Born in Northern California in 1920, Walt Smith took piano lessons and became a child prodigy on several instruments before developing a love of big-band music and Western swing. Chasing dreams of being a cowboy musician, he focused on guitar and lap steel.
Rebelling against his father’s plans for him to pursue a career in business, Walt chose an agrarian lifestyle, moving to an Arizona ranch in 1939 with his new bride, intent on raising cotton. He would eventually return to California, settling near Ojai to run a large ranch.
In the mid ’50s, Smith, an inveterate tinkerer, began to develop an idea for a steel guitar that could be played comfortably while standing. He swapped ideas with builders in the area such as Leo Fender and the Dopyera brothers, Ed and Rudy. By the mid ’60s, Smith’s idea had developed into a few experimental instruments that he branded the Mel-O-Chord, which then evolved to Mel-O-Bar.
An odd-looking solidbody instrument, the Melobar (now its common name) resembled a Spanish-style electric, but its neck was attached at an angle approximately 45 degrees to the body. Smith contracted with Mosrite, a guitar builder in Bakersfield, to manufacture his innovative instrument.
“Dad wanted real quality, and that’s what Mosrite represented,” recalled John Selby Smith, one of Walt’s five sons. “It also had to do with wanting top pickups.”
The agreement gave Mosrite builders an opportunity to use basswood bodies that Semie Moseley had rejected for the Ventures II model in ’65. However, the angled neck of the Melobar (usually with 10 strings) had o be installed differently, so Mosrite fashioned a wood block to close the neck-joint cavity. On May 2, 1966, Smith applied for a patent on his instrument, and it’s likely no accident that the form’s line drawing showed a body silhouette resembling a Mosrite guitar.
In the summer of ’67, John Selby Smith, then a student at Princeton, visited San Francisco and Los Angeles. Along for the ride was a Melobar.
“I was sent to San Francisco by the head of [Princeton’s] psychedelic research institute to report on what was happening in Haight-Ashbury,” he recounted of the district, which at the time was ground zero for the hippie movement. “After a crazy three weeks, I hitched to L.A. and, through friends, slipped into showing the Melobar to rock bands – Jefferson Airplane for a week, the Mamas and the Papas, the Grateful Dead for a few days… there were a few others.”
The Airplane was recording its third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s, at RCA’s studio in Hollywood.
“We showed up with the guitar, and they were very nice. We spent the day there while they recorded, me teaching Jorma (Kaukonen, lead guitarist) Melobar licks during breaks. He invited us back the next two days. It was an amazing time because they were experimenting with music like I’d never heard before. You hear the Melobar here and there, when there’s slide or strange glissando licks.”
Several Melobar leads can also be heard on the Airplane’s fourth album, 1968’s Crown of Creation.
“The credits on that album list the Melobar as the ‘chicken guitar,’” noted Walt Smith’s youngest son, Ted. “Dad was not happy about that.”
One curious “endorsement” for Melobar germinated during John Selby’s L.A. sojourn. While walking through a residential area of Beverly Hills, he saw a woman in distress rushing out of her house. It was Shirley Boone, wife of crooner/actor Pat Boone, whose dog was having puppies and she didn’t know what to do. John assisted in the delivery, and his midwifery begat a friendship with the Boone family. A few years later, Pat worked on an endorsement project for the Melobar company.
The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones reportedly experimented with a Melobar, and one legend recounts that just before he died, Jones gave it to Jimmy Page, who was playing with the Yardbirds. Years later, Page called Walt Smith’s home late one night, seeking playing tips. He woke Smith from a sound sleep, and Smith referred Page to Ted, who later informed Page that his Melobar was Mosrite-made.
Following his attempt at spreading the word about the new instrument in San Francisco and Los Angeles, John Selby was compelled by his father to work at the Mosrite factory.
“Dad sent me to Bakersfield to oversee things,” he said. “By that time, I felt very much a part of Melobar.”
More than 50 years later, John Selby still has vivid memories of the Mosrite factory and its personnel, including how his initial misgivings were assuaged.
“At first, I felt everything was out of hand and undermanaged,” he remembered. “Decisions were made differently than I was used to, but their logic did work. The employees had an attitude that was laid back, fun, irreverent, and masterful all at the same time.
“I reported to Dad that the situation was working well – excellent precision and quality control. Almost all the people working on our project were in a corner of a big factory, and most were women. I remember they talked with a strong Okie accent, which I’d grown up with. I would slip back into that accent with them, and right then was when I started singing with the Okie accent. I also realized I’d picked up a prejudice against that accent and quickly threw it away because those women were really good at their work! They took me in with humor, played word games with me, laughed a lot, and taught me about growing up in the process. I loved being there.”
Though Walt Smith had been adamant that Melobars were to be made from alder, the leftover basswood Ventures II bodies were instead used on most, if not all. Their scale was 23″, neck angles tended to vary slightly from one instrument to another, and they were usually finished in the same three-tone sunburst popular on Mosrite instruments, though others were applied.
Walt Smith’s patent for the Melobar was granted February 11, 1969, three days before financial issues closed the Mosrite factory. An estimated 300 had been made.
Rise of Rosac
In 1947, Morris Rosenberg and Ben Sacco founded a company to make sacks for agricultural workers. In ’59, the Bakersfield-based Sierra Bag Company expanded to create Sierra Iron and Metal, a recycling facility for salvaged metal. By the mid ’60s, Rosenberg and Sacco noticed the rise of music and the guitar market, and started Rosac Electronics & Manufacturing to make amplifiers and effects. Among their hires was former Mosrite electronics supervisor Ed Sanner (VG, March ’14), who, along with other erstwhile Mosrite employees, had been moonlighting at Rosac even before the factory closed. Sanner designed the Nu-Fuzz, an improvement over his Mosrite Fuzzrite, as well as the Distortion Blender.
Almost from the get-go, Rosac manufactured Melobars, and right about the time its version was introduced, Pat Boone recorded the intro for an instructional record included with each instrument.
Rosac Melobars were alder and had a different silhouette, with stubbier cutaway horns that flared outward. The neck was mounted at 45 degrees and the scale was 223/4″. They used cheaper tuners, and pickups were made by Paul Barth, who had worked for Magnatone and held one of the first patents for guitar pickups. Again, the most-popular color was a bright three-tone sunburst.
Near the end of 1970, Walt Smith “pulled the plug” (to quote Ted) on Melobar; tired of the L.A. lifestyle, he moved to Idaho. First, though, he built a one-pickup Melobar with a purple finish and gave it to his Ojai neighbor, singer Sheb Wooley (of “Purple People Eater” fame).
Rosac’s Melobar production also totaled about 300 instruments. As the plant was closing, John Selby acquired six Melobars and converted them to “blues configuration” with six strings. Stripping the sunburst, he painted three white, three red. A white one wound up with Poco’s Rusty Young, who nicknamed it “The Bear” and used it extensively in concert.
Through the ’70s, Melobar made a beginner’s acoustic version. In 1980, the Smith family committed to a new lineup that included models with bodies shaped like Gibson’s Flying V and Explorer, built in Weister, Idaho. Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood had one custom-painted by North Carolina artist Wayne Jarrett.
In the late ’80s, the company became known as Smith Family Music and was relocated to Sweet, Idaho, where it converted a barn to a cabinet shop in which it also built other styles of Melobar, including doublenecks, lap steels, and resonators. Walt Smith died in 1990, leaving a legacy of 600 instruments that appeal to collectors who appreciate the esoteric, but the ensuing years saw Melobar achieve its greatest success, selling more than 2,000 instruments (one of which appeared in the video for Brooks and Dunn’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”). In ’97, they offered an Anniversary Mosrite Melobar honoring Walt and Semie Moseley.
In 2018, Ted Smith posted a video on Youtube, explaining how to convert a 10-string Melobar to six strings and recounting some of the history between Melobar and Mosrite.
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This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.