COCO MONTOYA HAS BEEN A MAINSTAY ON THE BLUES
scene for 30-something years, but a lot of players likely know
his name without knowing how cool his story is. Though his
first exposure to the blues began with Clapton, a study of Slowhand’s
influences eventually led him back to masters like Albert
King and Albert Collins. His first big break came in the mid ’70s,
when his energetic drum work in a Santa Monica-area rock band fatefully landed him a gig drumming in
Collins’ band. Before long, Montoya switched
to guitar, and found himself being schooled
by “the Iceman” and his famously stinging
Tele licks. Montoya also came to view the
late Collins as something of a father figure.
His next brush with blues greatness came
in the early ’80s, when John Mayall recruited
him to a new Bluesbreakers lineup. That gig
lasted ten years, and only ended when Collins
encouraged Montoya to set out on his own.
Since then, Montoya has toured like a madman,
done a zillion sessions, and released
six studio albums. To celebrate his career up
to this point, Blind Pig Records recently
released The Essential Coco Montoya, a 12-song
celebration of his singing leads and smoothas-
You must have a treasure trove of stories and lessons
from your days with Albert Collins.
He was just the humblest, sweetest man
in the world. He’d give you his last dollar
bill. But if you got onstage with him you’d
better be ready—that old man would kick
your ass! He’d say, “Don’t be half-steppin’
when you come up to play.” I remember one
night I was playing guitar with him, and
Stevie Ray Vaughan came out to play with
us. I went out and did my stuff, Stevie went
out and did his crazy stuff, and then Albert
came out and spanked both of us. He was
just laughing and he looked at me and said,
“Isn’t it sweet to get your ass kicked like
that?” And that’s what happened every night,
man. Then he’d come offstage and hug every
one of us. Moments like that are the sweetest
in the world. To have Albert Collins spank
your ass—I love it!
“If you walk off the
stage humble, you’ve
just magnified what you
played a hundred times.”
He clearly took you under his wing. How did he
help you develop as a musician?
When I first started playing drums for
him, I couldn’t really play blues. But Albert
stuck with me. We’d set up our gear in the
club and he’d sit in with me and play that
incredible rhythm of his, that shuffle. He’d
say, “Here—feel that? Don’t think about it.
Just feel it.” That’s the only way he ever knew
how to learn. One time he told B.B. King,
“My son’s having a little nerve problem.”
B.B. said to me, “Don’t worry about it. Listen
to what I’ve got to say. You go up there like
you’re the baddest [expletive] on the stage—
ain’t nobody better. But do yourself a favor:
When you come down off the stage, leave
that up there. It’ll always be there when you
come back.” What he was telling me about
was the magic of being a musician, the magic
and the power that a blues player holds over
a lot of other guys. If you walk off the stage
humble, you’ve just magnified what you
played a hundred times. He said, “Don’t
come off with a big ol’ chest. That don’t work
for you. You’ll ruin all that work you did.”
Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about
gear. Many of your Strats have blade humbuckers.
How did you get into those?
Those are Bill Lawrence pickups, and I wish I could give a technical explanation for
why they’re in there. But it’s just because
that’s what Albert Molinaro put in my first
left-handed Strat—which has a right-handed
neck. And I want to clear up why I have the
right-handed neck: It doesn’t do anything to
the tone or action, as far as I know. It’s just
so I can tune. Because I’m so used to playing
right-handed guitars—I just pick them up and
play them upside down. So when I got my
first left-handed Strat with a left-handed neck,
I took it onstage and went to tune and detuned the crap out of myself because I got nervous.
So that’s why I use a right-handed neck.
Are you still playing Carr amps?
Yeah, I’ve been using an 80-watt Slant
6V head for six or seven years now, and I
love it. They’ve got that old bloom—that
real fat, wide sound that’s even wider than
the amp it’s coming out of. It’s like a really
good old Super Reverb. I’m also investigating
amps from this guy named Rick Hayes
at Vintage Sound in Pensacola, Florida. When
I started out I had a Vibroverb that I loved,
and then I had three ’64 Super Reverbs that
were stolen. And Rick makes these amps
like Fender used to make them. I’ve got one
that’s voiced like a Super Reverb, only the
first channel is voiced like a Bassman and
there’s reverb on both channels. Bob Burt,
who is also in Florida, made my cabinets.
He makes some beautiful stuff. I use a 2x12
with two Eminence Commonwealths, which
have a magnet the size of a small car. Robben
Ford laughed at me, because it weighs a ton.
But I love the sound. I also use a 4x10 with
Webers. Ted Weber told me to put ceramics
on the bottom and alnicos on the top to get
a real full, fat sound.
How about pedals?
To get the Bluesbreakers sound, I use a
Hoochee-Mama made by this guy named
Tim Brown out of North Carolina. I also use
a Fulltone Full-Drive 2 for more of the Albert
Collins sting thing. And I love my Klon Centaur.
I also have a Boss Giga Delay I use for
a couple of songs.
Back to music: One of the interesting things
about your songs is that even the sad ones seem
to have a positive vibe.
I guess that also goes back to working
with Albert in the early ’70s and watching
him deal with things that were really cruel—
y’know, being a black man trying to make it
in that era. He took me places where it was
painful to watch how he was treated. I was
a young man, and a lot of times I’d be to
the point of tears. I loved this man so much
that if anybody said anything negative about
him or to him, I was young and stupid and
ready to try and shut them up. He would
grab my collar and say, “It’s not all about
being a badass. You’ve got to know when
and where to pick your fights.” He used to
say something else that used to crack me
up—and it makes so much sense. He’d say,
“Son. Uh-uh.” I’d stop and say, “What,
pop?” And he’d say, “You’re fixing to sh*t
and fall back in it.” Isn’t that a great line?
It’s like, “You’re going to make a big mistake
here. Calm down.” And, later, out of
these bad situations he would turn it so
that we were somehow laughing. How, I
don’t know. But maybe that’s what it is.
Those life experiences make you put a turn
on it at the last minute.