Interview by Ralph J Gleason first published in Guitar Player Magazine in 1973
The first time I heard Wes Montgomery play, it was like being hit by a bolt of lightning. Once he hit the guitar strings with his thumb, you could feel it in your gut anywhere within the reach of sound. I heard a lot about Wes Montgomery before I ever saw him. His two brothers, Buddy and Monk, were in a group in San Francisco called the Mastersounds, and they kept saying, “Wait, wait until you hear Wes!” and they sure were right!
Wes came out to San Francisco and played with them on Sunday afternoon at the Jazz Workshop, and that was it. The club couldn’t wait to have him back. Eventually, Wes moved to the Bay Area and played with his brothers. He also worked a long engagement with John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy at the Jazz Workshop, plus an appearance with them at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and then formed his own group.
For a while before he went out on his own, Wes lived up the street from me in Berkeley. It was a bizarre kind of feeling to look out the window in the middle of the day and see the world’s greatest guitar player wandering down the street, but there he was. I got to know Wes a little (who ever knows anybody?) in those days, as he and I and his brothers put our heads together day after day trying to get the Montgomery Brothers, as a group, off and running. Despite Wes’ genius that never did happen. He had to go out on his own to do that.
The interview which follows was done when he began to record under his own name, and it disclosed something to me of which I had not been aware: Wes was actually very insecure about his own playing and very worried that when it came his turn to solo night after night, he wouldn’t be able to consistently maintain the standard he wanted. Ile really didn’t think he was good enough to play with John Coltrane and when he was offered a job by ‘Trane (What a group that would have been!). It wasn’t just the money, it was the fact that he couldn’t think of himself as the leader in his field. He was always saying that he had played much better fifteen years before.
And of course, he never got the sound he wanted out of any amplifier and spent thousands of dollars hassling with electronics. I don’t believe that in his whole professional life he ever really got the kind of sound on stage that would have made him happy. The Fender people and everybody else must have been driven crazy.
It was easy to talk to Wes, but not when he saw a microphone. I deeply regret not succumbing to my original idea which was to bug my living room so I could tape him without him knowing that his words were being recorded. I never got around to doing it; just one of those things. There was one time when he was playing in a club on Broadway in San Francisco, Barney Kessel was playing in another and Bola Sete was playing in a third. Each one of them had the other two guitar players in the audience for every show! I think they scheduled the sets to allow for it. And every guitar player in Northern California who wasn’t working was busy running from one to another of those clubs all night long.
I took a young guitar player who was also a journalist with me one night to hear all three of them, his name was Jann Wenner [Rolling Stone’s editor]. I don’t think he’s picked up a guitar since. In. any case, he has never mentioned it to me!
Wes never took a lesson in his life. He thought all kinds of guitar players were better than he was, but the truth of the matter is that he will be remembered long, long after the other names are lost in the mists of history.
How long have you been playing guitar?
I started in ‘43 when I was 19, right after I got married. I bought me an amplifier and guitar two or three months later. I used to play tenor [guitar], but it wasn’t really playing. I’ve really gone into business since I got the 6 string, which was like starting all over.
How did you get interested in playing guitar?
Charlie Christian, like all other guitar players. There was no way out. That cat tore everybody’s head up. I never saw him in my life, but he said so much on records. I don’t care what instrument a cat played, if he didn’t understand and feel the things Charlie Christian was doing, he was a pretty poor musician.
Did you hear any guitar players before him?
Reinhardt and Les Paul, those cats, but it wasn’t anything you could call new, just guitar.
What was the first Charlie Christian record you heard?
“Solo Flight.” Boy, that was too much! I still hear it. He was it for me. I didn’t hear nobody else after that for about a year.
You taught yourself guitar?
Yeah. Charlie Christian's records. I listened to them real good, and I knew that everything done on his guitar could be done on mine, because I had a 6 string, so I just determined that I would do it. About six or eight months after I started playing I had taken all the solos off the record and got a job in a club just playing them. I'd play Charlie Christian's solos, then lay out. Then a cat heard me and hired me for the Club 440 (Indianapolis). I went on the stand and played the solos. The guys in the band helped me a lot about different tunes, intros, endings and things that they had. They wired me up on all those, but after that, that was it.
You worked around Indianapolis from then on?
Well, I got pretty good and went on the road with a group. We starved. At that time I didn't realize that you'd work one gig in Kansas City, the next in Florida and the next gig will be in Louisville. You know, a thousand miles a night. That was really rough, man.
Did you go out with other bands?
Hamp (Lionel Hampton) was the only big band I went with, '48 '50.
While you were running around the country with Hamp, did you hear any other guitarists you were interested in?
To me, all guitar players can play, because I know they're getting to where they're at. But, like one guy will come up like Tal Farlow. Tal came on. the scene poppin' and burnin'. Well, instead of other guys getting their thing closed, they'd jump on Tal Farlow. Now, he can carry them for a long time, but when they get through they haven't done a thing by themselves. It's such a hard instrument that somebody has got to get things out for them to go by, evidently, because it's hard to get something on your own. It's a very hard instrument to accept, because it takes years to start working with it, that's first, and it looks like everybody else is moving on the instrument but you. Then when you find a cat that's really playing, you always find that he's been playing a long time, you can't get around it.
What do you want to do with the guitar, where do you want to go with it?
I've thought about it, but I'm so limited Like playing octaves was just a coincidence. And it's still such a challenge, like chord versions, block chords like cats play on piano. There are a lot of things that can be done with it, but each is a field of its own, and like I said it takes so much time to develop all your technique. Say if you wanted to play a chord like you would a melodic phrase, there's no telling how long it would take you to do it. I used to have headaches every time I played
octaves, because it was extra strain, but the minute I'd quit I'd be all right. I don't know why, but it was my way, and my way just backfired on me. But now I don't have headaches when I play octaves. I'm just showing you how a strain can capture a cat and almost choke him, but after a while it starts to ease up because you get used to it.
You don't use a pick, do you?
No. That's one of my downfalls, too. In order to get a certain amount of speed you should use a pick, I think. A lot of cats say you don't have to play fast, but being able to play fast can cause you to phrase better. But I just didn't like the sound. I tried it for about two months. Didn't use the thumb at all. But after two months I.still couldn't use the pick, so I said I'd go ahead and use the thumb. But then I couldn't use the thumb either, so I asked myself which are you going to use? I liked
the tone better with the thumb, but the technique better with the pick, but I couldn't have them both.
Did you ever run into any of the classical guitar players, like Segovia?
No, and I don't want to, because these cats will scare you. It doesn't make-any difference that they're playing classic, but there's so much guitar. Like if you hear a classical guitar player, he'll make you feel like "What're you playing the thing you're playing for? This is what you should be playing." He might make you want to back up, and I don't think anyone should try to get to you. But I imagine I'd be the same way with a classical guitar player. But if a jazz player is really playing,
the classical player will have to respect him.
Is playing the guitar still kicks for you?
Yes, it is. But now I don't have the drive I used to. Like the time I was with Hamp, that was the time I had the best feeling of "getting in," of bringing it right out, because it was right under my hand, but I didn't pay it any mind. You could be fooling with the thing, and nobody is doing it, but you're not either, and you've got it right under your hand. That's the way I was. Later on, a thousand people said, "Why don't you try finishing it?" Well, I said, "I'll be darned." Iike I'm 38 now.
If you had to name a half dozen of your favourite guitarists, who would they be?
Barney Kessel is one. He's got a lot of feeling, he's got a good conception of chords in a jazz manner. And he's trying to play a little flamenco. He's trying to do a lot of things, not just standing still at one particular level. He's trying to get away from the guitar phrase, to get into the horn phrase. Tal Farlow strikes me as a different cat altogether. To me, he doesn't have as much feeling as Barney Kessel, but he's got mare drive in his playing, and his technique along with his drive is
pretty exciting. And he's got a better conception of modern chords than the average guitar player. Sometimes he gets kind of sloppy like a lot of guitar players, that's why a lot of cats have put him down. But I guess nobody has it all, but he's got a lot of drive, though, and he's so fast. Now, Jimmy Raney is just the opposite of Tal Farlow. It seems like they have the same ideas, the same changes, the same type runs, the same kind of feeling, but Jimmy Raney is so smooth he does it
without a mistake, a real soft touch, it's the touch he's got. Django Reinhardt, naturally, he's in a different thing altogether. To me, a lot of guitar players don't go to a particular place, they just sit down and play a whole lot of guitar, and Reinhardt is one of those kind of cats. And I think Charlie Byrd is also a new cat on the scene that is trying to make the switch, trying to get into both bags at the same time, and he's got a lot of recognition from it, but it's a hard thing to do. I think that's why
he came in like he did, because of a little flamenco and jazz vein along with unamplified guitar.
Would it suit your temperament to sit there like Freddie Green (with Count Basie) and not take solos?
It would be all right, but I don't know that many chords. I'd be loaded if I knew that many. I'd probably go join a band and just play rhythm, man, 'cause he's not just playing chords, he's playing a tot of chords. But, that's not my aim. My aim is to move from one vein to the other without any trouble. Like, if you're going to take a melody line or a counterpoint or unison line with another instrument, do that, then maybe drop out at a certain point, then maybe next time you'll play phrases and chords, or maybe you'll take an octave or something. That way you'll have a lot of variations there. The only difference is if you can control each one of them. Still, the biggest thing to me is keeping a feeling, regardless what you play. So many cats lose their feeling at various times, not through the whole tune, but at various times, and it causes them to have to build up and drop down, and you can feel it.
Why are there so few guitar players today?
I think it's like, the average person thinks he wants to play guitar, then he goes as far as, "I think I'll buy me a ten or twelve dollar guitar and mess around to see if I like it." Then they find out, after maybe the first week or two, their fingers feel like pins are sticking into them, but they can't stop, because once they stop it'll heal up. I think a lot of people don't realize that it's just crises you've got to go through. I think another reason is when they think about playing guitar they pick it up and
feel they should automatically play what they are thinking. Then a guy thinks he'll go get himself a teacher, and the teacher has to do everything, and they won't try to do anything for themselves. But they are the one who has to learn guitar, because a teacher can only show you so much. You have melodic lines and chords, and you have the neck before you can do either one. It takes a long time, and you have to think ahead to your limits before you can do anything. Then you've got to figure if you want to slur up to a note, then you've got to come back so you've got to know where you're going. These things play so big of a part that you get discouraged when nothing happens.
It's like playing pool, isn't it?
Well of course I'm a pretty sharp pool player, but the guitar is just a hard instrument. A cat will listen to a guy that is playing and think he can do that, but he won't study on how long that cat's been playing. Then he gets discouraged because he can't even get two notes out. Then he says he'll struggle with it himself, and maybe he'll find out in six months that he still can't make a line, then he feels like he's a dumb cat. But when you find guitar players that are playing, you'll find out that at
one time they never cared if they never played, they were going to keep on until they did. After a period of time the beginning player will hear a little difference in his playing, and that little inspiration is enough to go further, and the first thing you know you won't back out. The biggest problem is getting started. Then later every time you hear guitar players everybody plays more than you. And those things are not very inspirational, they're pretty discomforting. And then somebody says, "Why don't you put that thing down, you're not doing anything with it." Well, that's no help. And you'll find
more people against you than for you, until you get started. Then you'll find more with you than against you.