Ax Museum: Wes Montgomery - Guitar World

Ax Museum: Wes Montgomery

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Indianapolis, Indiana, is hardly what you’d call a music town. Best known for the annual Indy 500, it’s the sort of place where people work in factories and raise kids. Wes Montgomery, like a lot of guys with big families, needed a day job and a night job to make ends meet. By day, he was a welder, and a good one. After work, he would grab a few hours of sleep and go off to his other job. He was pretty good at that one, too, although it was a little different—by night, Wes Montgomery was the premier jazz guitarist of his generation.

History and Influences

John Leslie Montgomery was born in Indianapolis on March 6, 1923. From an early age, Wes, as he became known, was drawn to the sound of the guitar and enjoyed recordings by players such as Django Reinhardt and Les Paul, but other than occasionally jamming on the four-string tenor guitar with his brothers Monk and Buddy, he didn’t work at playing the instrument. By his late teens, Wes was married, earning good money as a welder and living a straight-ahead, working-class lifestyle.

One day in 1942, Montgomery’s apparently predictable path took a sudden turn when he heard a record featuring a young electric guitarist named Charlie Christian. Since joining the popular Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1939, Christian had elevated the electric guitar to front-line status as a jazz instrument, and his signature tune, “Solo Flight,” was what captured Montgomery’s attention. As Wes recalled in a 1965 interview, “I don’t know whether it was his melodic lines, his sound or his approach, but I hadn’t heard anything like that before. He sounded so good and it sounded so easy…so I bought me a guitar and an amplifier and said now I can’t do nothing but play! Really, welding was my talent, I think, but I sort of swished it aside.”

Without benefit of musical training, guitar teacher or instruction books, Montgomery set out to play just like Charlie Christian, but his amplified efforts soon attracted complaints from his neighbors and wife. In order to keep the peace without having to unplug, Wes put down his pick and began practicing with his thumb. Soon, he found himself faced with a dilemma. As Montgomery described it, “I liked the tone better with the thumb but the technique better with the pick, but I couldn’t have them both.” In the end, sound won out over speed, and Wes put the pick down for good.
To compensate for the low volume at which he was forced to practice, Montgomery fattened his melodies by playing them in octaves. At first, it was a mixed blessing. Wes explained, “I used to have headaches every time I played octaves, because it was an extra strain…I don’t know why, but it was my way, and my way just backfired on me.” Later, after he gained more control, the headaches stopped and octaves became an integral part of the Wes Montgomery style.

After only a few months of intensive practice, Wes had learned enough note-for-note Charlie Christian solos to land a featured spot with a local jazz combo. The enthusiastic audience reaction inspired him to continue practicing and expand his repertoire, and during the next few years Wes, joined by Monk on bass and Buddy on piano, began to build a reputation on the Indianapolis jazz scene.

In 1948, Wes received a tremendous break when he was hired to join the Lionel Hampton big band, but he soon wearied of life on the road. His profound fear of flying meant driving between gigs, which were sometimes on opposite sides of the continent, and his salary wasn’t large enough to support his growing family. After two years, he bid Hampton goodbye and returned to Indianapolis.

Montgomery’s schedule at home proved no less brutal. In order to pay the bills and keep playing, Wes worked a full factory shift from 7 A.M. to 3 P.M., then set out for a bar gig from 9 P.M. until 2 A.M., followed by an after-hours set from 2:30 to 5 A.M. Despite the ungodly hours and toll on his health, Wes later maintained that these years in tiny clubs playing for a handful of people represented his creative peak. “But who knew it?” he later recalled. “Nobody. People in Indianapolis knew it…but people out East were saying, ‘Yeah, man—where you come from?’ and I’d been around all the time.”

By the mid Fifties, Monk and Buddy Montgomery had achieved national success with their own group, the Mastersounds, and in 1957 they arranged for Wes to join them on a series of recordings for the Blue Note label. For the first time Wes had a chance to showcase his playing to a wider audience. Although he was technically a sideman on the dates, he rose above the occasion, displaying a musical maturity and sense of style that was the equal of such well-established jazz guitar stars as Barney Kessel, Jim Hall and Tal Farlow.

The Montgomery Brothers recordings were more successful musically than commercially, and after the final session in Los Angeles in 1959, Wes returned to Indianapolis. In early September, he was working an after-hours set at the Missile Room when the up-and-coming New York saxophonist Cannonball Adderly happened to stop in to check out the local talent. Within minutes of hearing Wes, Cannonball was impressed, and the next day he contacted Orrin Keepnews, the owner of Riverside Records, to insist that he see Montgomery for himself. In a story reminiscent of John Hammond’s discovery of Charlie Christian, Keepnews arrived in Indianapolis that afternoon, followed Wes from club to club that night and by dawn had Montgomery’s signature on a recording contract. Two weeks later, Wes was in a Manhattan studio recording his first album as leader.

Montgomery’s unquestionable brilliance and down-to-earth personality immediately won him acceptance from musicians and critics alike, even within cliquish New York jazz circles. His second Riverside release, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, earned him Downbeat Magazine’s 1960 “New Star” Award and became an instant classic. On material ranging from his own “West Coast Blues” and “Four on Six” to jazz standards and ballads, Wes played with a style and assurance that reflected his years of experience. Moving seamlessly from swinging single-note lines to warm, melodic octave passages to punchy chord solos, Wes infused every track with his unique tone and touch.

As Montgomery’s reputation grew, he was finally able to put day jobs behind him, but the artistic rewards of playing jazz still exceeded the financial. Riverside released several more critically acclaimed albums before shutting down in 1964 due to financial problems. Sensing a golden opportunity, producer Creed Taylor quickly signed Montgomery to Verve Records. Taylor saw in Wes not only a jazz improviser but also a unique melodic voice, like that of a great singer capable of interpreting a wide range of material. To test this new approach, Taylor suggested that Montgomery record a slick, big band arrangement of the recent Little Anthony and the Imperials hit, “Goin’ Out of My Head,” to which Wes reportedly replied, “You must be going out of yours!” Eventually, Wes relented and made the record, which became a huge hit and transformed Montgomery overnight from musician’s musician to smooth jazz star. On succeeding albums, Wes’ style was distilled to octaves and little else, but as evidenced by the 1965 Verve release Smokin’ at the Half Note, the power and creativity of his live playing remained undiminished.

In 1967, Wes followed Creed Taylor to the A&M label, where his string of commercially successful albums continued. Although he was stung by criticism of his pop direction, Wes was at long last able to comfortably support his family and enjoy the material fruits of his years of effort. Guitarist George Benson, a friend of Montgomery’s who later faced similar criticism, commented, “People who love jazz musicians love us when we play what we want to play and we’re starving. But as soon as you commercialize your sound like Wes did, the jazz fans and the critics are down on you!” Pat Metheny offered another perspective: “Those records illuminate another aspect of his improvisational talents. Stretching out and playing 50 choruses on a tune is one thing, but not many guys can take eight bars and make a perfect jewel of a statement.”

In any case, Wes lived barely long enough to enjoy his success. On June 15, 1968, at 45 years of age, he died suddenly of a heart attack at his home in Indianapolis.

Style and Technique

To this day, any guitarist who uses octaves invites comparison to Wes Montgomery. He didn’t invent octaves—Django Reinhardt had used them extensively in the Thirties—but he expanded the range of their application to encompass warm, expressive melodies, funky rhythms and explosive licks. To play melodies in octaves, Wes fingered notes on the first or second string with his pinkie, pairing it with his index finger on the third or fourth string, respectively. Melody notes on the third or fourth string were doubled an octave lower (on the fifth or sixth string, respectively) with a ring/index finger combination. In either case, Wes would mute the string between the octave tones with the side of his left index finger so that he could brush all three strings with a single stroke of his right thumb. FIGURE 1 is an example similar to Wes’ melody on his aptly titled composition “The Thumb.” As this bluesy phrase in G moves across the strings, it requires shifting both shapes and positions—small wonder that Wes developed headaches.

Employing only his bare thumb for picking and strumming, Wes developed speed by using both downstrokes and upstrokes. Orrin Keepnews recalled of seeing Wes the first time, “Physically, my still-vivid recollection is of the thumb, moving so fast on the first uptempo number that it literally blurred before my eyes.”

Along with octaves, another Montgomery trademark was his chord soloing. Wes developed sets of chord voicings grouped mainly on the top four strings, and with these compact shapes—often referred to as “block chords”—he could harmonize melodies on the spot. Technically, block chords are even trickier to finger than octaves, but Wes learned to integrate them seamlessly into his style. FIGURE 2 is an example of block chord phrases combined with octaves, stylistically similar to those played by Wes on a Miles Davis tune called “No Blues.” Although the chord names make it appear complicated, this is a 12-bar blues in F. Wes didn’t know the names of the chords, but he knew how to make them swing.

Regarding Wes Montgomery’s unique guitar style, saxophonist Ronnie Scott observed, “He played impossible things on the guitar because it was never pointed out to him that they were impossible.” Wes was that rare combination of raw talent and dogged perseverance, and he was a player who never let his guitar get in the way of his music.

Gear

Although Wes was a notorious perfectionist when it came to his recordings, he regarded his guitar in somewhat the same way he regarded his welding torch—as a tool necessary to do a job. Asked about his instrument, he said, “I got a standard box. I don’t never want nothing special. Then if I drop my box, I can borrow somebody else’s.” For most of his career, his “standard box” was the hollowbody Gibson L5-CES (cutaway electric Spanish). For amplifiers, he generally used either a Standel solid-state or a Fender tube amp, although he was reportedly rarely happy with sound of either one.