Luthier and PG columnist Jol Dantzig pays homage to the Ventures' lead guitarist who helped shape instrumental rock and electric-guitar history.
Guitarist Nokie Edwards passed away on March 12 from complications after hip surgery. He was 82. Best known for his groundbreaking work with the Ventures, Edwards was not a household name—but he should be. His impact upon the electric guitar scene is felt in every type of music.
Born in 1935 in Lahoma, Oklahoma, Nole “Nokie” Edwards began playing at an early age, encouraged by his musical family. By his mid 20s, Edwards had relocated to Washington State, where he performed in a succession of country acts, including one with a young Buck Owens. It was a chance meeting with guitarists Bob Bogle and Don Wilson that led to the formation of a new group more focused on instrumental rock and popular music. With Edwards on bass, the group began their journey as the Ventures in 1959.
Their first album was recorded that year in a home studio and released on Dolton Records in 1960 with such low expectations that the band wasn’t even shown on the cover. Surprisingly, it yielded a million-selling single: a cover of Johnny Smith’s “Walk Don’t Run.” The Ventures’ version became the de facto electric guitar jam for thousands of garage bands that followed in their wake. By the time their second album arrived, Edwards had switched to guitar—first a Telecaster and then a Mosrite—and a series of 12 top-selling albums followed, until 1968. Although the 1970s proved tough, the Ventures remained popular overseas—particularly in Japan—and have persevered (with personnel changes) until the present.
Although musicologists might argue that Edwards’ country-fueled and steel-guitar influenced licks owed more to country than pop or rock, there is no denying that Edwards’ twangy tone, wang-bar glides, and staccato riffing paved the way for the California surf bands of the 1960s. The Beach Boys often cited the Ventures as an influence.
The Ventures made a career by performing and recording instrumental versions of the pop songs of the day, but it was the power and tone of Edwards’ guitar, slightly distorted and dripping with lush reverb, that gave the band its signature sound and driving appeal. Although the Ventures were chameleons who could tackle upbeat rockers, classic melodies, and melancholy ballads, it remained up to Edwards to create the chord-melody and single-note lines that stayed faithful to the song while still displaying enough guitar gymnastics to stamp the band’s identity on anything they played. If you want a clear example of this, compare the Ventures Live in Japan ’65 version of “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” to the original ballet score by Richard Rodgers. Edwards reasoned that a good song should be simple enough to hum along to—a philosophy he employed on hits like “Perfidia,” “Telstar,” and “Red River Rock.” It made the Ventures international stars—and so big in Japan that they outsold the Beatles there during their early heyday.
Nokie Edwards was a humble man who often acknowledged that it was the fans that gave him such a wonderful life and opportunity to follow his passion for music. The surf bands that rode the wave of sound the Ventures made famous looked up to him as a mentor, and Edwards was generous with his time and expertise. Bassist Randy Nauert of the seminal L.A. surf band the Challengers, acknowledged his influence. “The Ventures had been a part of the creative juices that inspired us as kids to learn to play electric-guitar music,” he recalls. While Nauert was recording the hit song “Mr. Moto” with the Challengers, Edwards showed him a better bass part. “Nokie was a generous, talented, and gifted man,” Nauert says. “I still play Nokie’s bass part when I play ‘Mr. Moto’ today.”
Nokie Edwards takes the lead on the Ventures version of Rogers and Hart’s “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue”—a definitive vehicle for the band’s early-to mid ’60s chugging-rhythm-and-twangy-lead recipe. Edwards, rhythm guitarist Don Wilson and bassist Bob Bogle are playing Mosrite Ventures Model guitars.
Edwards pursued a solo career with moderate success, but it was with the Ventures where his aggressive-yet-playful style really took flight. Edwards had a knack for shifting between riffing and walking the melodic line—a technique that has been emulated by players like Mark Knopfler, Tom Scholz, Eric Johnson, and dozens more. In a recent interview with Dave Kirby for the Boulder Weekly, Johnson cited Edwards as a major influence: “That was the first thing that got me into guitar when I was really young: the Ventures, Nokie Edwards, and all that stuff.”
Johnson isn’t alone. The Ventures were my first rock-band crush. At age 10, I wanted to be like them, look like them, and sound like them. I wanted a Jazzmaster (and then a Mosrite) because that’s what the Ventures had on their album covers. Like so many others, gazing at those curvaceous guitars while listening to the power of Edwards’ sound sent me down my career path.
While mourning the passing of Nokie Edwards, we should also celebrate how his musical seeds were sown around the globe. In doing so, Edwards’ sound altered the course of guitar and launched 10,000 careers. Thank you, Nokie, from all of us. Peace out brother.