Wes Montgomery is the father of modern Jazz guitar, but it was not because he played with his thumb or used octaves. This video explores what is truly amazing about his playing.
There are not that many recordings that made such a huge impact on me that I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard them the first time, but it is amazing when you have that experience. My classical guitar teacher, Morten Skott, had suggested that if I wanted to learn Jazz then I should listen to Wes Montgomery, so I went from that lesson down to the record store and bought a Verve compilation on my way home.
The first tracks didn’t really resonate with me, and especially the string orchestra and big band were not what I expected. I was used to Parker playing with small groups and Scofield playing trio or quartet.
I guess it was the blues that really made the difference for me when I got to the last track on the album, the thumb. My way into Jazz was really coming through blues, I had the same thing with Parker where I completely got, KC Blues, Now’s The Time, and Au Privave but a piece like Donna Lee that I had heard of as being very famous just sounded random and chaotic to me.
The Thumb, is Wes playing in a trio with Ron Carter and Grady Tate, and the track is a masterclass in phrasing and Jazz tradition. Wes makes the trio sound like a big band and really relies as much on swing and blues tradition as he does on bebop harmony, again not unlike Charlie Parker.
It Is Not Playing Octaves With Your Thumb
To me, the essential lessons you learn from Wes are not about playing with your thumb, using octaves, or playing chord solos. Those are really great techniques, but they are just techniques. I think there are much more important things to learn and get into your own playing than focusing on those.
Now, If that offends you then feel free to relieve your anger in the comments, down below.
These discussions with only playing Wes line with your thumb and Django only used two fingers. To me, it doesn’t really make sense, but I guess for hardcore Django fans there is only one way to go…
At the same time if you listen to people like Robin, Christiaan and Mikko then I think have all fingers seems work too.
For the rest, you will probably agree with everything else I say in this video and I have one influence on Wes that I think is seriously overlooked, but I’ll get back to that later.
#1 Not Afraid To Keep It Simple
One of the things that Wes does really well is to make every note count, and he doesn’t rely on using many notes very often.
You can see examples of this in how Wes often uses quarter note with a single note, like this phrase from Four On Six:
and it is common when he plays octaves like this example from the thumb:
In this example from the Thumb, he is actually ignoring the changes and just playing the root for almost 4 bars which is also not that common in Jazz.
You also want to notice that he might be playing one note and only play quarter notes, but he is still playing with dynamics adding an accent to 2 and 4 to lock in with the groove.
#2 The Power Of Short Phrases
Compared to a lot of other great improvisers then Wes plays a lot of short phrases, especially if you compare him to a lot of other Bebop and Hardbop guitarists, but that is also one thing that he uses to make his solos so incredibly melodic and often also incredibly groovy.
Wes will play short melodic ideas and he is a master at tying them together in very creative ways:
In this example, he starts out with call-response between a lower and a higher melody.
Then this is turned into a descending arpeggio motif that he takes through the shifting II V’s
And you can easily hear how the shorter phrases are connected to each other and develop tying the entire segment together as a complete piece of music. Again not playing more notes than needed.
Side-note: If you know your Wes solos, then you will probably notice that I am using fragments from both the Incredible Jazz Guitar version and the Smokin’ at the half note version. This last one was from Smokin at the half note.
Another example of how he employs Call response is from the other recording of four on six:
Here you have a very clear call with octaves and then the response with the arpeggio melody.
Again the idea is that we recognize one part and hear the other part change
The most important aspect of this is that it ties the whole solo together, he is not just playing from one note to the next. He is playing phrases that are related to each other, and often this ties together longer periods like 8 or 16 bars.
I think this is a huge part of what Pat Metheny describes as “melodic clarity” when he talks about how Wes influenced him in the interview on Alex Skolnick’s podcast “Moods and Modes”. If you haven’t heard that then go check it out, it is certainly worth listening to, both for Pat being an amazing musician, but also for Alex’s really useful perspective and explanations that tie together the whole thing.
#3 Repetition Legitimizes
Another thing that is closely related to the short phrases that Wes also really takes advantage of very often is using riffs. In the Thumb he repeats a two-note figure that really comes across as a part of a big band shout chorus:
Essentially he plays the same melody with the same rhythm and only changes things to fit the chord progression.
The use of quarter note rhythms and drop2 voicings also really helps to bring the big band vibe.
The Secret to Wes’ Phrasing?
There is one influence on Wes that is rarely mentioned but is clearly very important.
This example is almost a direct quote of the shout chorus riff in Count Basie’s Splanky, and usually we talk about Wes being inspired by Charlie Christian, and you can hear Parker licks in his playing quite often, but you have to remember that he was also growing in a period where popular music was Big Band Swing, and those types of melodies and that type of phrasing is not getting the credit it deserves for being a part of his playing.
Splanky is off the legendary Count Basie album Atomic Basie, and if you want to improve your phrasing and learn to think in shorter riff like phrases in your solos then learning a few of those melodies and playing them along with this amazing big band is probably not the worst idea in the world.
Another example of a similar big band inspired riff is found in his solo on Nica’s Dream, again using rhythm and drop2 voicings to make it really stand out:
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