Soft-spoken and breviloquent, Nokie Edwards' gentle manner is contradicted by the quick, clean guitar licks that make him famous as a former member of surf-instro band The Ventures.
Hobby guitarists and construction workers Don Wilson and Bob Bogle recruited Edwards into their band as a bass guitarist in 1959, after they heard him play a club called Brittannia in Tacoma, Washington. Together, they recorded Johnny Smith's "Walk, Don't Run," with the help of drummer Skip Moore, and founded independent label Blue Horizon. The single became a local hit after airing as a news lead-in on a Seattle radio station, and Dolton Records licensed it for national distribution. By the summer of '60, it was at the top of national music charts, second only to "It's Now or Never" by Elvis Presley.
The Ventures recorded its debut album, titled after the hit single, and then went on to make its name covering hits of the day and recording theme albums.
"We picked songs from Billboard's Top 10 to cover," Edwards says during an interview with Joe Coffey of Premier Guitar.
In 1962, Edwards took over lead guitar, with Bogle switching to bass, and throughout The Ventures' long career, nearly 40 of the band's albums charted, and 17 hit the Top 40.
After a slip off the charts in the early '70s, the band looked overseas and recorded music for the Japanese markets. It left the Dolton label, founded Tridex Records and became a huge influence on Japanese pop music. Edwards played with the group on and off until 2012.
In 2006, Edwards formed The HitchHiker Band with John Hoag on rhythm and lead guitar, Mike Miller on bass and Ed Cini on percussion and drums — all based in Arizona.
Sax and flute player Paul Biondi of Eugene and lead and rhythm guitarist Dan Estremado of Gold Hill will join Edwards and The HitchHiker Band for a show Saturday, Jan. 21, at the Craterian Theater in Medford.
"We play everything, stuff like the theme from 'Hawaii Five-O,' 'Walk Don't Run' recorded by Chet Atkins, and 'SWAT,' the theme song for the television show," Edwards says during a telephone interview early this week. "'Surf Rider,' I wrote that one, and it was used in the movie 'Pulp Fiction.' Also 'Secret Agent Man' and 'Stranger in Midosuji,' they like that one in Japan. That one and 'Kyoto Doll.' And we play Del Shannon's 'Runaway,' 'House of the Rising Sun,' 'Tears in Heaven,' 'I Saw Her Standing There.' "
Also look for "El Cumban Charo," "Blue Star," "Telstar," "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" and "Pipeline," he says. Like The Ventures, Edwards and his HitchHiker Band also tour Japan.
Edwards' newest album, "80 and Pickin' With My Friends," was recorded on his 80th birthday, May 9, 2015, and released in 2016 on Sharpnel Records. The recording features Mike Severs on electric guitar, Duncan Mullins on bass, John Hammond on drums, Bob Patin on keys and Rodger Morris on strings, keys and percussion.
Edwards began his career as a lead guitarist on Fender and Mosrite guitars, but since 2000 he's played only HitchHiker guitars. Designed by Edwards himself, the handmade HitchHikers feature neck-through bodies made of soft ash and maple, ebony fretboards, Sperzel locking tuning keys, Seymour Duncan pickups and his own patented bridge.
"He put all of his ideas and likes into one guitar," says Edwards' wife, Judy. "He used to help companies like Fender, Roland and Carvin Audio with their instruments and equipment. They'd ask him to check out their instruments and gear, and he'd tell them what they could do to make them better. Back in the early days, Nokie gave the gauges for guitar strings to Ernie Ball."
Gear is of huge importance, according to Edwards. Along with dedication and practice.
He's been inducted into the Northwest Music Association Hall of Fame, Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, Native American Music Hall of Fame and, in 2008, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Guitar Player Magazine honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
"He'll never stop playing," says his wife. "It's in his heart. At 81, he is still traveling the world and playing his guitar. That's pretty damn good."
A Native American of Cherokee descent, Edwards was born in Oklahoma. One of 12 children, he crossed the Great Plains with his family in a horse-drawn wagon to live in Puyallup, Washington, 35 miles south of Seattle.