The truth of Walt Smith is he always wanted to be a Cowboy. Born in Northern California to an ambitious insurance agent he was raised at the Mount Diablo Country Club but he hated the "rich'es" and would escape to a nearby ranch. There he'd dress in old clothes and work hard often hiding who his father was. A local cow hand Pop Smith became a mentor to him in ranching and taught him the business.
My Father Walt Smith started into music at the ripe old age of five years old. Classical Piano lessons taught in the old school way of a ruler over the knuckles and you played it right...period.
Piano didn't travel well on a horse and dad soon picked up the guitar. He caught onto the Steel Guitar and picked it up so fast that his instructor used him on the radio as a prodigy. Playing in honky-tonks and local bars he dove deep into Western Swing but his classical piano back ground gave him the ability to pick up most any instrument the band needed that night.
Mean while his father wanted him to be a business man and forced him to attend Berkley and join a Fraternity. Dad hated it and at a time everyone wore suites and ties to school; he would show up in boots and a Levi jacket which labeled him a misfit rebel.
On a trip to Ojai California with some "bad boy" cowboys he spotted a girl stealing oranges in an orchard they were driving by and started asking who she was. He tracked down her brother Jack Selby at a bar and Jack told him her name was Babe, Dad was like, "no, I mean her real name." Turned out she hated the real name because it was Mildred so even her brother didn't know it. Well he finally got a date and found out she was going to Berkley too.
Elwood Smith - Walt's father - this photo speaks a thousand words
to anyone who has wanted to be a musician (and cowboy) under a business man fatherBeing an opportunist business man Walt's father sold his insurance company and followed Walt to Arizona to start a huge long staple cotton ranch to supply the war. Walt helped build the ranch that became one of the biggest in the U.S. and part of the ranch John Wayne eventually purchased. But before the big pay off - Walt was infected with a virus from the dust called Valley Fever and nearly died. He moved back to a Ojai with his family to live in a converted chicken coop and barely could support himself teaching music lessons. The idea roots of Melobar started to be born at this time.
Steven Sherman Smith and Doug Smith were born during this time. Dad rebounded buying and selling alfalfa hay and by the beginning of the 60's had built a dream house in Ojai and had a large ranch East in an area called Cuyama.
This was the "60's" family before I was born
the original four sons Steven Sherman, John Selby, Doug, and Walt Jr
For everyone- the 60's were a better time in business and my brothers attended private schools and went on to Princeton and Stanford. But now the 60's - and Melobar - changes everything for the Smiths...
Through the late 40's and 50's Dad always played around in the music business. As documented in articles, he actually purchased the first pitch changing device for the steel guitar from Kenneth H. Clark for the Harmolin. This interest brought him into contact with other people working on Steel guitars in Southern California. His first contact with Leo Fender was standing at a NAMM booth (used to be held in hotels), I think it was in Chicago but dad remembers a Music Store Dealer looking at the first Telecastor and making snide remarks like, "Fender, who names a guitar after a car part?" (Wish I could ask that dealer that question now-smile). Ed Driver, one of the key Fender men became a close friend and Dad talked to Leo many times about the first lap steel ideas when Fender was building the Stringmaster and other lap steels.
He needed some help with building parts and that took him to a small shop with two brothers, Ed and Rudy Dopyera. If anyone did more to encourage Dad to keep trying on Melobar; it was Rudy. To the day Dad died he talked about Rudy and that he was one of the closest friends he'd ever known.
My first memories of a guitar shop is watching Dobros being built at age seven or eight. Ed and Rudy's sister Gabe was a huge part of Dobro but I never see anyone giving her any credit in all the books about Dobro. She was the business person that kept it going and a good friend to me through the sale of Dobro to Gibson.
And with this the real Melobar story begins to become a mad rush...the story isn't always pretty but I believe the truth needs to be said first and foremost.
The first Melobars were around 1965 - about the same time I was born.
In 1967 (we all know that as a calm year in music) Dad wanted to build a professional level Melobar and went to a friend, Semie Mosely who had started building guitars near Bakersfield, about a half hour from where Dad lived. Semie built around 300 using his pickups, knobs and bodies.
John Selby (we call him Selby - which has confused a lot of people because mom did not want to be called Mildred, and Babe was a big too informal, so musicians called her moma melobar or...Selby) Selby was brother number two of five. Selby is an extremely creative person and came back from Princeton one year as dad was chopping off the necks of guitars and messing with what would become Melobar. Selby is an author who now lives in Hawaii and has over 24 published books. But he became involved in Dad's project as well as Steven Sherman (used to be called Sherm - then became a pastor and changed it back to Steven - more confusion).
I will not comment a lot about this history because I was five years old. But the dog poop hit the fan for Melobar during this time.
Selby actually got the new Mosrite Melobars into the hands of people like Pat Boone, (I was actually baby-sat by the daughters), The Grateful Dead, Rusty Young with Poco and even got it on the Jefferson Airplane Album Crown of Creation etc...
Rusty Young of Poco
John Selby Smith actually did more to get Melobar into the Pro's hands than anyone and worked with Dad on the designs, but Egos clashed and Dad did not want to give anyone else credit or work with the drug era of Rock and Roll as explained in a fascinating account John Selby gives in the Fun Melobar Facts page of Rock Legends like The Grateful Dead to the Mommas and the Poppas etc trying Melobar (worth checking that page out if you're into old 60's Rock History)
The Guitar Rusty Young is playing was one of six customs John Selby modified.
In this photo below, Dad, Ted and John are meeting David Lindley for the first time and John is explaining about a device (John came up with but Dad patented) called the thumb bar, an extra bar tip worn on the thumb to grab other notes. But we are getting a head of the story and will come back to this shot.
Dad was close friends with a neighbor in Ojai - Sheb Wooley - who can be seen as an actor in movies getting punched by John Wayne in War Wagon and was the Principle in Hoosiers.Sheb wrote one hit song in his life...Flying Purple People Eaters - so Dad in fun built him this Purple Melobar that made it into Guitar World as a Center Fold (Sept. 1989) years later.
Note: there is a lot of info out there that as said before, is nice to Walt...but just wrong, LOL, here is one that called him Walt Melob, the inventor LINK
- just as Selby is getting it going, Dad starts visiting musicians in their homes; sees sex and drugs and stuff a cowboy will not put up with. This is not what Dad had in mind. He was a music teacher and wanted people to learn music and be able to play guitar easily by using a bar instead of learning finger positions. The acid rock era made him literally run for the hills - the hills of Idaho. At this same time Dad's good friend and mentor Pop Smith has been murdered and the Ojai area was becoming infested with drugs. Walt was actually a deputy sheriff in Ventura county and he can't touch the murderer because the man claimed insanity. As third generation Californians...we leave it all behind.
1970 - Walt basically shuts Melobar down and moves as far from the drug scene as he can. Melobar almost disappears and that is why Rusty called his Melobar the Bear and Jefferson Airplane called it the Chicken Guitar on their album. Dad and John Selby have a falling out about Melobar and John goes on with is life as a successful author
The first documented publication of the Melobar was in Tom Wheeler's book American Guitars p275 that talked about the above history and had a picture of the first Melobar acoustic.
Dad didn't care - he just flat didn't want to be a part of what was going down in Southern California at that time and he went back to his real love - ranching. Bought a 3,000 acre ranch in Payette Idaho, then later moved to a smaller ranch in Weiser Idaho
The ranch in Payette Idaho in the 70's
End of the Seventies Steve left to become a pastor and I (Ted) at age fourteen began working on the guitars kept in a shop in Payette. These were Rosac models. In the seventies after Mosrite shut down a group of his employees started a factory called Rosac. They built another 300 guitars for Dad which we modified to be a ten string easy play guitar - outside 6 strings a E major and inside four strings a E minor.
This is also the famous "dumpster guitars" story. We had stored these guitars for over ten years and Dad was never going to sell them. The keys were junk as well as the pickups so Dad said "take them to the dump and let them bull doze them so we never get a bad rap from someone getting a hold of one of these and saying they played a Melobar and it was no good" I haul them to the dump where the sign says NO SALVAGING presuming they are going to get bull dozed and guess what - the dump makes money on them. They were a couple dozen of these metal acoustics ( I saved 10 at the time) and Electrics with small standard bodies and single pickups.
A new problem arose as I became more involved. Melobar was a joke to everyone. No one knew it had ever been played by professionals and there was no way to prove it because they never gave Melobar any credit. Now we know even the Rolling Stones and Jimmy Page played Melobar back in the late 60's and 70's but at that time we were the ridicule of everyone.
1980 John Selby came back to the Weiser ranch and finally had an out and out with Dad and cleared the air. With John back there was new talk of getting professional endorsements to get Melobar accepted into the music world so the beginner we were trying to sell to, would be proud to own a Melobar.
There are rumors of a new pickup manufacturer for Steel Guitars that can handle ten strings. We get a hold of one called the Lawrence L-705. It fits perfectly on the Melobar neck.
Dad goes to L.A. to talk with some musicians and they stress Melobar needs a new body style like Flying-V or Explorer style. John Selby comes up with the name Powerslide (now stolen by Peavey). John helps convert three barns in Weiser into guitar shops and we start building these new types of Melobars in 1980. With five guitars built we head down to the L.A. NAMM show in January of 1981. (caption under the picture below it wrong...it was '81, I graduated in '82)
The world for Melobar forever changes in three days...
This picture (I still don't know who took it) captured the moment Melobar went from obscurity to something people were talking about. I met Leo Fender at this show, Ed Driver brought him over from the G&L booth and Leo shook Dad's hand and said, "Walt, you finally made it."
Fun shot with Dad and Arlen Roth
This began the Powerslide era where we focused just on professional musicians. John Selby moved back to L.A. and we started building for real at the Weiser Idaho shop.
I nearly missed my own HS graduation I became so wrapped up into Melobar.
The First Notorious Four pictured below were painted by Wayne Jerrett - I can remember building these like it was yesterday - they ended up with Brooks&Dunn and the Rolling Stones
Especially this Explorer - There is a great story about this getting to the Rolling Stones we'll post on the Fun Melobar Fact page.
Now we were serious about trying to sell Melobars
Steve and Ted at Atlanta NAMM
But they were NOT selling...
Dad insisted we only build ten string models and that they had complex tunings that could give the player 7ths, 9ths, minors, etc. He was still wanting to build the Ez play Melobar that was more like a piano in ability than an electric Dobro or Lap Steel - to him it was a waste to not make the musician learn to play HIS WAY.
Because we were not selling; John Selby convinced Dad that I should go down to L.A. (at age 17) and rep that area. That was an education. Send a country boy from Idaho into SIR studios in the heart of Hollywood - let's just say I had to grow up fast in that environment. I did get West L.A. Music and Valley Arts to take the first Melobars.
Guitar Player Magazine gave us a five page spread called THE MELOBAR STORY Strap-On Steels by Dan Forte and that propelled us to an international level of exposure.
Guitar World had a Center Fold with Melobar as the month of April
Now we had some professional musicians saying Melobar was cool Dad; went right back to wanting to build his idea of a guitar that was as complex as the piano but still simple for a beginner to play.
This gave birth to the Soft Body Powerslide 88 model (created January 1988)
Unfortunately Dad got into a deal with some unscrupulous people who he trusted with his equipment and inventory he'd purchased in guitar necks, a lot of older Melobars etc. When he died, the main manager called an hour later and literally said, "Hey Ted, sorry about your dad, now about the business, as far as we are concerned we own it." The company owner, tried to force mom to sell out, brow beating her to tears more than once until finally I got into it and had police officers help us get our equipment back, which they cut the cord end off of out of spite. Really a terrible time for us. They poured oil on the necks so they were unusable and never did give the older Melobars back but stole them and sold them claiming to be great friends of the Melobar Smith's on the Mel O Bar facebook page in 2014. Crazy how people can be so bad and think they are so good.
The Powerslide 88 was to be Dad's ultimate completion of his goal - a guitar a Pro could get a lot out of and a beginner could easily play. Roy Clark came on board as a terrific spokesman.
The guitar had everything Dad had wanted - good pickups and sound (E-66, Grovers etc.) His new patented soft foam body, a floating fret guide that went up and down under your bar so you could literally feel the frets and always be right on pitch, and a tuning that had a G6 on the outside and a C chord on the inside four strings separated by the fret guide. You could play a I IV V chord pattern with one move of the bar or a minor or 7th without moving the bar.
Walt Smith accomplished what he set out to build in a musical instrument but he never saw the public accept it. He'd burnt up his family fortune and his health in the attempt to see his dream full filled. Right after the 1989 NAMM show I returned from a disappointing showing of the new 88 model to find him on his death bed. I didn't have the heart to tell him the public had rejected it. I'm glad I didn't because an hour after I left him my mother called. He had just died of a massive heart attack.
This is one of the last known photos of Walt Smith with his 88 model
Walt never saw the web, but if he could see it now with over 20 pages listed about his guitar idea and effort to create something new - if he could have heard his close friend Troy Klontz on stage with Brooks & Dunn playing one of the original Melobars he built on Boot Scoot'n Boogie.
I believe he would smile and say, "we roped that one boys."
Walt was remembered by dear friend Dan Forte in the Guitar Player Magazine Article
MELOBARS BASEMENT GENIUS Sept 1991
This article ended one generation of Melobar but started a new generation under
Smith Family Music
as My Mother, His Son, and His Grandson continued on...
but that's another chapter under
Smith Family Music- after '91