How to play like Wes Montgomery

In this series, Christian Miller presents some techniques and licks from iconic Jazz guitarists.

Biography

Born in 1925 to a musical family, Wes got his start in music on a four string tenor guitar bought for the boy by his elder brother Monk. However it wasn’t until he was 20 years old on hearing Charlie Christian that we became motivated to acquire a six string and start work in earnest. This makes him one of the late starters of jazz.

Jazz guitar

The personal circumstances of his life, working two jobs welding sheet metal in Indianapolis and practicing by night makes his towering achievements all the more extraordinary. It is also, as Wes told it, the need to keep the sound of the guitar from waking his wife and seven children as he burned the midnight oil.

In any case, he got his first break playing Charlie Christian’s solos note for note in the vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s band as he didn’t yet have the confidence to improvise solos of his own. However, when the improvisor Wes started to spread his wings on classic early Riverside discs such as ‘The Incredible Jazz Guitar’, his star was truly in the ascendent.

Many classic recordings followed including ‘Bumpin’ and ‘Smokin’ at the Half Note’ as leader and sideman dates with Harold Land, Jimmy Smith, Cannonball Adderly, Nat Adderly and George Shearing. Later success and attempts at crossover success took him away from small band jazz and towards a more commercial sound covering pop hits with lush string arrangement.

Tragically Wes passed away in 1968 at the age of 45. But his conquest of the jazz guitar world was practically undisputed, and his influence can be felt today in almost every jazz guitarist.

Technique

Wes is perhaps most famed for exclusively using his right thumb to articulate notes for a great warmth of tone and with as much dexterity as a pick player! Film footage reveals that this speed and clarity was achieved through a mixture of right-hand slurs, and thumb upstrokes as well as downstrokes. In some way’s Wes’s right hand technique echoes that of Django, playing downstrokes into the guitar strings in the same way, albeit without a plectrum.

Wes Montgomery Gm13

His left hand technique is much less discussed but is equally important to his sound. Favouring a three fingered approach not dissimilar from many blues players, Wes seems to have often preferred low positions (even 1st/open position) on the guitar, but was also highly mobile along the neck using slides and shifts. This very Wes fingering for a m13 arpeggio gives an idea of this (this to be played with the three big fingers, thumb over the neck and LOTS of shifting)

This diagonal approach to fingering appears to be shared by many three fingered/self taught players, perhaps most famously Jimi Hendrix. If you haven’t experimented with this type of fingering, and are primarily a positional player, it can be really freeing to travel the fretboard in this way.

Improvisational approach

Wes really stands at the intersection between the bop era and the modal era. As a result while he was an extremely adept soloist on the functional changes you find in standard songs such as Misty and Willow Weep for Me, but also an adept soloist on such modal tunes as ‘Impressions’. Many of his compositions such as ‘Four on Six’ contain a vamp or modal element.

Wes’s playing is famously based around three tiers

  • Single note lines
  • Octaves
  • Block chords

Single Note Soloing

Wes’s single note line playing features a lot of bop language – such as arpeggios, chord tone enclosures, lines cribbed from legendary alto sax player Charlie Parker and so on. However, there’s a few elements that stick out to me as distinctively Wes:

  • Heavy use of ii-V’s. Much of Wes’s soloing is based on ii-V licks that are often transposed around the neck. This a very guitaristic approach that seems natural to the instrument. However, Wes often makes use of ii-V lines on minor vamps (so Dm-G7 on Dm), or on minor ii-V-I’s (so he’ll play Dm G7 Cm instead of Dm7b5 G7 Cm, for instance.)
  • Heavy use of the bVII sub and avoidance of the dominant chord. Often Wes will play notes from the bVIImaj7 sub on V7 – so he’ll play Fmaj7 on G7, giving an overall G7sus4 quality. This is very ‘churchy’ and became a common sound in 60s soul and pop music too.
  • Use of extended arpeggios. Wes is often found on the colourful notes of the chords, and one of his favourite moves is to play extended arpeggios like the one above over minor chords.
  • Use of the ‘wrong pentatonic’; Wes can often be heard playing the minor pentatonic scale a fourth lower than the minor chord. For example, he will often use C minor blues on Fm7. This creates a lot of interesting notes over the Fm chord – lots of colourful 9ths and 11th’s.
  • Whole tone scale. Wes’s secret weapon is the use of the whole tone scale used not just on dominants as is traditional, but on minor chords too. Taking advantage of the ii-V relationship, we can regard any minor as a dominant a fourth higher. On Four on Six from Smokin’ at the Half Note, he treats Gm7 as a C7 chord and uses C whole tone for an intriguing, off kilter sound.
  • Plenty of blues! Wes’s playing is liberally spiced with blues licks and nuances.

Octaves

Wes Montgomery octave shapes

One of his most famous traits, Wes’s use of octaves was inspired by Django, who sometimes used them for a brash, trumpet like sound. Wes’s octave work is noted for its warmth of tone, in sharp contrast!

Rather than adopt the fingering approach of classical players, Wes would lock his hand into one of two octave shapes and move his whole hand to play lines. Playing the octave with his thumb and muting the string in between, Wes was able to achieve almost as much speed and flexibility as he did in his single note playing.

Wes became celebrated for the beauty of his tone, and later in his career was to be found playing the role of ‘lead vocalist’ in a more mainstream ‘easy listening’ orchestral setting, playing pop tunes and so on in the hopes of gaining a wider audience. While not the favourites of jazz guitar obsessives, these recordings do show the strengths of Wes as a player of melodies.

Block Chords

In jazz arranging, block chords are chords that harmonise a melody and move together as one, in parallel motion. Originally an arranging tool for sax sections, this approach became adapted for piano by such players as George Shearing, and I wonder if Wes’s brother, Buddy, a fine pianist, might not have hipped the guitarist to this idea? In any case, on guitar the technique fast became a Wes Montomgery trademark.

Wes Montgomery block chords

The logic of block chords is relatively simple. If you take inversions of chords on the top four strings, one can harmonise any chord tones with that chord (so the notes C E G A for example, can be harmonised with a C6/Am7 chord. Then any notes that aren’t chord tones can be harmonised with a dim7 grip. I’ve given an example below of part of a well-known melody to demonstrate.

Wes would often use block chords to riff – playing strong repeated rhythmic figures to build his solos to a powerful climax.

Building energy in solos

His tiered strategy – single notes, octave then block chords, gave him three gears in an uptempo solo, allowing him to create mounting excitement and drama. His solo on No Blues on Smokin’ at The Half Note is a quintessential example; but the album and his work in general is full of examples of this technique. As Wes himself put it:

‘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.

Gear and Tone

Wes was associated with Gibson archtop guitars throughout his career, most famously his single pickup L5, but also a Gibson ES175 which he used on ‘the Incredible Jazz Guitar.’ Amplification varied between Fender tube amps and solid state amplification, but headroom seemed to important to Wes – it doesn’t appear he was particularly interested in using the amp to colour his tone, but it’s worth noting that we often kept the amp quite bright by modern standards, using his thumb to keep the tone mellow. Strings were also flatwounds, with a swift decay and a distinctive ‘thunk’ redolent of this era of jazz guitar.

It is possible to hear some Reverb on some of his recordings; this was almost certainly added in post-production as Wes generally played without reverb. However, you can sometimes hear him using subtle tremolo (often built into the Fender amps of the mid 60s) to beautifully colour his ballad playing such as on ‘Portrait of Jennie’ from Smokin’ at the Half Note.

For my recordings for the site, I used my 1968 ES-175 with a Fender Princeton Reverb. Bliss!

Time/Feel

I’ve saved perhaps the most important aspect of Wes’s playing to last – his all important time/feel and sense of swing. Time and rhythm can be boiled down to two elements – those which can be understood in notation and those which can’t. I’ll briefly focus on the former before discussion the latter.

One aspect that’s really important in developing a swing feel is knowing when to slur and when to pick. Even for Wes’s mighty thumb, picking every note was out of the question, so some notes would always have to be slurred in some way, whether through left hand hammer ons and pull offs, or through slides.

The figure below indicates some slurring to help that swing feel. Notice how when ascending I emphasise the beat on the ascending phrase and slur relatively little, while descending I pick the upbeats and slur onto the downbeats. This style of picking fits the thumb technique well, while also imitating some of the tonguing used by horn plays. If you try it with the thumb start with all down strokes, and maybe try the upstrokes too if you fancy a challenge!

Wes Montgomery swing feel

Notice also in the examples on the site how Wes uses accents to create swing in his lines.

The more intuitive elements of feel are hard to discuss, but I have two useful pointers. First of all resist the temptation to try to make the notes unequal – this will happen naturally. Secondly practice singing the ‘ands’ of the bar with a recording of Wes. You may find this really hard at first – think of a Jump/Jive guitar rhythm pattern if it helps. This will help you feel the swing more strongly.

Lastly, one of aspect of Wes’s playing that I don’t hear discussed too often is his use of ‘negative space’ rhythmically. For Wes, it was just as important where the chord or note ended as where it started. Listen carefully to how and where he cuts then notes and chords off in his recordings, and hear how it helps the infectious sense of swing.