Wes Montgomery: Accidental Genius of the Electric Guitar

Wes Montgomery

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If any player truly continued Charlie Christian’s legacy through the bebop period and beyond, it’s Wes Montgomery.

Wes has long been named as one of the three titans of jazz guitar, standing alongside the likes of Django Reinhardt and electric guitar trailblazer Charlie Christian.

Wes’s playing has influenced: George Benson, Grant Green, Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix, and Pat Metheny (to name a few). Wes even jammed with John Coltrane himself—and Coltrane offered him a job.

Wes turned Coltrane down, though, because he wanted to continue leading his own band in a time when guitarists almost never led bands.

Charlie Christian’s Influence

Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery

“I don’t know whether it was his melodic lines, his sound or his approach, but I hadn’t heard anything like that before. He wasn’t the first electric guitarist I’d heard because Les Paul was around at that time, but I didn’t get much from him. Maybe Christian stuck out because he was so different. He sounded so good and it sounded easy, so I said maybe the big thing of it is just to buy an instrument!

I had a good job as a welder so I bought me a guitar and amplifier and said now I can’t do nothing but play! But I found out it’s not that easy. Really welding was my talent, I think, but I sort of swished it aside!” — Wes Montgomery, interview with Valerie Kilmer for Jazz Monthly magazine, 1965.

Wes grew up playing a four-string tenor guitar, but didn’t buy his first true six-string electric until age 20.

Armed with his new Gibson L5-CES, Wes sat for hours learning to play Charlie Christian’s solos note for note from recordings. He became such a skilled mimic of Christian’s work that one of Christian’s former bandmates, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, eventually hired Wes to play those solos in live shows.

At first, those cover tunes were all Wes knew how to play. Within a few months of buying his first guitar, though, Wes caught the attention of a local club owner and found himself billed as a featured performer. The crowd loved him.

“One day I got a hand so big they wouldn’t let me off the stage. But I couldn’t play nothing else! It was so embarrassing, so I said I’ve got to go back and start practicing.” —Wes Montgomery, interview with Valerie Kilmer for Jazz Monthly magazine, 1965.

Beyond just playing Christian’s solos note for note, though, Wes also came to embody the spirit of his favorite guitarist’s work by practicing until he could hold his own against horn players—proving that guitarists can match other jazz players for speed, technique, lyricism, and fluidity of thought.

And that’s no small accomplishment in a style of jazz that worshiped musical monsters like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. What with guitar being such a tough instrument to learn, most guitarists weren’t (and still aren’t) up to the challenge of bebop. Nonetheless, Wes carved himself a well-deserved name as one of very few bebop guitarists active in the 1950’s. And—as you’ll see in part two of this series—he did it with a playing technique that most players only resort to when they drop their picks.

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Nicholas Tozier

Nicholas Tozier is a book hoarder and songbird from the woods of Maine. In 2012 he made a small cameo in Songwriting Without Boundaries by Berklee professor Pat Pattison, and was named one of CDBaby’s top 10 Songwriting Resources to follow on Twitter.

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