Universally acknowledged as one of the greatest guitarists in the history of jazz, Wes Montgomery virtually defined modern jazz guitar during the 1950s and ’60s. His unique idiomatic conception to the instrument and the power of his soloing influenced generations of players who followed him; guitar icons such as George Benson, Pat Martino, Larry Coryell, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Lee Ritenour and Russell Malone.
Historically, Wes Montgomery’s relatively short career arose in the era after Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt had established the prevailing standard for jazz guitar in the early and mid-twentieth century. Indeed, Wes was heavily influenced by Charlie Christian, in particular. But Wes changed the language of jazz guitar, harmonically, melodically and technically. The way he approached the harmonic structures of tunes, reharmonizing them by implication in the course of his improvisations set the standard for virtually every guitarist who followed him. Typically in his solos, he outlined chords melodically, but the chords he outlined were often different chords than the rhythm section was playing—a kind of subtle chord substitution—which, in effect, extended the overall harmony in an idiosyncratic way that was unique, distinctive and immediately identifiable. Wes’s compelling harmonic approach, his remarkably fluid single note facility along with his trademark octaves and use of sophisticated chord melodies influenced generations of players who followed in his wake.
Montgomery was self-taught. He devised unconventional techniques that involved, for example, striking the strings exclusively with his right thumb instead of a pick. This unorthodox fingers-on-strings approach allowed him to achieve a warm, round sound on the instrument that was instantly recognizable while his delivery was imbued with deep soul and an irrepressible swing feel that set him apart from most other players of his day.
While he emerged on the scene as a solo artist in the late 1950s as a highly regarded exponent of urgently swinging hard bop (later exemplified by such classic recordings as 1960’s The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, 1962’s Full House and 1965’s Smokin’ at the Half Note), Montgomery had success late in his career as a prominent crossover artist whose pleasingly melodic fare caught on with much larger audiences than has his pure jazz efforts. His later recordings like Bumpin’, California Dreaming, Goin’ Out of My Head and Road Song (all lush productions masterminded by Creed Taylor) served as a jumping-off point for the many pop-oriented jazz guitarists who followed him; guitarists such as Ronnie Jordan, Norman Brown, Peter White, Chieli Minucci and Chuck Loeb.
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