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- honey voice.
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.