In my book, Wes Montgomery is one of the greatest and the most influential jazz guitarist who ever lived. He had a style and a sound that was uniquely his and would influence every jazz guitarist who followed him.
John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery was born on March 6, 1923 in Indianapolis, Indiana-
Wait a minute. I could go on and on with biographical information that is easily accessible to the reader, but I won’t. Let’s get to the heart of the matter-what made Wes so special?
Wes was an extension of the late great jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, who played with saxophone-like single note fluidity. In an interview by Ralph J. Gleason, Wes expressed just how strong Christian’s influence was on him.
“How did you get interested in playing guitar?
Charlie Christian, like all other guitar players. There was no way out. That cat tore everybody’s head up. I never saw him in my life, but he said so much on records. I don’t care what instrument a cat played, if he didn’t understand and feel the things Charlie Christian was doing, he was a pretty poor musician.
Did you hear any guitar players before him?
Reinhardt and Les Paul, those cats, but it wasn’t anything you could call new, just guitar.
What was the first Charlie Christian record you heard?
“Solo Flight.” Boy, that was too much! I still hear it. He was it for me. I didn’t hear nobody else after that for about a year.
You taught yourself guitar?
Yeah. Charlie Christian’s records. I listened to them real good, and I
knew that everything done on his guitar could be done on mine, because I had a 6 string, so I just determined that I would do it. About six or eight months after I started playing I had taken all the solos off the
record and got a job in a club just playing them. I’d play Charlie
Christian’s solos, then lay out. Then a cat heard me and hired me for the Club 440 (Indianapolis). I went on the stand and played the solos. The guys in the band helped me a lot about different tunes, intros, endings and things that they had. They wired me up on all those, but after that, that was it.”
As great and influential as Charlie Christian was, Wes was about to change the way jazz guitar was played and heard. Instead of using a pick, the customary method, he played with his thumb. Add to that his use of octaves to play guitar lines,Wes altered the course of jazz guitar for everyone during his generation and for generations to come.
Here’s Mr. Christian playing “Solo Flight”:
Here’s Wes playing the John Coltrane classic “Impressions”:
Not only did Wes capture the fluidity of Charlie, he took it to another level. His use of octaves starting at about the 1:27 mark, for me, was like going from watching a black and white television to color. Can you count how many times you’ve heard the use of octaves by other jazz guitarists since Wes? I can-a whole lot of times! Here is what Wes had to offer in the Gleason interview:
“What do you want to do with the guitar, where do you want to go with it?
I’ve thought about it, but I’m so limited like playing octaves was just a coincidence. And it’s still such a challenge, like chord versions, block chords like cats play on piano. There are a lot of things that can be done with it, but each is a field of its own, and like I said it takes so much time to develop all your technique. Say if you wanted to play a chord like you would a melodic phrase, there’s no telling how long it would take you to do it. I used to have headaches every time I played octaves, because it was extra strain, but the minute I’d quit I’d be all right. I don’t know why, but it was my way, and my way just backfired on me. But now I don’t have headaches when I play octaves. I’m just showing you how a strain can capture a cat and almost choke him, but after a while it starts to ease up because you get used to it.
You don’t use a pick, do you?
No. That’s one of my downfalls, too. In order to get a certain amount of speed you should use a pick, I think. A lot of cats say you don’t have to play fast, but being able to play fast can cause you to phrase better. But I just didn’t like the sound. I tried it for about two months. Didn’t use the thumb at all. But after two months I still couldn’t use the pick, so I said I’d go ahead and use the thumb. But then I couldn’t use the thumb either, so I asked myself which are you going to use? I liked the tone better with the thumb, but the technique better with the pick, but I couldn’t have them both.”
Keep in mind that as amazing as Wes was, and the mastery that he exhibited regardless of how complex the tune was, he could not read music! Whenever I hear him play and think about that, it blows my mind! Let’s hear more Wes, shall we?
So just how much did Wes influence the course of jazz after him? Here are some views from a few experts:
Contemporary jazz great Pat Metheny had to say about Wes’s influence on him, “I learned to play listening to Wes Montgomery’s Smoking at the Half Note.” Pat then adds, “To me, there have only been three real innovators on the guitar-Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt.” Lee Ritenour cites Wes as his most notable influence and named his son Wesley. Check out this track from Lee’s project,
Wes’s influence was not confined by the boundaries of the jazz genre. Joe Satriani and the late greats Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix also pointed to Wes as a great influence.
I could go on and on about the power of the gravitational field that Wes exerted on the guitar world, but it should be evident even to the casual listener. I leave you with one last Wes gem:
John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery, your genius and influence live on…
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