RIP Don Wilson of the Ventures — and the Golden Age of Instrumentals
Well into the rock ’n’ roll era, instrumentals were a significant part of the popular music mix, and few artists made that point more emphatically than the Ventures.
So it’s worth pausing for a moment to acknowledge the death on Saturday of Don Wilson, the last surviving original member of the group best known for “Walk Don’t Run” and the theme from the first Hawaii Five-O.
Wilson, who died of natural causes, toured and recorded with the band until 2015, when he was 82 and almost certainly walking rather than running.
The band’s other cofounder, lead and later bass guitarist Bob Bogle, died in 2009. The group has had close to two dozen other members over the years, most notably the late guitarist Nokie Edwards, and continues playing today where Covid allows.
“We never split up,” Bogle said in a 1998 interview. “We were pretty lucky. And we always got paid what we thought was fair.”
Name any other group that can say all of that.
The scope of the Ventures’s success would surprise almost anyone who hadn’t followed their career.
They recorded close to 250 albums, selling an estimated 110–120 million copies. While they had limited top-40 success beyond “Walk Don’t Run” and “Hawaii Five-O,” those albums gave them long legs in the U.S., Europe and Japan.
Bogle noted that starting in 1962, the band toured Japan for up to four months every year. “They’d never heard anything like us,” he said. “We’d have 10,000 people waiting for us at the airport. Some of the Japanese politicians were so concerned we were bad for the youth that they almost voted to ban guitar bands.”
Back home, the Ventures have been cited as a major influence by the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys and John Fogerty, who inducted the Ventures into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.
Don Wilson said he was honored by that, though he noted it came 22 years after they were first eligible. “All we did,” he said, “was quietly sell millions of records.”
Two years later, in 2010, the Ventures got an honor that few other Rock Hall inductees can claim. They were awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the Emperor of Japan, a nice gesture from the place that almost banned them a half century earlier. The Order of the Rising Sun medal was first awarded in 1875 and symbolizes “energy as powerful as the rising sun.”
Being instrumentalists and all, the Ventures don’t sing on any of their albums. But Bogle said that wasn’t always the case. When they started, he said, “We’d do three or four vocals during a show, just to mix it up. But after ‘Walk Don’t Run,’ that’s what the audiences wanted to hear, and we were told that if we kept including vocals, it would change our image.”
One of the ironies in the Ventures’s story is that they become known, rightfully, as major influences on the guitar sound of rock ’n’ roll. Their use of fuzztone, the whammy bar and other guitar techniques was widely copied and incorporated by subsequent artists. They introduced their own line of guitars, Mosrites, which were later played by guitarists from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain.
The Ventures cut several albums of guitar lessons that were so popular one made the best-seller charts.
The irony is that while Nokie Edwards was an accomplished guitarist, having played in Buck Owens’s band, both Bogle and Wilson started out like a million other kids, enchanted by the instrument with no idea how to play it.
Bogle and Wilson met in their Washington hometown when Wilson was a salesman at his father’s used car lot and Bogle came in looking for cheap wheels. They got to talking, discovered they both liked music and eventually encouraged each other to play. Their big plunge was going into a Tacoma pawnshop and buying two guitars for less than $10 each.
They learned to play by listening to Chet Atkins, Les Paul and Duane Eddy, but had no illusions they could match what they were hearing. “What we did at first,” said Bogle, “was all basics, just three-chord stuff.”
They got good enough to score some local gigs and Wilson’s aggressive mother, Josie, got them a recording deal with the tiny Dolton label — home, most notably, of the Fleetwoods. For their second session the Ventures decided to record “Walk Don’t Run,” written as a jazz tune by Jimmy Smith in 1954 and recorded by Atkins in 1956. That was the version Bogle and Wilson knew.
“He played it in a classical jazzy style,” Wilson said in 2011, “and we couldn’t play it like that. We weren’t good enough. So we decided to make our own arrangement of it and simplify it.”
Good call, and not just for that song. “I think other guitarists paid attention to us,” said Bogle, “because what we did wasn’t impossible to learn, like jazz.”
The Ventures eventually became more sophisticated and incorporated everything they heard, including jazz. They were sometimes called a surf band because they cut popular albums of surf hits like “Pipeline,” but Bogle and Wilson never bought it. They were, Bogle said, a rock ’n’ roll band.
“When we started listening to music,” said Bogle, “it was a lot of ballads, like ‘Harbor Lights.’ It was great music, it just wasn’t as exciting as rock ’n’ roll.”
Energy as powerful as the rising sun.