possibilities when writing arrangements for that great ensemble.

RM: I have been very much enjoying exploring your three latest books, all under the banner of “Achieving Guitar Artistry”. The first volume is of “Linear Etudes”, and I’ve recorded videos of some of those for this website. Can you tell us a little bit about why you wrote that particular volume, before we look at the others? [See page devoted to this book: https://archtopguitar.net/linear-artistry/ ]

WB: First of all let me say that I am very appreciative of your interest in and recordings of these works. I wrote the Linear Etudes book for several reasons. First, I was hearing all these neat melodies bouncing around in my head and wanted to put them on paper to play them. But also, I was and still am frustrated by the lack of good reading material available for or even required of serious plectrum guitar students, even those in degree programs. You know, by starting on trumpet, I really had to learn to play the “old school” way. My teacher had me play every page of the Arbans, St. Jacome, Gatti, Earnest Williams, Herbert L. Clarke and many other methods. By the time I was 12 I had played thousands of pages of trumpet music. Compare that to the material required of or available to the plectrum guitarist. (Now classical players have lots to sink their teeth into.) So Linear Etudes was written to give the guitarist nice sounding etudes to study and play, to help the technical aspects of playing fluently between positions and to once again, provide material which can enhance note reading ability.

RM: I’m going to jump to the third volume in the series, before tracking back to the second. Volume three consists of no less than fifty five “Concert Solos”. Now, when I decided to focus on the acoustic archtop guitar as a solo instrument, I was a bit concerned about the lack of good-quality composed repertoire. Most players improvised around standards or blues forms, which I too enjoy doing, but I also wanted to get my teeth into some well-composed pieces. Now, there are some excellent pieces in Masters Of The Plectrum Guitar (a Mel Bay publication), and a few other pieces here and there, but in total a very small percentage when compared to the classical guitar. Suddenly your magnum opus of no less than fifty-five solos appears, each one of good quality – an incredible contribution to the canon of composed music for the archtop or plectrum guitar! Please tell us about your reasons for putting the book together, and perhaps also say a few words about its contents.

WB: Actually I messed up the table of contents initially and left a solo out. So there are really 56 solos! I always believed the plectrum guitar could be a great concert instrument. The problem was that, as you mention, little repertoire was available and there were few players who could pull it off. I am not even opposed to using an amplified guitar in a concert setting. Johnny Smith was a very good friend of my father’s, and hearing him play his arrangement of Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair, Golden Earrings, or the Maid with the Flaxen Hair convinced me that there were things unique to the plectrum guitar in sound, technique and harmony which could give it a significant place on the concert stage. So about 8 years ago I started writing plectrum solos and published five books…Nocturnes, Preludes, Images, Tangos and Sonatas. Over time I became dissatisfied with those solos because they seemed more improvisational in character than compositional, and they were very difficult. So I went back a number of months ago and picked out the better pieces from those collections and totally reworked those selected solos and added a number of newer works. I think that the 56 solos in that book now give a picture of what the plectrum guitar is capable of on the concert stage. Also, the solos are within the reach, I think, of most guitar majors or serious guitarists. However, I did not use tablature. I feel that if you are good enough to play these concert pieces you should be able to read the music. I have served two terms on the board of the Guitar Foundation of America, the parent organization for classic guitar teachers in North America, and always experienced two divergent emotions. First I was and still am continually pleased by the abundance of new concert material being written for the classic guitar. But then also I am saddened by the total lack of serious concert literature being written for plectrum guitar. My goal in writing the Concert Solos book was to begin a dialog, to provide material suitable for concert performance within the reach of many guitarists and to encourage others to write good solo material for this instrument.

RM: The second volume is simply entitled “Triads”, and consists of triadic studies in all keys, major and minor. I use it daily – one page a day – to help improve my sight reading. But I feel the book has a lot more to offer the would-be improviser and composer for the guitar. I can detect some of the passages find their way into your compositions…

WB: Certainly. I discovered years back the benefit of playing harmonized scales in triad form. It trains the ear to hear logical progressions and allows you to compose or improvise harmonized melodies with ease. Lately (and I don’t mean this as a plug)…I have found benefit in practicing by: (1). Picking a key from the Triad book and playing though it and then (2.) playing all the etudes from the Linear Etudes book in that same key and finally to play 5 to 10 or so solos from the Concert Solos book. I think that is a good workout.

RM: When I play your Linear Etudes and Concert Solos, I’m aware of certain influences, from Bach to Aaron Copeland. Could you talk a little about your compositional influences? And how you have managed to also find your own voice as a composer?

WB: Due to the nature of my job as president of Mel Bay for so many decades I was forced to get into all kinds and styles of music. So lots of influences rubbed off on me. However, I think you always have something in music that stirs your soul. I always was moved by great melodies. Perhaps my years playing trumpet helped with that because with the trumpet you must learn to make a lyrical melody sing. It is like singing. I have written so many things over the years but I think in the last 20 years I started getting serious about finding my own voice as a composer. I think I more or less am getting there. As mentioned earlier, the reworking of many solos composed earlier showed me how my thinking has changed and matured. I think melody is missing in so much of today’s music. It pretty much is “all about the beat.” Now I like rhythm also but melody….well, to give you an example…I heard a retelling of Vaughn Williams’ story on writing his pastoral symphony. He was driving an ambulance in France during World War 1 and suddenly shells started exploding all around him. It seemed like the whole world was exploding. Then as suddenly as it started, it stopped…and in that eerie silence he heard coming from some distance the sound of a female voice singing a wordless melody. And he wrote that into the final movement of his pastoral symphony. That kind of expresses what melody says and means to me.

RM: Not only are you William Bay the guitar player and composer, we should also discuss William Bay the guitar educator. I recently took a good look at the two Complete volumes of the Mel Bay Modern Guitar Method, an extensive revision of your dad’s seminal work. I was pleasantly surprised to see so much in there of use to today’s guitarist, with lots of work on, for instance, quartal harmony. Anyone who has worked through these two volumes would not only be a superb sight reader, but would also be equipped with an encyclopaedic knowledge of chords, progressions, and scales. Is this something you are particularly proud of?

WB: Dad played 4 or 5 nights a week for 20 years straight. (He had a trio of guitar, bass and piano). I remember him coming home in the wee hours and staying and up writing his method. His study was next to my bedroom. I remember him rummaging through piano scores, writing countless solos and duets and overall putting everything he had into the 7-volume method. However, I felt that in places it moved pretty fast and also that so much had come on the music scene since he wrote the method that it needed to be updated. I did not want to take out anything he had written so I created an “expanded” version of the method. I wrote countless etudes and took special care to give lots of material aimed at position playing. I added quite a bit of material on triads, quartal harmony and chordal voice leading. The Mel Bay Modern Guitar Method Complete Edition Parts 1 and 2 (MB30504M & 30505M) now has close to 700 pages of guitar music and everything is available on an online recording. I have to say that I really believe there is nothing like it.

RM: Winding up, can you tell us about your hopes for the archtop guitar in the future? Although often pigeonholed as a swing-jazz guitar, it seems to me to be both that and much more than that. I get the feeling you might also think it has a future?

WB: Yes, archtop and also flattop…plectrum guitar has a future. My dad used to sell the handmade D’Angelico guitars. John D’Angelico was a friend of his. So I grew up having any great plectrum guitarist who was playing in St. Louis come by the house, usually on Sunday afternoon, to play the many D’Angelicos dad had sitting around the house. So I heard so much great guitar being played. Now I realize the excitement and fun of playing in a band and improvising; but I really miss hearing great plectrum guitarists sit down and hold you spellbound while they play wonderful solos. And I don’t mean just solo renditions of the great American songbook as good as those are! Concert material for plectrum guitar can open up a new world for the instrument, players and audience.

RM: Many thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Bill. I’m sure many guitarists will be interested in what you have to say.

Rob MacKillop
16 April, 2017