Nokie Edwards, the Ventures’ influential lead guitarist, dies at 82
For any kid who picked up an electric guitar in the 1960s, it never took long before they’d take a stab at trying to play “Walk Don’t Run,” the genre-defining surf-rock hit from 1960 popularized by the Ventures, which used that reverb-soaked recording as a launch pad to become the most successful instrumental group in rock history.
A key part of the song’s success, and the group’s enduring appeal that allowed it to chart more than three dozen albums during the ’60s and ’70s, wasn’t in reeling off as many notes as possible, but in keeping things simple.
“I believe in simplicity,” the Ventures’ lead guitarist Nokie Edwards told an interviewer in 2001. “If you have a melodic line, people will like it. If you can hum it, you can have a hit.”
Edwards, who died Monday at age 82 following an infection he’d been fighting since undergoing hip surgery in December, and his band mates proved the point with 14 hit singles as well.
That run started with “Walk Don’t Run” and included the mega-hit theme song to ‘”Hawaii Five-O” in 1969 as well as a revamped version of their first hit that ascended Billboard’s Hot 100 a second time in 1964.
While some surf-rock groups were short-lived, especially after the Beatles arrived on U.S. soil in 1964 and launched the British Invasion, the Ventures were able to sustain an extended career by recording and performing hits of the day arranged as instrumentals.
Guitar Player magazine once described the Ventures as “the quintessential guitar combo of the pre-Beatles era, [who] influenced not only styles, but also a generation’s choice of instruments.” The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.
Edwards’ death was announced on the Ventures’ official website, and accompanied by a statement that read “The Ventures’ family feels this loss very deeply:
“Nokie has been part of the Ventures’ history for almost six decades and helped to shape the early Ventures’ sound and the success of their career,” the statement said. “He was an innovator and one of the greats on guitar, so much so that he influenced many young players over the course of his career.”
Edwards died at a hospital near his home of recent years in Yuma, Ariz., according to fellow guitarist and longtime friend Deke Dickerson.
Nole Floyd “Nokie” Edwards was born May 9, 1935 in Lahoma, Okla., one of 12 children of Elbert and Nannie Edwards, migrant fruit pickers who traveled by horse-drawn wagon in search of work to Puyallup, Wash., about 35 miles south of Seattle.
Many members of the Edwards family were musicians, and by the age of 5, Nokie was playing a number of stringed instruments including guitar, mandolin, banjo, steel guitar, violin and bass.
Before connecting in Tacoma with rhythm guitarist Don Wilson and lead guitarist Bob Bogle — who had been performing around Seattle as a duo before starting the Ventures in 1958 — Edwards caught the ear of future country music kingpin Buck Owens, who had moved to Washington from Bakersfield in part to tend to a radio station he had bought there.
Edwards was an accomplished country player, something that was often evident in the Ventures’ recordings even though they came to be recognized as the premier instrumental surf-rock band when the genre caught on nationally from hit records by Southern California acts such as the Beach Boys and Dick Dale & His Del-Tones.
Bogle originally handled lead guitar duties, and is heard in the spotlight on “Walk Don’t Run,” but not long after they brought Edwards into the group to play bass, he and Bogle switched instruments as Edwards was the more skilled lead player.
Edwards has been cited as a major influence by subsequent rock guitar heroes including John Fogerty and Mark Knopfler, mining a vein similar to that of 1950s guitarists such as Duane Eddy and Link Wray.
Their records brought to the fore the visceral power of the relatively new electric guitars and amplifiers that were integral to the sound of rock ’n’ roll.
Edwards started out playing the Fender Telecaster, a favorite among country and blues players, but soon switched to lesser-known Mosrite guitars. Such was his impact on the instruments’ popularity that many latter-day surf musicians insisted on playing Mosrite as a signifier of their commitment to authenticity.
Later in life he created his own guitar brand, which he called the HitchHiker, which incorporated what he’d learned playing other manufacturers’ instruments.
“He used to help companies like Fender, Roland and Carvin Audio with their instruments and equipment,” his wife, Judy Edwards, said. “They’d ask him to check out their instruments and gear, and he’d tell them what they could do to make them better.”
Even though he became a competitor, Fender recognized him with a Nokie Edwards signature model Telecaster hybrid in 1996, a collector’s guitar that quickly sold out.
Edwards also wrote some of the Ventures’ original material, perhaps most notably “Surf Rider,” a 1961 track that filmmaker Quentin Tarantino featured in “Pulp Fiction” in 1994.
He released several solo albums upon leaving the Ventures in 1968, but none sold particularly well. He returned to the group in 1973 and continued playing with them until 1984, when he left again and moved to Nashville to work as a country guitarist.
Well before relocating, and still as a member of the Ventures, Edwards played on one of the final recording sessions singer Lefty Frizzell took part in before his death in 1975.
Early on, the Ventures found unexpected fame in Japan, spawning numerous imitators.
“There are so many groups like the Ventures that they even try to call themselves something close to the name,” Edwards told The Times in 1996. “The Yokohama Ventures, the Venturas — anything to get close.”
He and his band mates appreciated the adulation they received across the Pacific and typically visited the country for concert tours annually.
“It seemed like every group in Japan knew only our songs,” Don Wilson once told Goldmine magazine. “If a group played a hundred songs, they were all Ventures songs.”
At age 69, Edwards became a first-time Grammy Award nominee for his part on the 2004 album “20th Century Gospel” with the Texas-based Light Crust Doughboys, and again the following year for that album’s successor, “Southern Meets Soul.”
“You never know what’s going to happen,” he said while in Japan when the first Grammy nomination was announced. “I’m always surprised at anything you receive. ... It was great news.”
He also developed a second career as an actor, landing roles in the western TV series “Deadwood.” But music was still foremost.
“He’ll never stop playing,” his wife, Judy, told a writer for the (Medford, Ore.) Mail Tribune last year. “It’s in his heart. At 81, he is still traveling the world and playing his guitar. That’s pretty damn good.”
Despite accolades that included induction into several halls of fame, Edwards maintained a sense of humility and appreciation for fans who bought his records and attended performances.
“People are the ones who make you,” he once said. “If they bought a [recording] and want to hear it, you should play it. You should sign autographs and talk to people. You ought to be grateful to those people who made you famous.”
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