Wes Montgomery is regarded one of the three founding fathers of the jazz guitar, the other two being Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt.
Montgomery changed the world of music with his hitchhiker’s thumb, impossible guitar techniques, and sumptuous musical talent. He recorded 20 albums as a leader, many of them best-sellers, and won many readers’ and critics’ polls, as well as three Grammy Nominations and two Grammy Awards.
Montgomery achieved all this in less than 10 years after his breakthrough at the age of 36, because in another example of the tragically short, meteoric career of many jazz greats, he died in 1968, aged just 45.
STRUCK BY LIGHTNING
John Leslie Montgomery was born on March 6, 1923, in Indianapolis, Indiana. John Leslie’s nickname ‘Wes’ emerged early on his life, as an abbreviation of Leslie. The Montgomery family turned out to have a huge impact on American music, because Wes’ older brother Monk became a famous jazz bass player and a pioneer of the electric bass, and his younger brother Buddy a well-known jazz pianist and vibraphonist.
When he was 19, Wes Montgomery heard a recording of the Benny Goodman Orchestra playing a track called “Solo Flight,” with Charlie Christian on guitar. It struck him like lightning, and changed his life.
While holding down a day-job as a welder, Montgomery practiced incessantly for about a year, often during the night. Strangely enough, two of the limitations of his early self-education on the guitar laid the foundation for the two aspects of his style that he became most known for: playing exclusively with his right-hand thumb, and playing entire melodies and solos in octaves.
Stroking the strings softly with the flesh of his thumb was Montgomery’s way of not waking up complaining neighbors, and playing octaves was the result of him trying to deal with the tuning issues of his low-quality guitar, which he had bought at a pawnshop.
A lot has been made of Montgomery being entirely self-taught, and he downplayed the importance of him already having played the tenor guitar in his youth. But in interviews he acknowledged that a local guitarist called Alec C Stephens showed him “a few things.”
What is for certain is that Montgomery became good astonishingly quickly. He was invited to perform at Club 440, one of Indianapolis’ main live venues, in the summer of 1944, less than a year after taking up the guitar. Montgomery’s ended up playing with several local bands for the next years.
In 1948, it appeared that Montgomery got his big break. Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, who had played with Charlie Christian, heard Montgomery while performing in Indianapolis, and hired him. Montgomery toured for two years in Hampton’s band, and during this time also played with other jazz greats like bassist Charles Mingus, pianist Milt Buckner, and trumpeter Fats Navarro.
Somehow it all led to nothing, and he returned to Indianapolis in 1950. He spent the rest of the fifties working as a welder, cafeteria worker and store keeper to be able to support his family—he eventually had seven children. In the evenings he performed at local clubs, often until the early hours of the morning.
In the fifties, Montgomery played with a large variety of musicians and in numerous venues in and around Indianapolis. Together with a drummer, he and his two brothers formed The Montgomery Quartet, and with the addition of saxophonist Alonzo ‘Pookie’ Johnson also a group called the Johnson/Montgomery Quintet.
Buddy and Monk Montgomery brothers moved to the West Coast in 1957. The two brothers initially were more successful than Wes. They formed a group called The Mastersounds and signed to the Pacific Jazz label. Their guitarist brother sometimes recorded with them.
In September 1959, Wes Montgomery finally got his big break. When playing at the Missile Room, on 518 North West Street in Indianapolis, saxophonist Cannonball Adderley happened to be in the audience, and was wildly impressed. On his return to New York, Adderley contacted Riverside Records producer Orrin Keepnews, and urged him to sign Montgomery to the label.
Keepnews didn’t waste any time in signing Montgomery to his label. Just a few weeks later, on October 5 and 6, 1959, Montgomery, organist Melvin Rhyne and drummer Paul Parker were in New York at Reeves Sound Studio, with Keepnews producing and legendary engineer Jack Higgins at the controls. The resulting album, credited to The Wes Montgomery Trio, and subtitled A Dynamic New Sound, was released before the end of the year and well-received.
Soon afterwards, in January 1960, Montgomery was in the same studio again, once more with Keepnews producing and Higgins engineering, but with a different line-up, consisting of well-known jazz greats Tommy Flanagan on piano, Percy Heath on bass and Albert Heath on drums.
The resulting album, called The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, was released in April 1960, and hit the jazz world like a bomb, or as someone had it, “a benign hurricane.” It is still regarded as one of the all-time classics of the jazz genre and the jazz guitar, and was in 2017 inducted in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.
As was commonplace in the sixties, artists released several albums a year, and over the next few years several classic Wes Montgomery albums saw the light, with music mostly in a bebop style, such as Movin’ Along (1960), Bags Meets Wes!and So Much Guitar! (both 1961), Full House (1962), and Boss Guitar (1963), plus several albums with his brothers, most notably Groove Yard (1961).
Wes Montgomery’s first albums under his own name saw him at the peak of his powers, with his entire arsenal of revolutionary techniques applied with supreme musicality.
So what exactly made Montgomery’s playing so extraordinary? The two most ear-catching techniques he used were the fact that he played everything with his thumb, and often used octaves when playing melodies and solos.
Pretty much all jazz guitarists, including Charlie Christian, play with a pick, but Montgomery’s use of his thumb resulting in a unique, smoother and fuller sound. It has been said that in so doing he sacrificed speed for sound, but in fact, Montgomery had a double-jointed thumb, sometimes called a hitchhiker’s thumb, or ‘distal hyperextensibility,’ to use the technical name. It meant that he could also play upstrokes, and play extremely fast.
Montgomery was also the first to play solos and melodies in octaves on a guitar. It gave him several advantages: first of all, a unique, instantly recognizable sound. Secondly, extra power if he wanted to reinforce and thicken his playing and cut through what was going on around him.
And thirdly, using octaves became part of Montgomery’s way of structuring longer solos: start with single-string soloing, then move to improvising in octaves for more power and drama, and then, going for yet more power, apply his third innovation: improvise using block chords.
Jazz players had improvised using chords before, but this tended to be harmonically driven. By contrast, Montgomery’s approach was unique in that even when using block chords, he was focused on playing melodies. To be able to do this, he invented new chord shapes that could be played fast, and that contained novel harmonic substitutions.
Montgomery’s single string soloing also was unusual for the time. Perhaps to compensate for possible restrictions resulting from playing everything with his thumb, he used a large variety of left-hand techniques to compensate, including hammer-ons, pull-offs, and most of all slurs and slides. It allowed him to play with amazing speed and virtuosity.
Finally, everything Montgomery did was in the pursuit of feel and melody, and he never used his guitar techniques for their own sake. In fact, he did not really consider himself a guitarist. Given that Montgomery did not see himself as a guitarist, there’s a logic to the fact that he also did not really care so much what instrument he played.
He once remarked, “I got a standard box. I don’t never want nothing special. Then if I drop my box, I can borrow somebody else’s.” The only comment Montgomery has made about guitars is that he was always looking to get more treble from his instrument, as playing with the flesh of his thumb tended to make his tone quite dark.
Over the course of his career, the “boxes” that Montgomery used consisted of a variety of Gibson archtop guitars, which included a Gibson L-4 with the ‘Charlie Christian’ pickup, an L-7, an ES-175, an ES-125D, and most of all the L-5 CES—the latter stands for Cutaway Electric Spanish.
Gibson eventually made a three custom guitars for Montgomery, which were modified L-5 guitars, with just one pick-up, placed upside down, and a metal bridge, again to brighten the tone. He played amazingly thick strings: Gibson Hi-Fi Flatwound 014 to 058, which surely contributed to his unique sound and feel. The amplifiers he used include a Fender Super Reverb and Twin Reverb, and a Standel Super Custom XV.
CLASSIC ALBUMS AND CONTROVERSY
By 1962, Montgomery was widely recognized as one of the top jazz musicians in America. He continued making albums in the bop style, but surprisingly and controversially, started exploring other directions as well. In 1963, he released an album on Riverside called Fusion! Wes Montgomery with Strings, which contained him playing mostly jazz standards with orchestral backings.
Montgomery released a couple more bop album on Riverside, and in 1964 he signed with Verve Records. His first release on the label, Movin’ Wes, featured a large brass section and was produced by Creed Taylor, and was engineered by two studio legends: Rudy van Gelder and Phil Ramone. Montgomery’s second album on Verve, Bumpin’ featured string arrangements by Don Sebesky. It was Montgomery’s first album to chart, and earned him two Grammy Nominations.
1965 also saw the release of Smokin’ at the Half Note, with Montgomery accompanied by Miles Davis’ rhythm section of 1959-1963, consisting of Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on double bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. To this day it continues to be regarded as one of Montgomery’s best albums, and one of the classic albums of the entire jazz genre.
Montgomery’s next album, Goin’ Out Of My Head, with big band arrangements by Oliver Nelson, sold a million copies and earned the guitarist his first Grammy Award, for Best Jazz Instrumental album. However, it was panned in jazz circles as “innocuous background music.”
Montgomery’s last album on Verve, California Dreaming, featuring brass and woodwinds, also proved divisive, with jazz critics calling it “pop fluff.” But once again the audience at large adored it: the album reached to number one in the Billboard jazz chart.
Montgomery signed to A&M Records in 1967, and his next release, A Day In The Life, was even more controversial, because, as the title indicates, he went as far as covering Beatles songs, something that was anathema in the jazz world of the day. But in so doing, Montgomery provided a direct link between the swing jazz of the 1930s from which Charlie Christian had sprung, and the modern era of music that continues to this day. Montgomery’s version of “Eleanor Rigby” earned him another Grammy Nomination.
Montgomery received yet another Grammy nomination for the title track of his next album, Down Here on the Ground, released in early 1968. Montgomery’s very last recording sessions took place at Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey in early May, 1968, and the resulting album, Road Song, followed a similar pattern: it was a big commercial success, and given only one or two stars by jazz critics, who reckoned it was a “strictly-for-money effort.” Montgomery’s next album, Willow Weep for Me, was released posthumously in 1969, and received a Grammy Award in 1970 for Best Jazz Instrumental album.
Montgomery’s later recordings almost all featured orchestral, big band, and Latin influences and in general are credited with, or blamed for, depending on your point of view, laying the foundations for smooth jazz. They seemed to reflect that Montgomery was far more relaxed about music and his musical career than the art-for-art’s sake spirit that dominated the jazz world.
Wes Montgomery lived in Indianapolis almost his entire life, and also died there. On the morning of June 15, 1968, he woke up in his house with chest pains, and soon afterwards collapsed of a heart attack. He was pronounced dead at the local hospital at 10:40am.
Wes Montgomery’s spirit has also been kept alive by his recordings, which today include a large amount of posthumous releases. Moreover, a new documentary about him, working title Wes Bound is being made end scheduled for release in 2023.
But most of all Montgomery’s spirit remains alive in the countless players who are influenced by him. Joe Pass once said, “To me, there have been only three real innovators on the guitar—Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, and Django Reinhardt.” And the great John Scofield once remarked, “I tried to copy Wes Montgomery, but it was too hard.”
Just a few of the countless jazz guitarists who have referenced Montgomery include George Benson, Martin Taylor, John Etheridge, Pat Metheny, Larry Coryell, Jim Mullen, and Lee Ritenour. The latter released an album called “Wes Bound” in 1993 and called his son Wesley. Montgomery also has been name-checked by rock and blues players like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Satriani, Steve Howe, Joe Bonamassa, and many, many others.
© 2021, Paul Tingen.
Watch the video below to learn more about the incredible Wes Montgomery!