10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Wes Montgomery

July 10, 2008

The words above were penned by late, great jazz-guitar guru Ted Greene in the August ’98 GP. He was referencing the “Movin’ Wes Part I” solo from Movin’ Wes, but he could just as easily have been talking about Montgomery’s entire oeuvre. A jazz icon, Wes Montgomery (1923-1968) left an indelible imprint on the language and pedagogy of contemporary guitar.

All roads to the Pangaea of jazz guitar and beyond eventually pass through Montgomeryland. Just listen and you’ll hear echoes of Montgomery in the music of artists as diverse as George Benson, Jimi Hendrix, Pat Martino, Tommy Bolin, Eric Johnson, and Mark Knopfler. Essential Montgomery recordings include his entire Riverside catalog, from the Montgomery Brothers’ Groove Yard through The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery to Boss Guitar, as well as his Verve sides, including Movin’ Wes, James and Wes (with Jimmy Smith), Smokin’ at the Half Note (with the Wynton Kelly Trio), and, Goin’ Out of My Head, Califoria Dreaming, Tequila, and A Day in the Life—in other words, all of them! If you’re unfamiliar with Montgomery’s work (can that be possible?), collect and absorb all of the Montgomery albums you can find (play ’em while you sleep), then go online and search out the limited but amazing Montgomery video floating around on the internet. But first, you’ve gotta ...

1 Bloom Late

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, Wes Montgomery didn’t begin playing seriously until he was 19. Eight months later, he had memorized all of Charlie Christian’s solos from Benny Goodman’s landmark Solo Flight record, and was playing them on the bandstand. Frustrated by his early limitations, Montgomery spent the next several years working ordinary day jobs to support his family while practicing incessantly at night to develop his own unique voice. Montgomery’s hard work paid off in 1948, when he landed a spot on stage alongside Fats Navarro and Charles Mingus in Lionel Hampton’s big band. A devoted family man at heart, Montgomery soon left the road to return to his previous work-by-day practice-by-night agenda, and gain even further mastery of his instrument. From 1957-1959, Montgomery became a full-time musician once again, joining his brothers, pianist/vibraphonist Buddy and bassist Monk, in the Mastersounds. In 1959, producer Orrin Keepnews brought Montgomery to the Riverside label, where he became the talk of the music world with a series of classic albums spanning The Wes Montgomery Trio through Boss Guitar. Montgomery jumped to the Verve label in 1964, where he continued to make award-winning records up until his death on June 15, 1968, when A Day in the Life was No. 1 on the Billboard jazz chart for the 37th consecutive week.

2 Thumb It

Of course, everyone knows that Montgomery played exclusively with his thumb, but do you know why? As an early GP once reported, Montgomery’s famed thumb technique “evolved from his experimentations after complaints from neighbors, his next-door aunt, and his wife over the loud sound created by the pick. The more subdued sound of his thumb quieted all objections and became, unintentionally, a vital part of the Montgomery sound.” Over time, Montgomery reportedly developed a hardened corn that could be used to put a “point” on notes and catch the string on upstrokes. Montgomery’s picking motion—both down and up—came from the large thumb joint, and he loosely anchored his remaining splayed-out fingers against either the bottom of the pickguard or the bottom edge of the guitar. And here’s the kicker: Montgomery attacked notes with his thumb, but the rest of his hand also went along for part of the ride. As Montgomery plucked downstrokes with his thumb, his fingers reacted, brushing gently against the face of the guitar in the opposite direction. Do a little video research, then try playing the following examples using this technique, and you’ll be shocked by how much “bounce” this subtle texture adds to the sound.

Speaking of sound, the Thumb preferred fat-bodied archtops strung with hefty flatwound strings. The Gibson L-5 (fitted with either P-90’s or P.A.F. humbuckers) was a favorite. He dug Fender amps, but was also known to plug into the occasional Standel tube combo. Strange but true: According to all video documentation I’ve seen, Montgomery didn’t use his pinky to fret single-note lines, and reserved it exclusively for octaves and chords. For complete authenticity, the examples in this lesson reflect this three-fingered approach wherever applicable. Now, loosen up that thumb and get ready to ...

3 Get the Blues

Though he certainly developed the ability to improvise sophisticated melodic lines over any chord progression using single notes, octaves, and chords, the heart and soul of the Montgomery sound is firmly rooted in the blues. Analyze the characteristic one-bar Bb blues lick in Ex. 1 and you’ll find that every note is derived from the Bb blues scale (Bb, Db, Eb, E, F, Ab, Bb). Observe the swing-eighth feel and staccato phrasing, and take it slowly at first, bumping the tempo up a few notches at a time. The line was originally conceived over Bb9, the I chord, but is also applicable to the IV (Eb9) and V (F9) chords, so be sure to explore its behavior over all three chords in the context of a standard 12-bar blues progression. When you’ve got it wired, transpose the line to other common jazz-blues keys, such as F, Eb, and C, as well as the more guitaristic keys of E, G, A, and D, and you’ll be well on your way to Montgomeryland.

4 Swing Your Ass Off

All of the greats, from Christian to Hendrix, possessed that intangible something that imparted a sense of swing into everything they played, and Montgomery was certainly no exception. Sure, everyone has access to the same rhythmic tools—offset eighth- or sixteenth-notes, heavy syncopations, etc.—but Montgomery brought these elements together like no other. Moving to the key of F, the V-IV-I turnaround (C7#9-Bb9-F13) in Ex. 2a features a combination of blues and bebop that begins with a highly syncopated ascending Bb9 arpeggio—every note is played on an eighth-note upbeat—cleverly placed to cover both the V and IV chords before segueing to an F blues line not unlike Ex. 1. The IIm-V7alt-Imaj7 (Gm7-C7alt-Fmaj7) run in Ex. 2b shows how Montgomery incorporated the blues into this common jazz progression. Here, a simple F blues line produces a juicy #5 alteration (enharmonically notated as Ab) that creates delicious augmented tension over the V chord before resolving up a half-step to A, the 3 of Fmaj7.

5 Develop Melodic Radar

Montgomery’s instinctive and boundless knack for melodic invention was and remains unparalleled in the annals of jazz guitar. Let’s break down a IIm-V7-I progression in the key of F to see and hear how he might approach each chord melodically. Begin by treating each measure as a separate entity. Ex. 3a offers three melodic possibilities for Gm7, the IIm chord. The first one outlines a descending Gm9 arpeggio grafted to a swinging rhythmic motif. The second utilizes an ascending Gm7 arpeggio, plus two non-chord tones. The third features a similar but more scalar move affected with swept sax-like phrasing and a bluesy wrap-up that could be either a D or an F blues lick. To create tension over C7, the V-chord, the first bar in Ex. 3b blends chord tones with a single alteration, G# (the #5). (Tip: The four altered V-chord tension tones are b5, #5, b9, and #9.) The second measure features an additional altered note (Db, the b9), while bar 3 outlines a slick first-inversion C7b9 arpeggio, then offers proof that even B, the natural 7—a tone most blues guitarists tend to avoid—wasn’t off limits for Montgomery. Note how both lines take advantage of slippery horn-like slurs to up the swing factor. (Tip: Try including bar 2 of Ex. 2b in this group.)

Example 3c illustrates a trio of Fmaj7 I-chord resolutions, all three of which portray Montgomery’s strong penchant for melody. Bar 1 pays homage to Charlie Christian, but that half-step grace-note slur is pure Montgomery. Bar 2 highlights a III-for-I diatonic substitution Montgomery often used to access the original chord’s upper extensions. In this case, his Am7 motif creates an Fmaj9 sound. Other diatonic subs that show up during Montgomery’s improvisations include IV-for-II (Fmaj7 for Dm7) and IV-for-V (Fmaj7 for G7). (Tip: For more sub analyses and a slew of solo transcriptions, check out “The Godfather of Cool: Wes Montgomery’s Baddest Solos Note for Note,” in the August ’98 GP.) Finally, bar 3 shows how good a simple Fmaj7 arpeggio plus an added 6 (D) can sound with the right phrasing.

Now that you’ve got these discrete elements under you fingers, the fun really begins. You can mix and match any combination of the previous six lines to form a multitude of Montgomery-style II-V-I ideas. When you’re done with that, trasnfer the lines to different positions and octaves, then transpose them to all keys. Use their rhythms as templates for lines of your own design. See you in six months!

6 Double Your Pleasure

Montgomery’s mastery of parallel octaves was, well, unparalleled. Though he claimed to have discovered octaves by “coincidence,” and that they caused him severe headaches early on, Montgomery’s doubled frequencies essentially became his signature sound. Montgomery always fretted octaves with his 1st and 4th fingers, muting the string between octave notes by lightly resting the index finger across it. Let’s try a two-octave F blues scale played entirely in octaves. Ex. 4a shows one potential fingering based on the common first-position F blues box, then extended along the third and first strings. Get to know it. The trick with octaves is to focus on either the lower (my personal preference) or upper notes only and let the higher octaves “shadow” the lower notes, or vice versa. (Trying to keep track of both at the same time will mess with your mind!) Ex. 4b presents an “Eleanor Rigby”-esque blues line, Ex. 4c recasts bar 2 of Ex. 2b in octaves, and Ex. 4d introduces wider intervallic motion—ascending fourths, to be exact—in tandem with Montgomery’s trademark octave “gallops.” (Hmm … Wes Montgomery: Grandfather of Thrash?) Get the idea? Any line can be revoiced in octaves.

7 Grow a Compact Chord Garden

Wes Montgomery may not have known as many chords as a guitar scholar like Ted Greene, “but he said more with them than anyone else I’ve ever heard,” said Greene. Whether it was lushly arranged melodies or on-the-fly chord solos, Montgomery was a master of the art of chord melody. Rather than placing chords on strong beats and embellishing them with single notes à la, say, Joe Pass, Montgomery’s general approach was to harmonize every note with three- or four-note block-chord voicings. The grids in Ex. 5a will get you started with a simple F major scale sequence that starts on the 7 (E) and descends alternating diatonic third intervals (E-C, D-Bb, C-A, Bb-G) on the first string. Here, the first note and then every other note is harmonized as diatonic I, II, and III chords (Fmaj7, Gm7, and Am7), while identical diminished-seventh shapes functioning as D7b9 and C7b9 (the VI and V chords) cover the in-between notes. Add tasty half-step grace-note slurs to taste and savor their smoothness.

Adam Levy’s “Instant Wes” session in the May ’99 GP offered a crafty way to create Montgomery-style chord melodies over static harmonies. In this vein, Ex. 5b harmonizes Am chord tones (A, C, and E) with appropriate Am7 and Am6/9 voicings, while the non-chord tones (G#, B, and D) are harmonized as parallel diminished seventh chords. You can also apply this methodology to the blues scale, as shown in the G-blues-based chord-melody run in Ex. 5c. This technique works just as well with major and dominant seventh chords, but, of course, you’ll need to explore and combine voicings on other string groups.

8 Orchestrate on Your Ax

Though Montgomery’s typical m.o. was to play a song’s melody and opening solo choruses in single notes before morphing to octaves and, ultimately chords, it wasn’t unusual for him to blast out of the gate with a full-on chordal assault, and you won’t find a better example than Montgomery’s take on the Ellington-Tizol-Mills exotica classic, “Caravan” [Ex. 6, from Movin’ Wes]. Phrasing over six bars of underlying C7b9 harmonic tension, Montgomery begins with a half-step grace slur into C9 followed by a sixteenth-note slur up to Db9. He covers the remainder of bar 2 with staccato C9, Gdim7, Bbdim7, and Edim7 shapes, all voiced on the top four strings. After resting on Bbdim7 for two beats in bar 3, he jumps to the inside strings to punctuate beat three with a trio of octave Cs. Coolness! Bars 4 and 5 feature a slight variation of the previous two bars in accordance with the melody, but with full C7#9 voicings replacing the octave Cs. Montgomery wraps up the melody by traveling from the eighth to the third position via a string of chromatically descending diminished seventh chords that (finally!) resolve to the tonic Fm.

9 Cross Over

Beginning in 1965, Montgomery’s Verve sides— beginning with Goin’ Out of My Head, which garnered the guitarist a Grammy award, and running through his last album, A Day in the Life—enjoyed a surge in popularity. During this period, Montgomery covered numerous pop hits of the day, including “Goin’ Out of My Head” [Ex. 7a], “Tequila,” [Ex. 7b], “California Dreaming,” “Sunny,” and “Eleanor Rigby,” many with big-band and string arrangements courtesy of such heavyweights as Oliver Nelson, Don Sebesky, and Claus Ogerman. These smooth moves may sound toned down to some critical ears, but they’re beautifully recorded and still undeniably Wes.

10 Learn a Must-Know Chorus

If there’s one Montgomery tune you’ve gotta learn, it’s “West Coast Blues” in the key of Bb. Why? It’s a classic Montgomery 6/8 blues-with-a-twist that sounds just as great played solo, with a small rhythm section as on The Incredible Guitar of Wes Montgomery (See GP 8/98 for a transcription of Montgomery ’s first solo chorus), or with a big band, as heard on Movin’ Wes, the version referenced here. (Tip: You’ll also find a cool big-band version on the YouTube.) Let’s construct the 12-bar head. Ex. 8a begins with a pair of half-step grace-note slurs into a partial Bb shape—Montgomery originally played this move as a grace-hammered b3-3 (C#/Db-D) below a static 5 (F)—followed by swinging root-5 (Bb-F) sixteenths and b7-root(Ab-Bb) eighths. Drop two frets to play the pickup into the non-standard bVII change (Ab13) in bar 2, then follow bar 1’s melodic and rhythmic scheme a whole-step lower. The last triplet sets up the repeat of the I-chord figure, so follow the repeat back to bar 1, then take the second ending. Here, Montgomery’s sophisticated substitutions “II-V” their way into the IV chord (Eb9), and replace standard Fm7-Bb9 movement with b5 subs (Bm7 and E). Yes, the melody reflects these changes.

Segue directly to the IV-chord figure in bar 4, which simply lowers the 3 to Db in the I-chord figure and alters one note to transform the pickup into an Eb arpeggio. Next, repeat bar 1 twice, then jump to the V-I turnaround in Ex. 8b, where each chord is covered by an identically-shaped one-bar line—just learn the first measure and drop it a whole-step. Tack on two more repeats of the I-chord figure from bar 1 of Ex. 8a, repeat the entire 12-bar D.I.Y. form as played thus far, then give yourself a good pat on the back and enjoy a cold one. Mission accomplished

Where’s the Sheet Music?!
Lesson examples 6, 7a, 7b & 8b are omitted due to copyright. Much of the sheet music that Guitar Player publishes is copyrighted material, licensed from the artists to run only in the printed version of the magazine. Guitar Player continues to offer the explanatory text of these lessons online, but in order to get the complete song transcriptions and other bits of licensed sheet music, you need to have a copy of the magazine.

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