William Bay: 7-String Guitarist and Composer
William Bay was the president and CEO of Mel Bay Publications, which he took over from his father, Mel Bay, a guitarist who’d founded the company in 1947. Although he began as a trumpet player, William began playing guitar while in college, and has been picking ever since. During his tenure at Mel Bay Publications, which began in 1968, he authored over 200 books and recorded material to accompany them for over 30 years. For more than a decade, he has played 7-string, drawn in by its extended range, thanks to the added low string.
Now semi-retired, Bay has been devoting time to composing and recording original pieces for guitar, both solos and duets. His solo CD, Guitar Images: 25 Acoustic Guitar Solos, and duet collection, Acoustic Guitar Portraits: Contemporary Compositions for Two Acoustic Guitars, showcase his playing in different settings and a range of compositional styles. On the duet CD, he performed both parts, with the exception of two pieces performed with his son Collin. (A 7-string player, Collin has a degree in music and is head of artist relations and product development at Mel Bay Publications. William’s most recent solo CD, Psalms For Guitar, features compositions based on 13 verses from Psalms and performed on his Moll 7-string flat-top. For a sample of the richness of William’s 7-string music, you listen to this recording of “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken”, performed on his Tom Bills 7-string flat-top (low string tuned to A). In addition to many compositions, William has authored many etudes and recorded a Christmas CD entitled Guitar Christmas Portraits.
Now that you’re semi-retired, do you have more time to play guitar?
I’m doing work that I enjoy doing more. I get more time to write. I spent so many years writing things that were didactic in nature, so now it’s sort of like art for art’s sake. I get to do things that I want to write, regardless of doing a market study to see if anyone’s going to buy it. It’s kind of a liberating feeling. You can kind of let your dreams run with you. I started out as a trumpet player, from the age of five on, so I was always a good reader. I took up the guitar in college, and one of the things I wanted to do was get away from the printed page a little more.
What was your initial guitar inspiration?
When I was little, in the late ’40s, early ’50s, when I was five or six, it was the early days of TV. So live music was everywhere. Dad was one of the main guitar players, if not the main guitar player, here in St. Louis, and he knew all of these musicians passing through town. There were always big-name players passing through town. They were all friends of dad’s. He’d frequently bring home the guitar players for dinner, and they’d sit around and play. So I heard a lot of great guitar playing from guys like George Van Eps and Johnny Smith. These guys were all friends of dad’s.
What a treat.
It set the bar pretty high, I’ll tell you that. I consider myself more of a composer and arranger, because I’m just not in a league with guys like Johnny Smith or Bucky Pizzarelli. Those are virtuosos.
They’re like on another plane.
Yeah. I worked with George Van Eps on his Harmonic Mechanisms book. George played with everybody you could name, from Benny Goodman to Harry James. Everybody! And Bucky’s kind of the same way.
When did you start playing 7-string?
I had been playing guitar for about 10 years, and I gave it a try, and it didn’t work out. I think it was mainly the instrument. There weren’t a lot of 7-string guitars around, and I picked up an old Gretsch 7-string. This one was kind of beat up, and the pickups – this one sounded kind of country twangy, and it had no acoustic sound. It just didn’t work. Then I did all these projects with Bucky and Howard Alden, and John Pizzarelli. So I was familiar with hearing what they were doing.
Strangely, what really get me into writing was listening to lute players. We did a film of Ronn McFarlane, the great American lute player, and just the sound he got out of those low lute strings captivated me. And the way I write music and the way I approach the guitar is not like a player like Bucky, who’s such a virtuoso, moving up and down the neck. I kind of use the 7th string as a pedal tone, and base a lot of compositions on it as a foundation. Listening to a lot of lute players, I began to realize that it would be nice to have that low string, so I started acquiring some instruments. Once I got into it, I realized it wasn’t that hard. It came pretty easy. And once you become acquainted with the 7, there’s no problem whatsoever going back to the 6.
To a 6-string player, it would seem easy to be off by one string when playing a 7-string guitar.
I heard Ronn McFarlane play at the GFA [Guitar Foundation of America] Convention in Austin a couple of years ago. Between pieces he was talking about the history of the lute, and how it descended from the oud, and the Crusaders brought it back from the Middle East, put frets on it, and so on. And he talked about how they kept adding strings. He said, “All you guitar players know that once you start adding low strings, you never stop.” It’s very true. Once you get addicted to that extra range, that low sound, you’re hooked on it. When I first heard George Van Eps on 7-string, it was amazing how much extra dimension it added. He called his guitar “lap piano.” He played it a lot like stride piano, and was very judicious in his notes. He never overplayed the instrument, and he had this unique style that was so easy to listen to.
To find playable 7-string guitars must have been hard for you.
It was tough. Ibanez made a flat-top 7-string, and it was reasonably priced, about a thousand dollars. In fact, I still use it. It has an incredibly fat sound. The first piece on the Guitar Portraits CD starts out with that 7-string, and it sounds huge. So that kind of gave me a way to get used to the instrument. I have a bunch of them now. I have a Pizzarelli model by Bill Moll, and John Buscarino made me a really pretty arch-top. There’s an arch-top builder in St. Louis named Tom Bills who made a 7-string for my son Collin, and then he made a flat-top 7-string for me that’s really good. He doesn’t put the soundhole on the guitar’s face. It’s on the shoulder. He feels it gives more surface area for the top to vibrate, and so he can get a bigger sound with a smaller body. I loaned that guitar to my son Collin to take to college, and I’ve never gotten it back. Collin played that on the recording. He’s got a bunch of 7-strings too.
There are a lot of people making 7-strings now. Bill Moll made two of what I call travel guitars for me. I asked him if he could make a small-bodied guitar that could deliver a big sound. He just laughed. But he did it. I don’t know how he braced it. He did a great job on it. It’s a flat-top, about 3/4 size, and it sounds huge. In fact, on my solos CD, Guitar Images, almost all the pieces are recorded on that guitar. We called it a travel guitar because we didn’t know what to call it, but it’s a small size. You could put it over your seat on an airplane. You probably couldn’t do it now, because there are so few flights and you’d never get it up there. It’s a really interesting guitar.
It’s about a 3″ thick body. It’s pretty much like a student 3/4-size classical guitar, but it records extremely well. When you record with a big-bodied 7-string, especially a flat-top, you almost get too many overtones. This one, you don’t have that problem. You do have to be a little more careful when you play high up on the fingerboard because you don’t have the tolerances, so if you slightly bend a string the intonation is going to be out a little more than you want. So I have to be a little careful there. But it’s a great guitar. [Note: You can see Bay with two of his Moll guitars at the Moll Instruments website: http://mollinst.com/pages/Resources/Site/Endorsements/Bill_Bay.]
Bill used to work for St. Louis Music Supply, repairing violins and stuff, and he got into making guitars. John Pizzarelli was touring, and while he was in town, his Benedetto broke. Bill fixed it for him. One thing led to another, and he made a guitar for John. He wanted a laminated guitar so that it would be very stable, and he could throw it in with luggage and not worry about it. That Pizzarelli model is an amazing laminated guitar. [Ed. Note: John Pizzarelli has five Moll guitars, including both laminated-top and carved-top models.] The laminated model is as loud as an unamplified acoustic dreadnought.
Do you usually mic your guitars to record, or do you use built-in transducers?
No, I don’t use amplification. I usually use two mics, so it’s recorded in stereo.
The bottom holds up really well, but it doesn’t get too boomy.
Yeah, I’ve worked with the same recording engineer for years [Greg Trampe, at Music Masters Studios, in St. Louis, Missouri], and he really knows how to do it. It’s two different microphones. I should know more about the microphones, but I don’t. It’s an old mic. He says that they make a newer one, but everyone wants the old one. I can understand it, because it’s got such a warm sound, too. [Ed. Note: Greg Trampe, who has worked with William or more than 30 years on many projects, says, “We used my favorite setup for solo acoustic guitar, two old AKG 452EB condenser microphones in an X/Y pattern, about a foot in front of the guitar – one pointing at the neck right above where the neck meets the body, to the high E string side. The second mic points just behind the bridge. One must be careful to check for any phase cancelation with this technique. I rolled off about 3dB at 100Hz of the second mic, because of the boom of the guitar at that close proximity. Slight compression and limiting was used on the mix in Pro Tools.”]
Do you tune to a low A or a low B?
Both. I use A when I’m playing in A, A minor, D, D minor, or F# minor. I tune it up to B when I’m playing in B, B minor, E, or E minor. I’m talking about a kind of concert music here. When I play jazz-type chords, A makes more sense. Because anywhere you play on the fingerboard, you have a fat bass note. You just duplicate the fifth string. For example, you’re playing an Fmaj7 chord with the C on top, and you’re up at the 8th fret, normally you’d be playing an F bass, which would be at the 8th fret, fifth string, and it sounds thin. With a 7-string, you just reach over and play that same F you’d get on the sixth string, 1st fret. So you always have a fat bass note. But when you improvise, the low B tuning makes all the sense in the world because it’s an extension of the scale and you can play all these new notes and just hit them automatically.
I used to think somebody should make something like a Keith-type [banjo] tuner for the 7-string so that when you’re playing rhythm, you can have it tuned to A, and when you solo, you hit that tuner and it’s up to B. Then you’d have the best of both worlds.
Do you use heavy-gauge strings?
I used to. Then a guitar repair guy told me that I was destroying the tension on the neck; it’s just crazy because the seventh string is just so much fatter than all the others. So I cut back, and I found that I like the sound way better. I use a .070 or .072 gauge. I used to use something like a .090.
That seems much heavier than you’d find on most electric 7-strings, where there’s usually a .054 or .056 on the bottom.
I’d think that would work. But guys like Bucky, Howard Alden, and John Pizzarelli, I’m sure, use something around a .070.
You probably need a little more mass to get the top vibrating properly.
Yeah, I’d think so. A .070 really works for me.
Did the change to 7-string present any challenge, particularly the neck width?
A little bit. You’re used to some things. I used to play chord forms where I’d wrap my thumb around the neck to get at the bass note, and you can’t really do that on a 7-string. So you do learn to alter a little bit, but then again the traditional 7-string neck is no wider than a classical guitar neck. And I’ve got a number of 7-strings with thinner necks. Barry Galbraith used to encourage his students to get a wider neck because he thought it would help make technique easier, picking easier, and so on. I agree. I think there’s some truth to that.
For the right hand?
Yes. You’re not hitting the wrong string as often, and it tends to give you a little more room, even for the left hand, in terms of single-note phrases and so on.
Do you mostly fingerpick, or do you use a pick?
I use a pick. Even when I play nylon-string guitar, I use a pick. If you use the right kind of pick on a nylon-string, you sound like you’ve got the greatest tone in the world. You sound like Segovia, really. I use a really thick pick on nylon-string.
Composing duets for two 7-string guitars must present some challenges. Did you work them out as solo pieces first and then arrange for two guitars?
No. Writing has always come fairly easy to me, and I’m grateful for that. I just start to hear a melodic line, and then another part of me says, what complements this line? I would think in terms of a dialog. If I’m going in one direction, I try to think of what could go in another direction for the other guitar that won’t get in the way, that will support it. And sometimes it’s a “call and answer” thing, sometimes one guitar lays down a very sustained line while the other plays something more active. But it’s not really a mathematical process. It kind of flows. Now, I go back and revise; it’s not total improvisation. I write stuff down pretty quickly, and then I’ll let it sit, and I’ll go back and redo some things. Each time I play it, I might make a change here or there, change a little voicing. That’s the process.
I got into writing duets after manning our booth at the GFA convention in Ithaca, New York, one summer three or four years ago. There was a classical duo there, from England, called Eden Stell Guitar Duo [Ed. Note: Check them out on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/edenstell]. Their concert was just captivating to me. A lot of it was so impressionistic, and the mood they created and the sounds they created with their guitars was just so fascinating. So I sat in the booth and actually wrote a couple of duets. One is the second piece on my CD, called “Lucia.” I wrote that in the convention booth between customers. That got me hooked on writing duos.
You don’t hear so many guitar duos today.
In the classical guitar world, you do. Not in jazz or in many other forms.
It’s unfortunate, because two guitars together can be very effective.
Oh, yeah. When Bucky and John play, it’s just great to hear them. They just know what each other’s thinking. They’re so tight when they play together. I remember hearing the CDs when Herb Ellis and Joe Pass played together; it was always fun to hear them.
One thing I’m interested in now…The plectrum guitar is an underutilized instrument – in fact, a never utilized instrument in classical. I hear all these classical players playing lute pieces and other pieces but never on plectrum guitar. So that’s kind of a mission I’m on. I think it would be good for some universities to have guitarists playing some modern compositions with a pick. I think it would help their playing.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
I remember talking with Ben Monder [http://www.benmonder.com], and he writes really incredible pieces. He said, “I don’t listen to a lot of jazz. I listen to a lot of classical composers.” I’d say it’s the same with me. I listen to a lot of different things, from Gregorian chant to lute music to very contemporary compositions. I get feelings from all that, so I can’t say there’s a particular guitar player. In fact, in developing your own voice, it’s important to steer away from listening to just one particular source too much, or you’ll find yourself writing it into your compositions without knowing you’re doing it.
Many guitarists and bassists listen to sax music to get inspiration that doesn’t fall normally under the fingers and to learn other approaches to melody.
Especially in the jazz guitar realm, guitarists listen to sax players and trumpet players because guitar players tend to not know how to breathe. On a wind instrument, it’s natural. It helps your phrasing. And I had to learn that in writing for guitar. You have to back off a little bit and put rests in where you might be able to write in a musical phrase, but it would be too busy.
When you record, do you ever work with a click track to keep the parts synchronized?
Yeah. Frequently when I do duets, I will use a click because the interplay is too complex between the two parts and it would be impossible without a click track. I never use a click track for the solo pieces, though. It can be very frustrating, because you want to play with more freedom. I turn it down and just use it to keep me on track so that I’m not taking too many liberties with the time, because that just won’t work on a tight duet.
You’ve been playing 7-string for over many years, you’ve done books on it, and so on. What have you learned that you could pass along to others who want to get into 7-string guitar?
The first thing is, don’t be afraid of it. It’s easier than you think it is. I tell people it’s like having a full-grown Great Dane in your house; you don’t bawl it out right away. I learned by starting out playing things in the key of A, using the seventh string sparingly, and then I learned a little more, and then I ventured into other keys. It takes two or three weeks, and you get comfortable with it. A lot of people think that by picking up 7-string, it will do something to your 6-string playing. It really doesn’t. I switch back to 6-string without any problem. The only thing you’ll find is that you sometimes want to reach toward that seventh string for certain chord voicings, and it won’t be there.
Sort of like riding a bicycle, but missing a pedal.
What about your right-hand technique?
I see no difference, really, in my right hand. Your picking is the same. The main difference is in the left hand. It certainly adds range to the instrument. I liken it to an orchestra where the lowest instrument is a cello, and then you suddenly add a section of string basses. Now you’ve added a huge element of drama to your orchestra. To me, that’s what the seventh string does. It sort of relates to the classical guitar world, where a lot are playing 10-string guitars now, which is a bit much for me.
Like Narciso Yepes?
Yeah, and the whole society for 10-string. And you have some players like Steven Bennett, who are reviving the harp guitar. It’s sort of the same thing, with those low strings. Adding a seventh string isn’t a lot of change, but it sure does expand what you can do with the instrument.
Have you ever played a 7-string solidbody?
Yeah. My son Collin has a Buscarino Jazzcaster 7-string. It’s got one soundhole, but it’s basically a solidbody. Then he has another that’s like a Gibson ES-335 that John [Buscarino] made for him, which is also a 7-string. That’s the one Collin plays on gigs. It’s got a great sound. It’s got a Lindy Fralin pickup on it. It’s very loud.
It seems Collin got a head start on a collection by acquiring one of your guitars.
Yeah, it’s a problem. You can never have just one.
It’s funny how guitars can become an addiction.
They are! I can see why there are so many makers who build these handmade guitars that are incredibly good.
Do you ever play outside the studio?
No. I really did most of my gigging on trumpet. I’ve always been very active in recording. Everything we wrote in the publishing company, we recorded, so I had a lot of playing going on. I’m still doing that. In fact, I’m in the studio tomorrow. But in terms of doing gigs, no, I don’t do that anymore.
So many guitarists have learned from your dad’s instruction book. Have you ever thought of reworking it for 7-string?
That’s an idea. We have put out a number of different methods, probably the most complete one is Chris Buzzelli’s method [Mel Bay Complete 7-String Guitar Method].
I did rework all seven volumes of his book and put a lot of new stuff in it; it’s called Mel Bay’s Modern Method Expanded Edition. You know, I’m not sure that 7-string will ever be a mainstream instrument. It opens possibilities for the guitar, but I’m not sure that for the kid off the street who wants to pick up a guitar and play a few Beatles tunes, a 7-string will work. It works for the guy who’s been playing for a while and has a bit of a vision of going somewhere or getting a unique sound. It’s not a beginner’s tool.