Tag Archives: Great

Great Guitarists #7: Wes Montgomery

As we arrive at the final installment of this week-long mini series, there is one Great Guitarist left to feature, and we’re ending on a high. Since I’ve focused this short run of articles on jazz guitar players, it is essential to include the man who has left an indelible influence on how jazz guitar is played…

Wes Montgomery

He played impossible things on the guitar because it was never pointed out to him that they were impossible

– Ronnie Scott

Like the origins of jazz itself, nothing about Montgomery’s career was orthodox. Born John Leslie Montgomery in Indianapolis, 1923, ‘Wes’ only dabbled in music until hearing a Benny Goodman record, aged nineteen. The record in question featured the guitar playing of Charlie Christian (the installment from this series on Charlie Christian can be found here) and inspired Montgomery to buy a guitar the very next day. He spent almost a year learning Christian’s solos, particularly those from the record Solo Flight.

Working as a welder during the day, Montgomery’s guitar practise sessions took place at night, leading to complaints from his neighbours and his wife. His solution was to ditch the pick and pick the guitar’s strings with the dude if his thumb, as this was much quieter. His use of octave playing also comes from this period, as it enabled Montgomery to better hear what he was playing as he practiced. This technique, which Montgomery has said gave him real “headaches” when learning, was relatively rare in guitar playing; following the influence Montgomery left behind, it is now one of the most definitively recognisable characteristics of jazz guitar.

Success didn’t come easy or quick for Montgomery. Although he had started to build his reputation as a guitarist while playing in ensembles with his two brothers, Monk (bass) and Buddy (piano & vibraphone),thete early recordings did not garner much commercial success. In his mid-thirties, Montgomery had returned to working factory shifts during the day, to support his wife and six children, then gigging in jazz clubs until the wee small hours.

This lifestyle ultimately took a toll on his health, but the sheer amount of graft Montgomery was devoting to his playing was paying off. Without being able to read a note of music, Montgomery used his ears and his heart to make his playing swing. His prolific use of octaves, as well as his chord-based soloing (usually on the highest four strings), all without fully understanding the theory of what he played, revolutionised the way in which jazz guitar could be approached and performed.

A chance discovery by saxophonist Cannonball Alderley led to Montgomery being signed to Riverside Records in 1959. Montgomery was soon a rising star, although his more pop-friendly crossover records in the mid-sixties (covers of pop songs, often featuring additional orchestration) led to him being considered a ‘sell out’ by so e jazz musicians. He died of a heart attack while on tour in June 1968,aged just forty-five.

Montgomery’s legacy survives through the countless guitar players he influenced. These include his friend (and another guitarist to experience crossover success) George Benson, Pat Matheny and Earl Klugh, to name only a handful.

Essential Listening

Despite Montgomery’s short recording career, he recorded sixteen LPs as band leader in his lifetime, as well earlier recordings with his brothers as The Mastersounds and a handful of posthumous releases. Smokin’ At The Half Note (1965) is a fantastic live album that I ehie heartedly recommended you give some time to.

For studio cuts, you won’t go wrong with his first few albums with Riverside. A personal favourite is The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960), which includes some of his more well-known pieces such as ‘Four On Six’ and ‘West Coast Blues’.

…And that brings us to the end of this week’s Great Guitarists mini series. I’d love to hear what you guys thought, and what you’d like me to look at in future posts, as I will definitely be bringing this feature back in the future, perhaps focusing on a different genre. I’ll likely post another quick round-up of the last seven installments next week, with a few honourable mentions. I have a few additional thoughts which I have left out of some of these posts, to keep them concise, which I will share with you soon. Until then, keep playing…

Great Guitarists #3: George Benson

We’ve already reached the third installment in this week-long special celebrating Great Guitarists. Today’s player has a connection to my first featured player, Earl Klugh, and is another guitarist influenced by Wes Montgomery. Any guesses? Read on…

George Benson

Born in 1943 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Benson started performing at the age if eight, and recorded his first single a year later, although it did not garner much success for him at the time. After graduating high school, Benson found work as a sideman, and recorded his first record as band leader, The New Boss Guitar of George Benson in 1964, aged just twenty-one. Amazingly, his guitar during these early years was hand-built for him by his stepfather!

Benson continued a prolific run of albums throughout the sixties & seventies, often with some big jazz names guesting (Earl Klugh played guitar in his band for two albums and tours in 1972-73). He even found time to perform on the Miles Davis track ‘Paraphernalia’ from Miles In The Sky (1968). To date, Benson has released thirty-six albums across the last six decades and still tours regularly, which certainly puts plenty other musicians to shame!

Guitar Style

A lifelong user of archtop guitars, such as his signature Ibanez models, Benson’s playing style comes directly from his hero and number one influence, Wes Montgomery. Like Montgomery (and Klugh), Benson doesn’t use a guitar pick, nor does he employ the conventional classical method in his fingerpickng. Instead, all three make extensive use of their thumbs. When using his other right hand fingers, Benson seems to use the rest stroke style of Django Reinhardt.

What sets Benson apart is his speed, all while remaining fluid and innately soulful. It’s hard to maintain a melodic heart during such fast runs, although Benson’s habit if singing/scatting his guitar lines while improvising them probably helps!

Essential listening

To be honest, Benson’s back catalogue is chock full of amazing guitar work. However, if you’d prefer to stay away from the singing, anything before the 1976 album/hit instrumental Breezin’ is your best bet. Personally, I’d recommend White Rabbit (1972) and the wonderfully titled Giblet Gravy from 1968 (featuring fellow jazz legends Herbie Hancock & Billy Cobham, among others) for starters.

Good King Bad (1976) shows where Benson’s style was heading, with a tighter, funkier backline, which some critics believe led to more focused phrasing in his guitar playing. The title track from this album, Theme from Good King Bad, demonstrates Benson’s soloing prowess wonderfully. Yes, the main theme might sound a little dated to our ears, but stick with it. The guitar solo (over the song’s B section) starts with octave melodies, then three notes at once, moving as melody chords, before Benson really starts to cut loose with some dazzling – yet tasteful – single note phrases.

One of the things that I love about this solo in particular is Benson’s choice of landing note. Namely, where he ends his phrases, and how they relate to the chords underneath. This is something I plan on exploring deeper in a future post, but it’s worth summarising here: with a strong opening and a tight landing will make almost all solos (or the phrases they are made up of) sound great. This is something Benson has done throughout his career, and he still seems to be going strong, continuing to record and perform through his eightieth decade…

Meet me back here tomorrow, for Day Four in this mini series. As always, let me know what you think. I’d especially love to hear your suggestions for future players to feature, as I plan to continue adding to this series as a semi-regular theme from time to time. Make your voice heard!

Great Guitarists #2: Barney Kessel

Welcome back to my Great Guitarists mini series (you can read Day One’s piece on Earl Klugh here). Today, allow me to introduce you to my favourite guitar player of all time…

Barney Kessel

While Kessel might not be the most recognisable face or name to many, his prolific session work over several decades means you are guaranteed to have heard his guitar playing. Early gigs for Kessel included the bands of Chico Marx, Artie Shaw, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Oscar Peterson.

Later, he was one of the regular LA session players known collectively (and famously) as The Wrecking Crew. Around the same time, Kessel found ample work as an accompanist. His most recognisable song is Julie London’s definitive version of ‘Cry Me A River’ (from her 1955 album Julie Is Her Name – worth checking out for Kessel’s guitar arrangements alone). He also provided similar guitar backing for several other great jazz singers, such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day.

Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1923, Kessel was known by early bandmates for practising up to 16 hours a day. Judging by the amount of work he had, those hours of practice clearly paid off – and I haven’t even touched upon the countless records he released under his own name, not to mention his film scores, world tours with other legendary jazz guitarists or his regular guitar advice column!

In terms of a definitive track, where do I start? Pick up any album by him and you’ll be rewarded with his amazing guitar playing, from choral soloing through to wonderfully fluid single note lines. Kessel played hollowbody electrics almost exclusively, and although he moved around from various Gibsons to Kay models and back again, his thick tone with a piano-like clarity rings through. Perhaps we should begin with his beautiful version of the jazz standard Autumn Leaves, performed live in this video from 1979. Enjoy!

As always, do tell me what you think. The full list of guitar players featured in this week’s series aren’t set in stone yet, so if you have any suggestions (ideally with a jazz bent for this week’s run), please do get in touch. I love hearing what you guys think!

Until tomorrow…