Thursday, October 9, 2014

Interview with Wes Montgomery in Crescendo 1965

Duarte: To what extent has your thinking been shaped, and your style determined, by the voluntary physical limitation you have placed on yourself, in that you play with your thumb instead of a pick?

Well, I don't know. I think that same question applies for people with other methods, too, because you have to have development, to do certain things. But your mind can go so far past your development, in any direction. I think we all are trying to bring our minds back to our development, and make it come out. So, as far as handicaps - like Reinhardt - he was handicapped, but at the same time, he played more than a lot of cats that had all the facilities. So, I don't think we can use that term, although we've all got handicaps.

Duarte: His wasn't voluntary, though, was it?

Right - he had no choice. I've got a choice. But say, if I were using a pick - I still don't have to have any more development. I know cats that have been using pick for a long time, and don't have any more development than I have. So I think it's a mental state, more than a physical state. What counts is the way you do what you do - your approach to it. Because development varies so, and there's no reason for it. You can see a cat that's so fast - he's too fast. And he don't have anything to go along with it. All he knows is, he's been working at it, so he's got it. We're all going to fall short on some things. I haven't seen anybody that's got it all. Now, why that is, I don't know. I've seen plenty of fellows that had plenty of one thing - more than they really need to get by with. And other guys'll be falling short on something they could really use.

Duarte: It's the instinctive selecting of the right tools to do what you want to do.

Yes, but I didn't really select the thumb. That just came accidentally. You see, at the time, after I had accepted the fact that I was going to play with my thumb, it was still for my own amusement. If I had decided to be a professional musician, I'd have gone right to the pick. This is logical, to feel this way first. If I was going to do it in a natural way, I'd have to follow the natural form. But I'm playing for my own amusement, so I don't have to use anyform. You dig? It just happened that, with the form I was using - and I wasn't conscious of any limitation - I was able to hear other cats do other things, enjoy what they do, and not feel like I have to do what they do.

Isaacs: This is why you've grown so much in your playing. That is a wonderful attitude of mind.

If other cats find other directions good! Because I've heard so many directions already myself, so there must be others. If it takes 20 years, somebody's going to discover another direction. There's so much that we don't know that's connected with what we're doing, that we're going to have to allow for that. A lot of things that I'm doing I have no answer for - but I don't worry about it. Maybe somebody else can explain it better than I can, so I leave it like that.

Duarte: This, of course, goes along with genius, I think. You know, we struggle, we worry about the angle of this finger, and whether you use this muscle or that, and when your wrist is arched. Earlier today I was trying to find out how Wes works his thumb. This was almost impossible, for the simple reason that he doesn't know himself. He's never really taken account of it.

I did once. This was about eight or nine years ago. A friend of mine said: "I was just thinking have you noticed where your thumb moves? " and it was a thought, because I'd been worried about the left hand - the neck. If I looked at that, and it comes out, everything's all right. I really hadn't thought about the right hand before. So I decided: when I go up for the next set, I'm going to watch and see what happens. I let it get started first, then I looked back - and it would stop! Just looking at it - I had a block. So I don't look at it.

Isaacs: It's like somebody asking you if you know how you breathe. Anything that is a natural function, or a reflex, you cannot reflect on. What I noticed, in your left hand technique, is that it's not legitimate. In other words, you play exactly as you feel. I don't think you have any set law. You hear a sound - and your thumb goes where that sound is, and it comes out. A standard way of playing for any other guitar player is not applicable to you.

Well, I think that everybody - I don't care what kind of facility you're working with, nine times out of ten the scope you're playing from is much larger. I have limits - because I know that when I pass them I'm into strange territory. It's all within the scope, but facility-wise it's going to be strange. You have some nights when you feel good, and everything comes out right. I might try to venture out, and sometimes I can go past it. Well, if I do - I know when I'm lucky! And I always do a ballad right after that!


Isaacs: It's very apparent from your music, that you are quite different. When we first heard you play on records, we all agreed: "This is something". To me, how you did it didn't enter into it. The main thing was, you did it beautifully, and gave us great satisfaction, listening to you.

With anybody that's playing different, we might notice a particular sound, and wonder: "Well, how does he get that sound?" But, technically, it doesn't matter, if it sounds right. The whole idea is concept. Like when I heard Charlie Christian, I didn't know what to think, because I hadn't heard anything like that. I hadn't even heard Reinhardt yet. Christian got me all messed up. I didn't play at all - so he got me into it. I liked his sound and approach so well that I said: "I'll buy me a brand new guitar and amplifier, and I can do it - because he's probably playing on an old one." I thought all you had to do was to get an instrument, put your hands on it, and it would come right out. I didn't know about any of the fundamentals or nothing. So, when I tried to get one note, I found out that was more trouble than I'd ever had in my life! I didn't want to face that. It let me know where I really was. It was disappointing, but it was inspiring. So, with a little drive within myself, I stayed on the inspiring side. Because there's been so many cats that buy a guitar, pluck around for a week, and then it's hanging up. He'll never touch it no more. It only means that it crosses your mind first - as a thought. When you come to producing - this is another side altogether. But this is the sincere side of it. Either you will or you won't.

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West: But some guys have more natural talent. You can take two guys starting together, and one will go forward much quicker than the other.

Natural talent? Now, I've had a lot of arguments on this. My interpretation of natural talent, or gift, is something that you don't have to indulge in at all. I mean, like if I was a natural electronic engineer, and you showed me a television set for the first time, I would see right away what was wrong with it. But if I have to study reasons why, and build up my own theory, I'm putting hard efforts into it. Now, over a period of time, I might make that come out where people will respect it. But they won't be going through the hardships - they'll just be seeing it at the point of completion. This is where people have been mistaken about me. They don't know about the times when I'd be sitting up, thinking. If I'd go to a movie show, I'd be looking at the picture, but I'd be hearing changes. You understand? This is how much determination I had for playing.

Duarte: This may be, but there are lots of people who have set out to play the guitar, with or without tuition, with or without musical knowledge - I could name you one or two people who desperately want to play like you play, and who will work themselves silly - but they never do. But you do it. What is it that produces your result? We call it natural talent. You give it your name. There's got to be a name for it, because it's there,

Wait now - do it this way. We've all got to have different concepts, or we'd all be doing the same thing. Right? So this variation has to be. Sometimes determination doesn't pinpoint anything. But you've got to have determination in it, or what are you going to accomplish?

Isaacs: You mentioned that you'd sit down at a movie, and you'd hear the changes. Now, fifteen other guitar players might only hear the film sound track. But something in you has been set off. You have a latent talent for hearing the changes.

Okay, I'm in the movie, thinking about changes. In other words, I'm sincere with my determination for the instrument. It could be the fact that I've outdone myself by the way I went into it. It could be a lot of things. But, anyway, I'm determined to really find out what's happening. Now, here you've got fifteen other cats that are talking about their determination, but not applying it. You got to separate some of those things.

West: But it's just that little bit that makes one guy go faster than another guy.

Yes, but there's also this point. Say you and I had the same depth and determination. Now we got to take our physical approach, which is different. So when you count all the things that are available - maybe I have more control and flexibility in my fingers than you have. These are fine points, but they're part of everything. Maybe I have a system with my thinking, with the same depth, that's a little quicker than yours. And feeling comes into it, too. But how you going to measure feeling? You can't. All right, so there has to be limitations on it. Maybe some people connect it with gift or natural talent, and let it go at that, to keep from going into it too deeply.

Isaacs: When you're playing chord solos, you play a line. Did you practise that, or did it come naturally to you?

No, this is where I'm not developed for it. I can still hear it as lines. But I don't have no form of practising for it, you see.

Isaacs: You just keep on playing, and each time you play you will become a little better at it?

Well, not necessarily. I mess up more than I do good. But the idea is good. I just don't have control yet. I remember the time when octaves was the same way. I could play about 16 bars of octaves satisfactorily, and after that I had to quit, because my fingers would be like sort of stuck, you know. I'd take my hand off, and it would still be shaped like an octave. If I tried to do it for two choruses, a whole chorus would be messed up. Then it got so I could do two or three choruses. It took time, though. But I didn't practise octaves. Chords is much more difficult. Now, this cat I met in Montreal, Canada, Nelson Simon - he can play chords as fast as cats play lines. How much he's practised, or whether he's practised at all, I don't know.

West: I'd like to raise the subject of equipment. For years I've been changing guitars and amplifiers and getting no place. There's a phobia now - a lot of guys over here want to use bar pick-ups, to get the old Christian sound. Can you get the same sound with any guitar you pick up and play?

Well, as you know, all amplifiers have different peaks, tonewise. That's one reason why I never want to go into the electronic end of it. I mean, for pick-ups, you've even got a resistor for your controls, man. If you're going to count on one, you've got to count on everything. If the sound has to be that fine - whew! you're in trouble. Search for the sound you want, but give your self reasonable space within it. You have to find the instrument you want first. This is much more important than the amplifier. You've got to feel comfortable. As far as the pickup's concerned, you could check that out with your amplifier. It shouldn't take you that long, because your concern is not all amplification. If you spend too much time trying to find out what bar does this, or what pick-up does that, you'll be getting away from the axe. Your first concern should be what you hear, what you're producing on your instrument. All this other stuff is secondary. I'm concerned about my set-up, but up to a certain level I always give it a lot of play. I got a standard box - I don't never want nothing special. I want it just as standard as I can get it. Then, if I drop my box, I can borrow somebody else's. Like, if I've only got one amp, with the precise sound, and it falls off on the floor - I don't have no job. And if they want to get with Charlie Christian - he had tape all on his box and everything. They tell me the controls and the tail-piece had fallen off, and he would be taping up holes, and things. Nobody wants that. That would look too bad. But you heard what he did with it.

Duarte: But you are, I believe, a very sound-conscious player, in that the quality of every note matters to you.

Yes, I'll tell you just how important that is. The other night my amplifier had lost quality - you just can't think the same. That's the truth. Because the first thing I figure-every line I play has no value. So, as I play lines, I get that repeated over and over: no value, no value, no value. You make a run - what for? Then you do some thing else - what for? You lose the meaning of it. It's like doing it for nothing. I don't do things just because the chord is sitting there, and it runs this way. Uh-uh. Now, the average layman may not hear the difference. If I'd asked three people, after the set when my amplifier was troublesome, did they hear any particular thing, they'd say: "Great! Great' They heard nothing. But if I'd had another set in, or the one I had was working properly, and I played the same things they could hear the difference. They're not to be expected to hear what you hear. You hear much more into the finer things than they do. So this is why, I guess, maybe the public doesn't understand when a musician is dissatisfied. Because they don't know for what reason.

Interview with Wes Montgomery by  Jack Duarte, Ike Isaacs and Cedric West
printed in Crescendo Magazine July 1965