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Wes Montgomery Biography

When most people hear the words “jazz guitar,” an image of the legendary Wes Montgomery (1925-1968) will most often pop into their heads.

Though there were many great players before Wes, and many since, “The Thumb,” as he became known, has managed to remain the quintessential jazz guitarist in the public psyche.

Wes never learned to read music, learning tunes and improvising completely by ear, but he possessed a level of musicianship that most conservatory-educated musicians would envy.

His early training came by way of learning to play Charlie Christian solos that he would transcribe from Christian’s recordings.

Wes was so infatuated with Christian’s playing that before he could improvise on his own, Wes would perform Christian’s solos note for note on stage in place of his own improvisations.

Though early on in his career Wes was shy about improvising, Wes’ recordings are now considered essential listening for any up and coming jazz guitarist, and many of the world’s best players, including Pat Martino, George Benson and Pat Metheny, have cited him as their foremost influence.

One of the things that made Wes stand out against his peers, was the use of his right hand thumb instead of a pick.

While this technique had been employed by blues and country players for years, it was new to the world of jazz guitar when Wes started using it on his early recordings.

Wes began playing with a pick but after he was married and began having children (he was to have eight in total), he found it harder and harder to find time to practice.

Since he was working at a factory during the day and playing in jazz clubs at night, the only time to practice was when his family was sleeping.

Wes found that when he practiced with a pick, it was too loud and would wake up his wife and kids, so he tried using his thumb in hopes that it would allow him to practice at a softer volume.

After practicing with his thumb for some time, he found that he liked the soft, warm tone it produced and decided to perform this way permanently.

Wes was not only credited with revolutionizing the way jazz guitarists view their right hands, but his use of octaves also changed the way players looked at their left hands as well.

Early on in his career, Wes performed regularly at several jazz clubs in Indianapolis in groups that would have a pianist alongside the guitar.

One of the techniques that Wes picked up from the pianists he gigged with was their use of octave doubling, which was used to beef up their single note lines.

As was the case with his thumb, Wes was not the first guitarist to use octaves in his solos–Johnny Smith and others had experimented with octaves early on as well–but the level at which Wes was able to use octaves in his improvisations was unsurpassed.

While Wes was known to use octaves to play an entire solo, or even a whole tune, he most often used them as the second tier in his three tiered approach to soloing.

Wes’ multi-tiered approach started with several choruses of single line soloing followed by octaves and then finishing off with a section of chord soloing.

This approach allowed Wes to build intensity simply by increasing the amount of notes he was improvising with, starting with one note and ending with four or five note chords.

One of the little known facts about Wes’ innovations was his role in the development of the electric bass guitar.

Wes’ brother Monk Montgomery was the first bassist to tour with an electric bass when he was playing in Lionel Hampton’s band following World War II, a band that Wes toured with as well.

Though Wes did not play the upright bass, he was drawn to the sound of the bass guitar and began experimenting with it as a lead instrument.

One of the best examples of Wes’ use of the bass guitar can found on his 1960 album Movin’ Along.

On this recording Wes treated the electric bass as a lead instrument, similar to how he played guitar on his trio recordings, by playing melodies and single note solos on the instrument.

Though Wes rarely experimented with the electric bass after this recording, his use of the bass guitar as the featured instrument in a jazz ensemble was to prove inspirational to the next generation of bass players.

While Wes’ later albums tended to be filled with more pop music than jazz, especially the albums that featured classical string sections and songs taken from the pop charts of the day, Wes will always be remembered for his contributions to the world of hard bop jazz guitar.

Though some critics have chided Wes for the direction he took in his later recordings, these records, though “smoother” than his earlier works, were quintessential in helping jazz guitar reach a wider, more mainstream audience.

While some of his die hard fans may have shied away from his later albums, many new listeners were exposed to his early works by way of Wes’ commercial albums.

As a result many non-jazz listeners became indoctrinated into the world of jazz guitar through Wes’ late period recordings.  



Essential Listening


Boss Guitar (Riverside 1963)

Full House (Riverside 1962)

Incredible Jazz Guitar (Riverside 1960)

Movin’ Along (Riverside 1960)


Essential Publications


Corey Christiansen. Mel Bay Essential Jazz Lines: The Style of Wes Montgomery for Guitar. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications, 2002.

Dan Bowden. Wes Montgomery the Early Years. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Corporation, 1997.

Wolf Marshall. Best of Wes Montgomery. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2001.


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