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“I’ve been asked a lot of times do I play classical style, which I don’t because you need all five fingers.” — Wes Montgomery
Wes’s playing has a warm, rich, tactile tone that jazz lovers instantly recognize. How’d he get that sound? Well, Wes played with his thumb instead of a pick.
It’s hard to believe, but Wes played even his fastest single note solo lines using only downstrokes with his thumb.
Though it became part of his signature sound, Wes didn’t begin playing with his thumb for the sound texture. Instead, it’s a byproduct of the man’s consideration for his wife, Serene, and their neighbors. Playing with his thumb instead of a pick allowed Wes to practice at a lower volume. And, presumably, avoid eviction.
Wes’s plan at the time was to practice with his thumb until he started playing live gigs—but soon discovered that playing with a pick requires practicing with a pick. After dropping half a box of the things all over the floor at his feet, Wes ditched picks altogether and just went on playing with his thumb for the rest of his career.
Wes’s Solo Style
Wes tended to construct long solos that picked up steam as they went, building up thicker and thicker tension until it all boiled over and the whole audience jumped to their feet.
Like his predecessor Charlie Christian, Wes phrased his lines like a horn player, complete with breath pauses. Often he’d start a solo with some single note lines, then begin to play octave runs, and finally chord melodies.
Playing octaves is practically synonymous with Wes’s name. It makes sense that he’d progress toward octave runs and chord melodies—these are techniques that horn players can’t match on their instruments.
Ted Greene notes that Wes liked to play 3 groups of 2 over 6/8 time, going against the grain of the rhythm section. The normal feel of 6/8 is “BA-buh-buh BA-buh-buh”. Instead, Wes played “BA-buh BA-buh BA-buh”.
And when the time signature was 4, Wes liked to play in 3. This instinct to push against the rhythmic grain is an important part of the exciting sound in Wes’s solos.
Wes’s Later Career and Fame
With avant-garde jazz erupting all around him, Wes went on playing in styles he knew and understood, referring to free jazz as the “New Thing.” Despite his mastery of guitar, in 1965 Wes seemed puzzled by the abstract forms of music emanating from players like Ornette Coleman. Wes had found a style that made sense to him, and he stuck to it.
In his later years Wes began playing the melodies of pop songs for A&M Records. Though jazz purists were thoroughly bummed out by this, Wes earned wide popularity, made a pile of money, and won Grammy awards for these records. Sadly, his success was cut short.
Wes died of a heart attack without warning in 1968. He was only 45 years old.
George Benson, himself a guitar giant, called Wes an “unlikely genius”. Wes never did learn to read music well. According to friends, he had a hard time explaining his own music knowledge in words, and seemed unaware of how amazing his music was. He approached the guitar almost like a welding job—putting in long hours to please his boss (the audience) and support his family.
Along the way, Wes set such a high bar for guitar that jazz players still measure themselves against his work.
His place in music history is assured, and he’ll go on inspiring guitarists for decades to come. Thanks for the music, Wes. Rest well, man.