Martino was an unstoppable force from the time he was 12 years old. His father was a professional guitarist who once studied with the great Eddie Lang, and the senior Martino encouraged his son’s 6-string life path from day one—even as the youngster dropped out of school at 15, and left Philadelphia to immerse himself in the jazz culture of Harlem.
From a preteen wunderkind whose command of the instrument dazzled the likes of Les Paul, Martino soon became a teenaged first-call soul-jazz player, accompanying B-3 badass Don Patterson and tenor man Willis Jackson. More organ group work followed—most notably with Richard “Groove” Holmes and Jack McDuff—before he signed with Prestige at age 20, and released his debut as leader, 1966’s hard-bop/soul excursion, El Hombre.
The guitarist went on to push the boundaries of jazz guitar with a string of releases starting in the late ’60s. From the hard bop of Strings! and East! to the groundbreaking Baiyana (The Clear Evidence) and Desperado, and on to Exit in 1976, each title was more adventurous than the last.
Martino’s awe-inspiring technique, endlessly inventive lyricism, and driving feel—thanks to a wicked picking hand that can deliver endless streams of notes with a stunningly beautiful and powerful attack—have made him one of jazz guitar’s most dynamic, singular exponents. (Dig Jude Gold’s June 2004 GP Master Class “Sacred Geometry” for an inspiring in-depth look at Martino’s harmonic strategies.)
Martino’s life was interrupted in 1980, after surgery for a brain aneurism left him with virtually no memory of his family, his career, or his transcendent guitar skills. His eventual recovery was nothing short of miraculous, and the guitarist has released more than ten records since his comeback album, 1987’s The Return. His latest release is Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery [Blue Note].
When it comes to Wes Montgomery, most guitarists point to his thumb/octave technique. What are some aspects of Wes’s style that you feel tend to be overlooked?
Listen to the Montgomery Brothers’ album Groove Yard—one of my favorite Wes recordings–and dig the first six choruses Wes takes on the track “Back To Back.” There is not one phrase that can be analyzed and identified as a scale or mode per se. They’re all melodies. Every line. Nothing is based on a musical theory or rule. That’s the big difference between Wes, and, say, Johnny Smith, Hank Garland, or early Joe Pass. But Wes knew exactly what he was doing. He would slowly begin a solo with these wonderful, spacious melodies, and with the intention of ramping-up and getting more aggressive with each chorus. Eventually, he would launch into these intense 16-note phrases that could be analyzed from a more scalular approach.
Did you transcribe any of Montgomery’s solos?
I didn’t transcribe him when I was a teenager, because I couldn’t read or write music. I learned by listening and copying. Later on, other musicians began asking questions about what I was doing, so to answer them, I began to study music. I had already mastered the instrument without a need for musical terms. I didn’t begin to read music seriously until 1967 or ’68—long after I paid my dues in the organ groups.
Your heavy picking attack is legendary. Was this something you learned from watching other players, or was it there from the beginning?
It was always there. It just sounded good to me, and that’s how I’ve always played. When I was 14, and taking lessons with [legendary music/guitar instructor] Dennis Sandole, I was constantly breaking strings because of my aggressive attack. So, I decided to keep increasing my string gauge until they stopped breaking—and I ended up at a .016 high E—which I still use today, although I have another guitar setup with .015s that I occasionally use. Dennis tried to get me to hold the pick in different ways, and practice scales nonstop in an effort to minimize the string breaking. And, out of respect for my teacher, I tried that stuff, but my ecstasy with the guitar was definitely being interrupted. Thankfully, it returned when I upped my string gauge.
Oddly enough, I was never concerned about my picking hand. I never analyzed it, and I’ve always let it do what it wants to do. However, my left hand is extremely intellectual in regards to its analysis of the fretboard. It’s the exact opposite of the other hand. The left hand is the graduate, the right hand is the drop out, and I allow them to exist accordingly.
So you never really worked on your chops?
Not really. Once the physical demands of the guitar became second nature, I no longer found it necessary to practice my technique. I found it more important to use it by playing music. By doing that, you transcend craft. The instrument is there for my use when the time comes. It’s like driving a car. Once I overcame the physical hurdles, I never felt the need to go out and practice steering, shifting, or braking.
What did you track Remember with?
I used a customized Gibson Pat Martino Signature model with a single Gibson ’57 Classic humbucker, strung with GHS strings. I ran it through an Acoustic Image Clarus head into a Mesa/Boogie 2x12 closed-back cabinet. I much prefer the sound of closed-back cabs. I feel the volume is more controllable, and I hear the lows better. We also occasionally ran direct into the board. I also use the Clarus for live performance, and I request a Mesa/Boogie 2x12 closed-back in my contract rider. Often, however, I’ll show up and there will be a Marshall 4x12 [laughs].
What do you do for those times when you end up with a Fender Twin Reverb or Roland JC-120?
My sound engineer, Kirk Yano, will pack the back of the cabinet with a blanket—which makes it sound a lot better to me. I used Fender Twin Reverbs a lot when I was playing in the B-3 groups in the ’60s, though I didn’t stuff them with blankets back then. I was also playing Gibson Les Paul Customs, an ES-175, an L5-CES, and, eventually, a Johnny Smith that I plugged into a Twin Reverb for my first record, El Hombre. But—much more importantly—on that record, my sound ran through [legendary engineer] Rudy Van Gelder!
You view the engineer as being as important as the amp and guitar to getting a player’s recorded tone?
Absolutely. I loved the tone of Les Paul, Johnny Smith, Wes, and Hank Garland. But there are more people involved in crafting a player’s tone on a record than the guitarist. At the end of the recording process, a guitarist’s tone can vary greatly from what he or she sounds like if you’re actually sitting in the room with them. So I found it’s best to not even try and ape someone’s sound from a recording. Instead, get a good rapport with the engineer you’re working with.
You saw Wes play in person often. Which of his albums sounds the closest to sitting in front of his amp?
The album George Shearing and the Montgomery Brothers was very close to how he sounded in a club. Boss Guitar and Fusion! Wes Montgomery with Strings—the ballad album from 1963—are close, as well, but they put a touch of reverb on Fusion!, and he very rarely, if ever used reverb.
Are there any non-musical tools an improviser can use to open up his or her creativity?
As an improviser, you need to experience the moment—and that includes everything in the moment. Observe the people around you—the bandleader, the bartender—what they wear, how they deal with people, the simple continuity of their presence. As you do that, you’ll see how you affect them, and you’ll play and act accordingly. You need to study the reality of the moment, and that is very rarely about studying modes and intervals.