Begining Guitar: The Mel Bay Method

Aug 6, 2000 (Updated Sep 23, 2007)

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The Bottom Line One of the best, though dated, guitar instructional series available. Very thorough on chords and chord-soloing. Update with more current music.

Beginning guitarists have to get started somewhere, and the place they had might as well get started at is the Mel Bay study method. This is a seven-volume guitar course that will change the neophyte into a solid intermediate/advanced guitarist. Younger students--those who start from the ages of 8 to 11 or so--should take three or four years to complete the course. Older or more motivated students should take two years or so. The series emphasizes repetition and a slow, careful examination of the essential elements of the instrument. Although it is designed primarily for players of jazz and standard music, rock musicians will learn the tools of their trade in these books.

Volume 1 begins with a steady walk-through of the six strings and introductory first-position chords in the keys of C and G, and easy confidence building pieces that kid the student that he is playing something. Other topics include basic time signature, including dotted notes, and duets for the student and teacher.

Volumes 2 and 3 introduce more sophisticated topics such as alternate picking, triplets, and 3/8 time. Most of the volumes, however, takes the student through the important major keys, their I/IV/V7 chords and alternate minors, and introduces more difficult chord solos. By the end of Volume 3, the student will know most of the major, minor and dominant 7th chords in the first through third positions and will have been introduced to scale theory and chord structure fundamentals. The student will be an intermediate guitarist upon completing this volume.

Volume 4 takes the player into more difficult territory. The chord and song studies will be played all the way to the 15th fret or so. The student will learn the important inversions of all of the major, minor, dominant and diminished 7th and augmented chords along the neck.

So that raises a question: hey, buffoonery, just what is an inversion and why do I need to know it? Let's take a C chord, which has three notes, C, E and G. That chord is first introduced in the first position, but can naturally be played all the way up the neck. However, the order of the notes will be changed, depending on the position--it might be E, C, G, it might be G, C, E, whatever. The order is important because, among other reasons, you may wish to play different inversions depending upon the notes you wish to emphasize or the role you are playing, e.g. lead vs. rhythm.

The remaining three volumes introduce additional topics, but nothing that is intellectually more challenging that the topics already covered. Volume 5 has a position by position study of the major, minor and 7th chords and is very important. Topics in Volume 6 include minor 7th and 7th dim 5th chords. Volume 7 concludes with major and minor 6ths, 9th, 11th, 9-6 and 13th chords. More sophisticated effects such as glissandos are introduced in all of these volumes and all of the major and minor scales will have been covered along with pieces of increasing difficulty and interest.

The student will be a solid guitarist when this series is completed. He will be able to perform competently either alone or in ensemble and will not embarrass himself in public. He will also be a strong sight reader.

I do not think that this series is perfect. First, although the student will play up and down the neck, I don't think the books do as good a job at position studies as they could, which is why I recommend a good position study series like Emil Sholle's "Higher Frets" as an important supplement to really train the student. I also think the work on scales in wholly inadequate and ignores the required training in playing scales up and down the neck.

Finally, much of the music is boring and dated. (The series was written in the 40's and 50's, which is part of the problem. The other part is that most music that younger students want to play is still under copyright, and gaining the rights for these songs would probably be costly). Rock and rollers will grit their teeth through this entire series. Moreover, it ignores many of the essential parts of rock guitar, such as bends and different types of vibrato as well as power chords. So what? We all have to be apprentices sometime.

Each book will cost about $5.95, and you can get the whole set in one volume from Mel Bay direct ( for about $30. Of course, you will need a lot of supplements--chord and scale studies, technique books, more interesting music--and you can see my recommendations under my beginning electric guitar opinion. But Mel Bay is a good place to start, and will take you a long way down the road to competence.

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Gibson ES-333 Memphis Style Hollow Body
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