In Gibson.com's ongoing series, we are looking inside the styles and guitars of some Gibson greats. Let's go for some jazz genius with the peerless Wes Montgomery.

Who was he?

Wes Montgomery A titan of jazz guitar. Or, frankly, any guitar playing. John Leslie Montgomery (1923 – 1968) was just 45 when he passed, but left an incredible legacy. “Wes”, a skewed nickname of his middle name, only started playing 6-string guitar when he was 20 – inspired by Charlie Christian, among others – but soon became a star.

I am maybe not alone if I say jazz can be hard. Hard to play, certainly. Sometimes, harder to even listen to. Wes, however, made it all sound easy. He could play rugged, raw, smooth, even “pop”… but what shone was his sheer musicality. Boy, could Wes play the guitar. Not that this really matters, but he was an impeccable dresser, too!

Wes, for all his smooth sounds, was “hardcore”. He toured with jazz bandleader Lionel Hampton early in his career (1948-1950), but eventually went back to his birthplace of Indianapolis. To support his family of eight, Montgomery worked in a factory from 7am to 3pm, practiced guitar, and then performed in local clubs from 9pm to 2am. Now, that's work!

Montgomery was self-taught. He somehow learned, just by listening note-for-note, Charlie Christian solos. Jazz always includes a lot of reinterpretation, but Wes put his own stamp on the tunes of the day. And took them forward. He then wrote his own songs. He had a unique technique. A bold vision to take jazz guitar into the mainstream. And, simply, a love of guitar that any player should appreciate.

Signature Sounds

Octaves! Montgomery's sound was soon defined by this. Jazz guitar educator Wolf Marshall says Montgomery often approached solos in a three-tiered manner: he would begin a repeating progression with single note lines, derived from scales or modes; after a fitting number of sequences, he would play octaves for a few more sequences, finally culminating with block chords. Montgomery used mostly superimposed triads and arpeggios as the main source for his soloing ideas and sounds.

But it was Montgomery's use of octaves - playing the same note on two strings usually one octave apart - that became his “signature.” It became known as “the Naptown Sound”, Naptown being a nickname for Indianapolis.

Former editor of Guitar Player magazine, Jim Ferguson, said that Wes “played guitar like a horn. He phrased like a horn player. It was really different.” Wes was different. But soon, many others were trying to emulate him, such as Pat Martino, Emily RemlerPat Metheny, and, probably his closest heir, George Benson. Even Joe Satriani cites Wes as a major influence. It's no surprise. Wes could solo like a rocket.

But Wes Montgomery remained “different”. Instead of using a pick, Montgomery plucked with the fleshy part of his thumb, using down-strokes for single notes and a combination of upstrokes and down-strokes for chords and octaves.

Montgomery developed this unique technique not for technical reasons but for his neighbors. When he worked long hours as a machinist he practiced guitar late at night. To keep neighbors from complaining, he began playing more quietly by using his thumb.

George Benson, in the liner notes of the Ultimate Wes Montgomery album, wrote, “Wes had a corn on his thumb, which gave his sound that point. He would get one sound for the soft parts, and then that point by using the corn. That's why no one will ever match Wes. And his thumb was double-jointed. He could bend it all the way back to touch his wrist, which he would do to shock people.”

Add everything up, and it's true to say there will never be another Wes Montgomery. If jazz guitar ever became “mainstream”, it was because of Wes.

Wes Montgomery and Gibson

Wes nearly always played Gibson, but the model he is most associated with is the L-5 CES. Gibson Custom makes a period-correct replica. He'd early-on played L-5s with Gibson’s single coil P-90 or Alnico pickups but then ordered a custom L-5 with a rounded cutaway – instead of the sharper Florentine cutaway – and a single humbucker pickup situated at the end of the fingerboard.

Wes Montgomery L5CES guitar from Gibson

It's a big “jazzbox” but, oh my, is it beautiful. I played one just once, and it sounded and looked equally fantastic. Did I play like Wes? Uhhh, forget it!

Essential Listening

As with all “heritage” artists, there's a wealth of compilations. Ultimate Wes Montgomery is a solid collection of just 12 highlights from the guitarist's Verve label recordings, selected by George Benson who also provides the sleeve-notes.

But it's better to go for boxsets of original albums. The Classic Recordings 1958 – 1960 and The Classic Recordings 1960 – 1962 boxes bundle together original albums (well, most tracks) at bargain prices. And some of these earlier Riverside label recordings have a lot more grit.

Watch!

Filmed performances of Montgomery are quite rare, but there's a Live in '65 set (three gigs, three different bands) that shines. For a taster of live Montgomery, here he is live in London with good close-up camera work on those magic fingers.

If you think you don't like instrumental jazz guitar, Wes Montgomery is the man who will change your mind.