Born in 1925, John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery started playing guitar late in his teens. Almost immediately, Montgomery eschewed the plectrum—purely for sonic reasons—in favor of the meaty part of his thumb, creating a lusciously fat tone that would become as synonymous with jazz guitar as distortion would to rock guitar. Montgomery’s other calling cards are his use of octaves and block chords.
For the most part, Montgomery relied on a Gibson L-5 CES and a Fender Pro Reverb or a Standel Super Custom XV amplifier (for 1959’s The Wes Montgomery Trio, he borrowed Kenny Burrell’s Gibson L-7 and Fender Twin). Montgomery also preferred heavy-gauge, flatwound strings, and he turned his guitar’s tone control way down.
Montgomery’s first noteworthy gig came in 1948, with a two-year stint in vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s band. But in 1950, Montgomery returned to his native Indianapolis to take care of his family, working as a welder by day and honing his 6-string chops by night. By the late ’50s, Montgomery had made several recordings with his brothers Buddy (vibraphone) and Monk (electric bass). From 1960-1962, Montgomery resided in San Francisco, and, for a brief time in 1961, he was a member of John Coltrane’s group, which also featured pianist McCoy Tyner and multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy. Sadly, no recordings of this group exist.
Between 1964 and 1966, Montgomery released a series of albums that framed his guitar in more of a pop context, complete with orchestral arrangements. Two records stand out from this period: 1965’s decidedly non-pop Smokin’ at the Halfnote (which Pat Metheny calls, “The absolute greatest jazz guitar album ever made”), and the slamming Jimmy And Wes: The Dynamic Duo (which paired Montgomery with the master of the Hammond B-3, Jimmy Smith).
In 1967 and 1968, Montgomery made three ultra-sugary albums—A Day in the Life, Down Here On the Ground, and Road Song—that die-hard jazzers deemed as unabashed sell-outs. Still, those recordings sold, and they introduced a new generation of radio listeners to jazz and Montgomery’s singular style. But at the height of his crossover success in 1968, Montgomery died of a heart attack. He was just 43.