PDF file for this lesson:
Wes Montgomery’s concept of time
This is the first of many Wes Montgomery solos I will be demonstrating. It is my firm belief that anyone who is even remotely interested in playing modern jazz guitar should transcribe Wes Montgomery. Of course, I would never suggest that a player should make a habit of blatantly lifting Wes’s lines and rehashing them in their own solos. In fact, I don’t think Wes’s harmonic ideas should be the focal point of these transcription studies. Simply put-Wes Montgomery’s time is better than any jazz guitarist who has ever lived. It should be the goal of every aspiring jazz guitarist to get inside of Wes’s head and experience his feel under their own fingers. Transcribing Wes Montgomery can be a painful process. In making this video, I played the solo about 25 times. Each pass was academically acceptable for sure. If my performance were transcribed, it would look correct on a piece of paper. In listening back to each pass, I would hear a line or two that wasn’t quite inside the pocket. Usually, I was rushing an eighth note here or an eighth note there.
Eventually I got an expectable take and I was one step closer to reaching some of my personal goals as a musician. During the process of transcribing Montgomery, I never become discouraged by my failures because I realize that I am trying to conquer the work of one the most sophisticated musicians in the history of jazz. John Scofield is quite right in saying the following regarding Wes Montgomery:
“He was more as an interpreter of jazz, but on the guitar. He swung as a good horn player; he was saying as much as a horn player.”
Again, I can’t say enough about Wes Montgomery’s time and it’s relevance to today’s guitarists. Wes could play any part of the beat, at any tempo, and in any style. In fact, it is literally impossible to fully notate a Wes Montgomery solo. The notation would be too cluttered and arduous to even look at. Not to mention his virtuosic technique which Wes described in a rare interview:
“When I started I bought the whole works. I got a box of picks because I felt sure there would be the right one in there for me. I refused to play unamplified, so I’m sitting in my house playing, you know – happy, but when I used my brand new amplifier I guess I didn’t think about the neighbors. Soon they started complaining pretty heavy. But I was enjoying myself because it wasn’t noise to me, it was music. But after two months my wife came to the door and asked me would I kindly turn that ‘thing’ off. Well, ‘thing’? It was a guitar and amplifier, you know? So I laid my pick down on the amplifier and just fiddled around with the thumb. I said is that better.? Oh yes, she says, that’s better. So I said I’ll play like this till I get ready to play out, and then I’ll get me a pick. Well, that wasn’t easy either because I found out that I had developed the thumb for playing so that when I got ready to work my first job I picked up a pick and I think I must have lost about fifteen of them! I just didn’t realize that I had to develop my pick technique, too. So I said ‘later’ for the pick. I was just playing for my own amusement so it was great. See, I couldn’t hear the difference in the sound as it is today, so I figured OK, I’ll just use my thumb. Probably a thousand cats are using their thumbs – only they’re not in Indianapolis! The more I learnt about it, I found out that less guys were using their thumbs and I began to get a little frightened!”
Originally, I recorded a step-by-step analysis for my video. Unfortunately, the video was long winded, lengthily, and at times distracted. In order to accurately deal with Wes Montgomery’s technique and rhythmic precision, one needs a format much larger than what is available. With that being said, I have decided to dissect those portions of the solo that I find need the most attention. Please use the transcription I have provided to follow the following commentary. Please note that the measure number proceeding each statement should correspond with the notation provided:
*Before approaching each phrase of the solo, be extremely conscious of the techniques employed. In several passages, Wes employs a series of Pull-offs and hammer-ons. Also, one should aware of the beat placement used. Many phrases “push and pull” the beat. Finally, pay close attention to the dynamic range and accents inside each phrase. Several phrases actually create a subtle crescendo. Finally, be aware of the fact that Wes rarely employed the 4th finger in his lines. Often, you will see several lines executed using only the first two fingers.
8-12: In measure 8 the phrase begins at a subtle volume. The pick up note in measure 9 begins a phrase of extremely straight 8th notes. The pick up note in measure 10 begins a series of three pull-offs that are executed with the first and second fingers only: Gb-F, Db-C, and Bb-A.
14-15: In measure 10 the Db-D’s are executed by sliding the second finger. The 4-note phrase (A-F and G-Eb) in measure 15 can seem difficult at first but is easily accomplished by using only the first two fingers. Wes’s technique here is similar to Django Reinhardt’s, who was a definite influence on him.
22-23: The phrase that begins on the pick up of measure 22 is accomplished by sliding from the G to F and then descending using the same pull-off technique employed in the earlier pull-off phrase.
25-26: This phrase is extremely complicated in practice. The first 3 or 4 notes were actually somewhat undetectable to my ears until I slowed the solo down to around 40%. Here, Wes creates a perfect crescendo that concludes with a series off extremely accented notes in measure 26. Pay close attention the beat placement off each note in this phrase. I actually found this particular passage to be the most difficult in the solo. I was extremely happy to finally nail it because it was the one that forced me to rerecord this thing over and over again.
30-33: I couldn’t really hear what was going on clearly in this portion of the solo until I slowed it down quite a bit. I strongly suggest that you slow this portion of the solo down to around 27%. The effect Wes gets here is accomplished by using a slide with one finger back and forth between frets.
35-36: The triplet in measure 35 is achieved by a single upstroke sweep. Do not rake through this triplet! Wes clearly plays all the notes with clarity. My technique is to begin the triplet using the first finger on the G. I then quickly place a bar with my third finger over the F and C. Finally, I hammer both the B and C to complete the phrase.
Wes Montgomery’s influence
In of writing this article, I decided to engage in a little historical research regarding the impact Wes Montgomery’s Legacy has had on today’s great guitarists. I found the task quite easy to accomplish. I simply consulted my personal archive of magazines, books, and Internet resources. With almost no effort, I was able to uncover a wealth of material regarding this subject. Wes Montgomery’s impact was so broad that it connected every single guitarist that I tried to correlate in this study. For example, Joe Pass called Wes his favorite guitar player. Mike Stern, John Abercrombie, and Jimmy Bruno all cite Wes as one of their most important influences. Even Kurt Rosenwinkel, who is the poster child for modernism cited Wes as an important influence. Below you will find a series of poignant quotes from guitarists regarding the importance of Wes Montgomery’s music. Enjoy!
NPR’s morning edition did an article on Bill Frisell on May 17, 2004. These passages are lifted from that article:
“In 1967, a Colorado high school band director asked one of his students to learn a song for the school talent show. The student listened to a recording of the music, picked out the tune on his guitar, and immediately became hooked. The song: “Bumpin’ on Sunset,” by legendary jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. Bumpin’ on Sunset’” introduced Frisell to the world of jazz. The song was, in some ways, simpler than the music he listened to in high school, but it was also deeper. He noticed that Montgomery often played the same note simultaneously in three octaves, creating a unique harmony. Those octaves, a signature Montgomery technique, draw the listener’s focus to the melody, which Frisell came to see as the “backbone of music.”Now a master melodist himself, Frisell says Montgomery’s music drove him “to find out what jazz was.” In the summer of 1968, while Frisell was devouring as much Montgomery as he could find, the Newport Jazz Festival launched a tour that included the guitar virtuoso.”
Steve Kahn, author of The Wes Montgomery Guitar Folio and accomplished guitarist states:
“It was my yearning to know his music inside out that started me on transcribing his compositions and many of his great solos. …..For me, it was an honor to have my name associated in this way with my idol’s. To paraphrase my good friend and fellow guitarist, John Abercrombie, Wes Montgomery and his music embody a quality and integrity that transcends the physical part of playing the instrument itself and enters an area that is much more satisfying, both intellectually and emotionally.”
Khan recalls the first time he heard Wes Montgomery clearly:
“I’ll never forget sitting on the floor with the volume turned way up and being blown away by Wes’ interpretation of Duke Ellington’s classic “Caravan.” That experience literally changed my whole life by opening me up to the world of improvised instrumental music, otherwise known as jazz. I still owned a set of drums, so hearing Grady Tate on that recording was at the same time both uplifting and the final blow to any hopes of becoming a drummer. From that point on I sought out any record by Wes and anything that had Grady as the drummer, thus starting a chain reaction that led to an overwhelming number of great jazz names: Miles, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Grant Green, Oliver Nelson……It was an incredible period of listening and exploring, and out of all this, at the age of twenty, came the decision to try my hardest to become a jazz guitarist. Wes Montgomery, the man and his music, became the total inspiration for what I was attempting to do.”
Pat Metheny was obviously a huge fan of Wes Montgomery. As one who has transcribed both Metheny and Montgomery, I can tell you that there is a striking parallel between both Players technique and rhythmic content. Metheny Bluntly states:
“I learned to play listening to Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ At The Half Note.”
“When I really got interested in the guitar, I had a big, big hero, and that was Wes Montgomery. Wes remains my number one hero, to the point where when I first started playing in the first year or two, I played only with my thumb. I played in octaves every chance I possibly could. Basically, I did everything I could do to emulate and sound like Wes. In fact, part of the reason I started to get gigs at age 13, 14, 15 around Kansas City, was that it was viewed as kind of far out that this little kid could do this Wes Montgomery imitation. It was like, “Wow! He sounds like Wes Montgomery!,” according to the average casual Kansas City jazz fan”.
Contemporary guitar instrumentalist Lee Ritenour is perhaps one of the biggest Wes enthusiasts out there. He even named his son “Wesley.” He explains the impact Wes Montgomery’s music had on him here:
“Seeing Wes when I was about 15 made a tremendous impact. He was one of the first guitarists to play with a lot of rhythm, which had a big influence on me because I was very rhythm oriented. He had a better pocket than anyone; his solos were a kind of rhythmic/melodic lead playing that always had incredible content. His phrasing affected all of my playing. For me, he was the first crossover artist, because he played tremendous bebop and could also work within Latin grooves and even with what was becoming rock and roll. As a young kid who loved rock as much as bebop, that was a very appealing quality. Another thing Wes had over everyone else was a great sound. There was a lot of serious jazz going down on those early Riverside albums. Very few players were on Wes’ technical level, but he always made things sound much easier than they were. He was an icon for me and probably the greatest jazz guitarist there ever was.”
Larry Coryell was a devout Wes transcriber. In his autobiography he actually relates the story of how he met Wes Montgomery and played his solo on “West Coast Blues” for him note for note. Today, Coryell still finds Wes’s music as extremely relevant:
“A lot of us [guitarists] have gone back and re-examined the importance of Wes Montgomery in our formation and our roots. I’m harkening back to a lot of that and it sounds good now.”
Larry on Wes’s effect on his worldview:
“All of my heroes, or most of them, were black.When I realized what a genius Wes Montgomery was, that was my breakthrough in understanding human nature. I realized that I was a white guy that didn’t know shit. It changed my whole perspective!”
George Benson is often referred to successor of Wes Montgomery. As an upcoming guitarist, Benson had the privilege of learning and interacting with Wes Montgomery directly:
“West Montgomery was a very good friend. When he was alive he was the undisputed champ of the jazz guitar world. So, to know him was a privilege. To hang out with him was an extra privilege. It was like hanging out with Einstein.”
One of the guitarists who was most influenced by Wes Montgomery was Pat Martino. I actually remember Pat Martino playing an entire Wes Montgomery solo on his guitar for me during a lesson. Martino recorded not one but two tributes to Wes Montgomery. The first was 1972’s The Visit and 2006’s Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery.
Pat, tells the story of the first time he met Wes Montgomery:
“My mother and father took me to hear Wes with the Montgomery Brothers at a place called Pep’s here in Philadelphia. I was 16 or 17, and it about the time Groove Yard [Riverside] was out. He was burning. At the end of the set my dad asked if he wanted a drink, and Wes said sure. I couldn’t believe he ordered only orange juice.”
On later interactions:
“Later on, Wes and I talked quite a bit when we bumped into each other on the road. One time I was going into a club while he was leaving, and I couldn’t believe that he was helping the organist carry a Hammond B3 down two flights of stairs. We used to speak about that, and he would tell me how important it was to take care of business. Sometimes I’d watch him warm up. When I’d want him to explain what he had just played, he’d say, ‘I don’t know anything about these names you’re asking me about. I really can’t give you an answer. That’s not how I play. I play what I hear.’ We never played together because I was too young and still in awe.”
Emily Remler is another guitarist who learned to play almost exclusively through the recordings of Wes Montgomery:
“I was so loyal, I rejected all other approaches………For a few years I became obsessed, I had Wes’ picture hanging on my wall- I wanted him to play through me.”
Remler’s most famous quote is a direct allusion to Wes Montgomery:
“I may look like a nice jewish girl but inside me there is a big black guy with a huge thumb.”
Everyone knows Kevin Eubanks as the butt of that late night guy’s jokes but few are aware of his deep jazz roots. Eubanks came to prominence during his residency with Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. Here, he talks about Wes Montgomery’s impact on modern jazz guitar:
“As far as modern players are concerned, especially from the sixties when everything seemed to catch up with itself and solidify into modern-day jazz, Wes would have to be the most influential figure in the history of jazz guitar. Every instrument seems to have a prophet, like Coltrane was to tenor- we’re talking modern stuff, …… But Wes seemed to lay the guitar out like Bird [Parker] did on alto. Certain people seem to be able to show the symmetry of the instrument and a relaxed way of playing. If you want to study the essentials of jazz guitar, all the fundamental great things are in Wes Montgomery.”
In response to a fan inquiry:
“I love Wes Montgomery. My dad bought an album, an EP on riverside records, and Melvin Rhine was playing organ and bass with his feet. I listened to him a great deal, especially from this era. He was just a completely different kind of player.”
Dave is both a noted educator and guitarist. Here, he relates his simple methodology regarding the development of a jazz guitar vocabulary:
“I have my students listen to people like Grant Green and Wes Montgomery. That’s how I learned. I listened to one song on a Wes Montgomery record over and over until I could sing and play it. By doing that you start building up your own vocabulary. That’s how it worked for me. You don’t want to be a copycat, but I think if you learn how other people do things, you can take a little bit from everybody and bring in your own thing, and that’s how you can get your own sound going.”
In conclusion, I would like to point out to that there is father to Wes Montgomery’s style. Of course, I am referring to Charlie Christian. It is well known that Wes Montgomery’s most profound musical epiphanies came through his intense note for note transcription of Charlie Christian’s solos:
“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 wasn’t the first electric guitarist I’d heard because Les Paul was around at that time, but I didn’t get much from him. Maybe Christian stuck out because he was so different. He sounded so good and it sounded easy, so I said maybe the big thing of it is just to buy an instrument! I had a good job as a welder so I bought me a guitar and amplifier and said now I can’t do nothing but play! But I found out it’s not that easy. Really welding was my talent, I think, but I sort of swished it aside!”
I will explore the music of Charlie Christian at a later date. -Tone