William "Bill" G. Leavitt
This page is a tribute to William "Bill" G. Leavitt. Bill Leavitt wrote "A Modern Method For Guitar" also know as the "The Berklee Books" or "The Berklee Method". These books have been used by thousands of guitar players around the world
During one of the many discussions on the Yahoo Jazz Guitar Group about Bill Leavitt's method, a member, having found no biographical information on the web, asked if anyone knew of a site. I did a quick search on the web for a bio but was surprised to find none. So I put together a brief bio and posted it on YJGG:
This post generated a lot of interest, so I decided to put together a more permanent page as a tribute with contributions and help from other members of YJGG and people who knew him. I did not have the fortune to meet or study personally with Bill Leavitt, but have performed with and met many of his former students, who always speak of him in glowing terms. In my formative years, I went through all his books and now use them in my own teaching.
If you would like to add any further information relevant to Bill Leavitt please email me:
William "Bill" George Leavitt Biography
Born: Flint, MI 4 October 1926
Died: Framingham, MA 4 November 1990
Bill Leavitt started out playing a lap steel guitar (in later years he invented the Leavitt lap steel guitar tuning, from low to high C#, E, G, Bb, C and D), but changed over to a regular six string guitar in his teens. He played in local bands and in 1946 joined the
US Coast Guard Navy. Along with his interest in music he was an excellent cartoonist and once considered having a career as a commercial artist.
In 1948 he went to Berklee College Of Music, Boston and was the 3rd guitar student they had ever admitted. Graduating in 1951 he worked as an arranger and guitarist for many singers including Ella Fitzgerald, Patti Page and Andy Williams. He also co-authored Les Paul's and Mary Ford's 1953 hit tune "My Baby's Comin' Home".
Bill registered and copyrighted the following tunes during this period:
Bach In The Old Chorale
Hayloft Jamboree The
I'll Wait For You
If It Wasn't For The Kids
John S Reply
My First Date With Jimmy
Only A Whisper Away
Ride In Santa S Sleigh A
Sea To Sea
Short And Sweet
Solo In G
Stay Where You Are
What's The Matter Baby
In 1965 he was offered the position of Guitar Chairman at Berklee and set about organizing the department and writing the three volume "Modern Method For Guitar" and associated books. Some of the material in the book was inspired and contributed by fellow guitar educator Jack Peterson.
There was only a handful of guitarists when he started at Berklee in 1965, but he pioneered the development of college-level pick/plectrum guitar education.
Many of today's guitarist studied with him and are indebted to his tireless effort in (jazz) guitar education - John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Leni Stern, Mike Stern, and Steve Vai.
At the time of his death in 1990,
after a stroke, from complications arising from the chemo-therapy he received for acute mylogenous leukemia, he was Berklee's Guitar Chairman. The Fender Guitar Company sponsored a memorial scholarship at Berklee in honor of him "William G. Leavitt Memorial Scholarship Fund"
Studying with Bill Leavitt's method
Bill Leavitt's method lays a strong foundation in terms of reading, technique and harmony. It's purpose was to train a guitarist in fundamental skills. It does not train you to be a jazz or rock musician, additional work is needed. IMO, it is best studied with a teacher, although I have known a handful of guitarists who have managed to go through the series without a teacher, but they are rare. I recommend going through the books with a teacher, whilst studying stylistically relevant material to your interests.
I have found, for the average part-time student who is studying his books along with other material it takes about 15 months to go through each book.
Bill made outlines that would take full-time students through all three volumes in 2 years (4 semesters).
First semester Volume 1 pages 60 to the end. (Skip all the open position stuff in the front of Volume 1).
Second semester, the rest of Volume 2.
Third semester, most of Volume3.
Fourth semester, the rest of Volume 3.
Bill Leavitt Links
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Leavitt's Scale Fingerings in Diagram Form Bill Leavitt's scale fingerings in diagram form as notated in Modern Method For Guitar.
Leavitt Chord Melody Arrangements The Yahoo Jazz Guitar Group Archive contains some adobe PDF files of Chord Melodies done by Bill Leavitt. Look under PDF Files > William Leavitt.
What's the rational behind Bill Leavitt's fingering types?
"When I was teaching at Berklee, and Bill Leavitt was my boss, I asked him that question. He said," Well, fingering type 1 has first finger stretches and fingering type 4 has fourth finger stretches. Fingering type 2 makes sense since it starts with the second finger. So I named all those, and I had this one fingering type left over. I'd used 1, 2, and 4, so I said, 'What the hell. 3' "
Steve Carter's Analysis of Leavitt Chord Etudes Steve was hired by Bill to teach guitar at Berklee in 1972. He has analyzed some of Bill's Chord Etudes from Modern Method. He's done very nice work, well worth visiting his site.
Charles Chapman's Remembering Bill Charles is on the Berklee faculty and was a former student of Bill and has put together a very nice (loving) tribute page and bio.
Fender Players Club Pick Control Article Adobe PDF Article on pick control by Charles Chapman using examples from Bill's Classical Studies for Pick Guitar book.
Bill Leavitt Anecdotes
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(Bill Leavitt's oldest daughter)
"He was a wonderful person and the best father and husband anyone could ever dream of. I miss him so much-he had a wonderful laugh that could pick up your day no matter how bad it was going and was so kind to everyone. He had time to listen to you no matter how busy he was-I could go on and on -I have a box of letters (perhaps 100 or more) from students, prisoners, soldiers etc whose lives he touched with either his music teachings or letters or private chats, thanking him for his help and kindness. A couple of corrections on your bio-he was not in the coast guard-only the navy and he did not die from a stroke but from complications from his chemo that he was receiving for acute mylogenous leukemia."
Photos copyright Allan Amenta Collection, used with permission.
Bill Leavitt, guitar, Harry "Mike" Michaels, clarinet, and Allan Amenta, Drums
Playing George and Ira Gershwin's "Oh Lady Be Good" during the dance for graduating students, summer 1945, U.S. Naval Radio Training School, Indianapolis, IN.
|Allan Amenta, drums, Harry "Mike" Michael, clarinet, and Bill Leavitt, guitar, jamming in radio equipment room, U.S. Naval Radio Training School, Indianapolis, IN, Summer 1945|
Leavitt, Flint, MI, was student, Michael, Grand Island, NE, and Amenta, Middletown, CT, were instructors in Radio Theory and Morse Code. Michael was also leader of the school's big band.
"During World War II, I was the drummer in a Navy dance band and jazz trio that included Bill Leavitt, a wonderful guitarist at his age and a marvelous person. Bill Leavitt was a star even then, and playing with him was one of the high points of my life. How fortunate we were to be an active part of an era of great bands, great musicians, and incomparable composers and songwriters.
I am aware only of his career as a student and musician at the Naval Radio School in Indianapolis, Indiana. In addition to his superb musicianship, Bill was a fine cartoonist and sketcher. With an eight hour-a-day schooling in radio operating and his dance-band and jazz trio playing, it's a wonder he found the time to sketch just about everyone in his class and to pen cartoons for the school newspaper and his class graduation album.
A treasured photo of Bill, clarinetist Mike Michael and I, has graced a family-room wall for years and a sketch of me by the multi-talented Bill Leavitt's hands in the Connecticut home of my sister and her husband. They were taken during the summer of 1945 when Bill was a student in the 60th Division of the U. S. Naval Radio Training School in Indianapolis, Indiana. He graduated in October 1945.
As far as I know, he was not in the Coast Guard. He entered Berklee College of Music in 1948, and it's difficult to imagine that he joined the Coast Guard after his Navy days in 1945. But I'm not an authority on his life.
Alas, I never saw Bill again after he graduated, although I tried to locate him a number of times. Only recently did I learn that he was studying at Berklee in Boston 1948-1951
I always remember Bill as the best guitarist I ever played with and one of the finest persons I have ever known. And it was no surprise to me that he went on to such an illustrious career and that he was so esteemed by so many."
"Bill was one of my teachers during my studies at Berklee 1969-1973. While still at Berklee I was told that the tumor in my left hip socket would require amputation of my left leg and hip. Bill wrote letters of encouragement to me often, during my recovery. I still have Bills' letters in my files today.
12 years after chemo-therapy, radiation, and amputation, I visited Bill with my musician wife Leeann. Bill was always very glad to have visitors.
These days I teach the new generation of guitar players at the Drome Sound Music Studio in Schenectady New York along with Berklee alumni Ed Munger '63 and Ray Jung '81.
We continue to pass along Bill's good guitar playing ideas through his books as well as what we learned from Bill when we sat with him in his room at Berklee.
Bill is one of the "Bigger than Life" people I have known and truly cherish the fond memories I have, of talking with him.
It will continue to be part of my life's work to pass along Bill's teachings."
Steve Carter sent the following anecdote on chord melody from his players journal:
"You should work on connecting your chords more smoothly," Bill said.
"But, Bill," I said, at last giving voice to my frustration, "Every day I play all the chord etudes in all three volumes, "Solo in G," "Solo in D," and "Solo in Bb," and I've been doing that for months and months!"
"Well," Bill replied matter-of-factly, "You'll just have to keep doing it for more months and months."
I remember clearly what prompted Bill Leavitt's comment, even though this was in 1972. It was the five chords at the beginning of the last A section of "Solo in Bb": Bb Cm7 Dm7 Eb G7alt. Every time I play that passage, I hear Bill's deep voice.
I had applied for the teaching position at Berklee in late spring. Bill thought I had potential as a teacher, but since I'd never gone to Berklee -- never even had a guitar lesson -- he wanted to go through his books with me before the job offer was official. We had worked through volumes I and II, and were starting volume III. I was seated at the music stand, warming up, and I was rehearsing this passage because I knew it was not smooth. Bill was puttering about the room, and made the observation in a seemingly off-handed manner, but that was his way of softening the message without diminishing its importance.
Of course Bill was right -- to a point. It wasn't a matter of months and months, but years and years, and I'm following Bill's advice even now, long after he passed away.
Yesterday I sat down to practice, and since I'd not practiced much during the week, and felt that my chord-melody chops were down, I decided to go back and review all the chord etudes in Volume II. I was reminded once again how much guitar instruction is embedded in those little gems. If you don't position the left hand properly, some of the inner notes of the chords will be muted. If you don't control the pick properly, you will either overshoot or undershoot the string the melody is on. These days I play all my chord-melody with pick-and-fingers, but I don't practice Bill's stuff pick-and-fingers. If I did, I'd miss some of those embedded lessons.
Bill used to talk about the idea of the "pick stop." When the melody is on the second string, for example, think of the first string as a pick stop. Accelerate the pick as it moves across the strings so that it hits the melody string as full acceleration. But to avoid going to far, and hitting the next string, use the pick stop.
The goal there is to ensure that the melody rings out. Bringing out the melody is a high priority for me in my chord-melody playing. In another entry I'll discuss how to do develop that with pick-and-fingers.
But for today, I'll go on with working on connecting my chords more smoothly. Maybe I'll play "Solo in Bb" and see what Bill has to say.