Guitarist Monte Pittman Talks Gear, Playing with Madonna and His New Album, 'The Power of Three'
On January 21, guitarist Monte Pittman — who is best known for his work with Prong and Madonna — dropped his third album, The Power of Three, through Metal Blade Records.
We recently caught up with Pittman between gigs to discuss his new album, what it's like to play for Madonna and, of course, his gear. Here’s what he had to say.
GUITAR WORLD: Musicians move to Los Angeles or New York City to make it big. What do you think made you stick out from the rest when you moved to L.A. from Texas?
I didn’t know what to expect. I just wanted to live somewhere I could work as a musician. Where I grew up, it was rare to even have a venue to play in. We had to go to Dallas or Shreveport to play. I think what made me stick out is I was ready for anything. I always say it’s bad luck to turn down a gig. Even if it’s music you’re not into, you never know who you're going to meet.
You worked with Madonna for years, thanks to your third student, Guy Ritchie. What was Guy like as a student? And what was it like meeting Madonna?
I didn’t know who he was at the time. Guy was busy finishing up Snatch, but he'd take the time to learn everything I gave him to work on. Madonna was really cool to me since day one. She’s always made me feel at home and treated me like family.
When I started teaching both of them, the Music album was coming out, and it had a lot of acoustic guitar on there. The day it came out, I went and bought the CD then went home and figured out the entire album to show to Guy the next day. One of the biggest obstacles teaching a new student is finding songs the student and teacher both know. Fortunately for me, there happened to be quite a few bands out at the time that had simple chord patterns I could reference with teaching.
As an artist with more of a rock and metal background, was it difficult in any way to play with Madonna — or is it all part of being a professional musician?
It was different because we had already become friends first. I had figured out a majority of her songs to teach her in guitar lessons, so I already knew most of them. A month after her first lesson, she asked me if I wanted to play on David Letterman's show with her. That’s what started us playing together.
A couple months after that, she was going to go on her first tour in seven years and asked me if I wanted to play guitar for her. She said she wanted me to keep teaching her and she was going to need a guitar player so I should come play for her. The biggest challenge musically isn’t what to play, it’s what not to play. In music, the space in between the notes can be as effective as what you're saying with the notes.
After your success with Prong, what made you want to release solo albums?
When I moved to Los Angeles, I just wanted to play music professionally. I wanted to eventually start my own band, but I was willing to join a band too. I joined Prong within the first weeks of moving there. For the upcoming decade, I found myself going back and forth between Madonna and Prong. I attempted to start a band in between that. Adam Lambert was my singer, and he had to officially quit the band to join American Idol.
Looking back, it seems there was always something in the universe pushing me forward to work on my own solo career. I started playing acoustic shows as Monte Pittman so I could play shows in L.A. I’ve always had an awesome singer in the bands I’ve played in, but I had to start being the singer because somebody had to do it. That slowly and naturally progressed to where it has brought me now.
My first album, The Deepest Dark, only has acoustic guitar and vocals, so I could recreate that anywhere. Live, some of those songs come across being heavy. My second album, Pain, Love, & Destiny, has those elements but with a band and guitar solos added. After playing that material at my shows, I needed faster and heavier songs because that’s what was getting the best response from the audience. I never intended on being someone else’s guitarist, but that’s where my path took me and I’m glad it did. I learned a lot in the process.
Your new album is a mix of heavy metal, acoustic music and some blues. What inspired you to mix all three? What was the main inspiration behind the songs?
I love playing all types of music. I was originally going to release three EPs — one acoustic, one blues and one heavy. I love playing an acoustic guitar with a bottle of wine by the fire. Coming from Texas, the blues just flows down the Sabine River. We grew up with it around us everywhere. Nothing beats cranking your amp up with your favorite guitar and having a shred up and down the neck.
When I gave Flemming Rasmussen the demos of what I was writing, he pushed me to focus on the heavy songs. I felt like I had done that with Prong and with my band Myra Mains I had in Texas. So I flew my band and our gear to Copenhagen to make the ultimate album I never had growing up. I wanted to make something that gave new life to what had influenced me when I started playing guitar. You have to take the music past where you found it. After recording The Power Of Three, I played the rough tracks for Brian Slagel and he signed me to Metal Blade.
What was it like working with Flemming Rasmussen, who worked on Metallica’s Master of Puppets?
Flemming is one of my favorite producers ever, and I love that he has done such a wide range of recordings. He’s mainly known for making the classic Metallica albums but he also made albums with Morbid Angel, Cat Stevens and Rainbow. That really appealed to me since I’ve got acoustic songs, straight-up rock songs and full-blown heavy songs.
Flemming had us all record playing together in the same room. We tracked all analog to tape. He pushed us when we needed to be pushed and he was invisible when we needed that. Every day when we started, he got our head in the game to focus on what he wanted to get out of us. Flemming becomes the next member of the band. He even played the snare drums with us on “Before The Mourning Son”!
Can you tell me about your gear? Do you have favorites for recording versus playing live?
I try to record with what I’m going to be playing live. I’ve been with Orange for more than 10 years now and I love everything they make. Sometimes if I like an amp's dirty channel, I’m not crazy about their clean channel. With Orange, I love both. Their clean channel works great with my Dunlop and MXR pedals. I use Seymour Duncan pickups in everything. I’ve got different models in different guitars.
Jarrell Guitars makes a Monte Pittman signature model for me called the MPS. Those guitars have custom-made pickups that MJ [Maricela Juarez] at Seymour Duncan makes. They do everything! I use D’Addario strings because they are the only strings I’ve used that have never broken on stage.
When we recorded The Power Of Three, I used an Orange TH30. Also, I’ve got a Marshall JC800 from 1983 that someone modified somewhere along the way. I don’t know what exactly they did, but it’s the loudest and heaviest amp I’ve ever heard. I used a Fractal Axe-FX in the mix also. I let Flemming dial in the sounds, and that’s the guitar sound on the new album.
What plans do you have for 2014?
I’m booking gigs on my own. That can be almost impossible, but I’m getting some dates locked down. We did a video for the song “Before The Mourning Son.” That’s my first video. We are going to do the next video pretty soon. As more and more people are hearing this album, new opportunities are being presented every day.
I’ve got demos for the next two albums after this and when the time comes, I’ll make the next album to follow up The Power Of Three, which will be an album that physically assaults you, then saws your face off. Sooner or later, there will be another Madonna tour but I’m hoping to get out there and play as many shows as possible until then.