SINCE HIS FATEFUL APPEARANCE AS A relative unknown on the fabled Austin City Limits television show in 1999, Monte Montgomery has garnered gobs of acclaim for wringing furious, bristling chops out of his 1987 Alvarez DY62C steel-string acoustic—chops that’d make you feel like you had your rear end handed to you on a solid-cedar platter even if they were played on a solidbody. And that word “wringing” isn’t just for hyperbolic effect: The man gets so physical with his ax that, after busting its neck several times, he had to enlist the Alvarez folks to build a strangle-resistant fivepiece design. But Montgomery isn’t the toast of his hometown of Austin just because he can kick on his Tube Screamer and smack, tap, and warp his flattop into a raging rock machine instead of having the box simply explode with uncontrollable feedback. He’s also got a gritty, soulful voice, and pop smarts tempered by a delightful unpredictability.
For his latest release, entitled simply Monte Montgomery [Thirty Tigers], Montgomery and his stellar bandmates—bassist David Piggott and drummer Phil Bass—traveled to Nashville and recorded everything live together in one room over the course of a little more than a week. The result is as kickass as anything Montgomery has ever put to tape or hard disk. From the opening track, “River”—a nearly eight-minute-long country rocker in which Montgomery’s throaty vocals pulse with as much electricity as his slippery slide work—to the feelgood, radio-ready “Be Still,” and the ripping rollercoaster ride of “Little Wing” (which clocks in at more than ten minutes), it’s a 12-song nexus of dexterous guitar work and engaging songcraft.
This was your first time recording an album outside of Texas. What prompted the change?
I just wanted to completely change the environment and find something new. I’m working with management and agencies and all these people out of Nashville, so it just seemed like it might be a cool place to try to cut something and get away from the familiar scenery of Austin. Anytime I make a record here, it’s like I’m on parade—there are tons of people coming through when I’m recording, and that can be distracting. So, we just kind of sequestered ourselves in Nashville for a week and a half, which helped us to really focus, and also gave us an edge, because we felt that we had a little something to prove. Like, the engineer had worked with Neil Young quite a bit and got a Grammy for some work he’d done with him. Working with people at that level made me want to show them that Austin had something special, too. I wanted to bring the rock, if you know what I mean.
Speaking of that, “River” is just soaked with attitude.
That’s one of the straight-up tracks—there’s no guitar overdubs or anything on that take. It’s just raw energy in your face.
The tones fly out of the speakers with incredible electricity and dynamics. Is that due more to your guitar rig, recording techniques, or both?
We did a few things differently, but not too different. A lot of it had to do with the mix, but we were also all in one big room together while recording. As far as the tone, we drew from a few different sources. I had a couple of SWR California Blonde II amps tucked away and miked in another room, and then I had my old Trace Elliott TA100 combo elevated behind me so I could have this relationship between the amp and the guitar and get some of that cool feedback that you hear on “River.” I also took a couple of lines out of my Ampeg SVTDI tube preamps. All of those sources were combined to create the sound.
Did you use a volume pedal for the rapid swells at the beginning of “Little Wing”?
No, that was just my little Boss TR-2 Tremolo pedal. The trick is to hit the notes at the top of the wave so you don’t hear the attack.
How did your take on that song evolve?
Playing it a million times. I don’t get really technical about writing out sections, I just play, and the music moves me. And it’s an exploration every time. I could never play that song the same way twice. I can listen to old versions of me doing that song and I can hear the evolution in my playing. You might hear the evolution of the song, but I’ll hear the evolution of my style.
What kind of evolution?
It’s a combination of the phrasing and the techniques and the licks. Later versions are a lot more open and less predictable— more just going for it. I had a tendency to be slower and more clinical in the past. These days it’s more speed, at times, and more feel. The version of “Little Wing” on the record is a great example of the old and the new, because I really tried to build that with a simpler approach and not shoot my wad too soon. I come in low, and there’s a flow where it reaches this dynamic peak, and then comes back down, and then rises up again. It’s kind of a rolling effect. Although, naturally, I feel like I could do it better [laughs].
Did you use your ’87 Alvarez for the whole album or did you also use your MMY1 signature model?
I used my old one for all the live stuff. I used my signature model sparingly, maybe on a couple of solos and for an overdub on “Moonlight Tango.” Both guitars are strung with D’Addario EXP strings gauged .012-.053.
How about effects?
I use the same stuff I’ve been using for years: A Boss CS-2 Compressor, and Boss RV-5 Digital Reverb, DD-6 Digital Delay, and TR-2 Tremolo pedals, as well as a TC Electronic Stereo Chorus, an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer, and the two Ampeg SVTDI tube direct boxes.
To get that bite in your tone, you have to rely solely on a piezo signal and tons of compression. What’s the secret to managing that without getting the dreaded piezo quack?
I’m blessed to have a guitar that’s very balanced sounding. It has just the right amount of low end, a very warm midrange, and a top end that cuts but isn’t shrill. I do have a little bit of low-mid woofiness that I have to constantly fight and mute so it doesn’t ring out.
Do you mute it with your hands or a notch filter?
I mute it with both hands.
Your playing shatters the notion that chops and songwriting have to be in conflict. Do the two come naturally for you?
The song has to come first, and the guitar just supports it. I’m trying to be better at everything, but I took to guitar pretty quickly at an early age, so these days I work the most on songwriting. At first I just played solo acoustic, so I tried to write songs that could be represented well with just a guitar and my voice—and I knew if they went over well like that I had some decent songs. The trick is to then try to develop them into something that can also showcase the guitar. And that only happens after a song has been performed so often that the guitar parts evolve into an integral part of it. That’s what you hear on “River.”
How long do you perform a song before it ends up on an album?
I always hate taking a new song into the studio and writing parts right there, because then I’ll get out on the road and start doing something that I feel is better suited to that song. I like to hear songs live and find out what really works well through trial and error.
Are there any new experimental directions you’re contemplating?
To be honest, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing. There are things I’d like to do alongside what I’m doing now, but musically I’d like to continue growing the way I have been. I’d love to get a little electric trio together, but I don’t think my fans would stand for it. People want to come see me play acoustic, because you can’t really see anything like that anywhere else—I’m that guy. I’ve created a monster.