Wes Montgomery - The King of Octaves
by Warren Sirota
This has been the summer of Wes for me and my guitar style. I recently was reminded of his great album with B3 master Jimmy Smith, Jimmy & Wes The Dynamic Duo. It inspired me to go order this CD, which I'd heard on vinyl years ago but never bought before.
I picked up my guitar this morning, and, undecided about what to work on, I put the CD in the computer, fired up SlowGold, and decided I'd work on the head of Road Song, here called O.G.D. (apparently the recording engineer's abbreviation for "Organ, Guitar, Drums"), for an upcoming gig. It's a great, memorable, foot-tapping line, and played entirely in octaves, so it affords some good practice.
Octave playing can be one of the most powerful techniques in the arsenal of any guitar (or, I imagine, keyboard) player. Its main virtues are that it both enhances the tone and restrains the speed of melodic passages.
Yes, you read me right. I believe that restraining the speed of melodic passages is often a virtue. Now, I certainly have nothing against lightning-fast playing, but it's just one of many types of playing that you can employ. And, you know, impressing other guitar players is not the same thing as pleasing an audience in my experience, audiences usually react more positively to slow or medium-tempo melodic concepts than they do to virtuosic displays (although you've gotta give 'em the occasional fireworks just to show 'em you can, eh?)
Which brings us around to Wes. Wes got kind of a "sellout" reputation in the late 60s for making the best-selling records of his career (A Day in the Life and others) with strings and other sweeteners. And, it's true, those records are not be among his most satisfying from a jazz fan's standpoint. But he had a right (a legitimate artistic right, not just a legal right or commercially-justified right) to address the desires of a different audience, and that doesn't in any way diminish his other work.
At any rate, it was The Thumb that made Wes famous in the first place. But what was so great about The Thumb? Surely, it was not just the technical prowess involved, but the fact that it made such sweet and melodic statements.
One way any non-wind player can improve the melodicism of his/her playing is to sing along (softly, most probably) while soloing. This will force your solos to mimic phrasings that suit the ultimate instrument, the human voice. It is a remarkably effective means to better phrasing that is often missed.
But when you slow down your playing from superhuman to human tempos, single-line guitar can sound thin. That's why octaves are so cool. You can fatten up your sound in a very pleasing way, while still keeping your focus on melody (you can fatten up your sound with other intervals, of course, but they'll tend to move you in a more harmonic thinking pattern rather than a melodic. Nothing wrong with that it's just different).
Of course, what's critical in octaves is learning to move your thumb correctly, in order to get the right tone. You can try it with a pick, and that does work for some things, but the traditional tone comes only from flesh on metal.
When I started trying to play octaves, I approached them as a classical guitarist would, either by stroking two strings with the side of my thumb, or by using the thumb and another finger to play the octave. This second approach is pretty non-traditional in the jazz world, but I find it works really well in some cases when the mix seems to demand more clarity and less attitude from my octaves. On the other hand, stroking the strings with the side of the thumb doesn't seem to work at all well.
Some months ago, though, I happened upon a clue (in an issue of Guitar Player), which was to try and see a video of Wes to check out the way he played with the flat of his thumb. After quite a bit of hunting I was able to locate a copy of Legends of Jazz Guitar Vol 01 at amazon.com. This has several great cuts of Wes, intermixed with Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, and Herb Ellis (the video manufacturers cleverly spread their rare Wes material over 3 tapes to entice you to buy all three).
Watching the way Wes uses his thumb has liberated mine, but I've had to move from emulation to experimentation in order to advance. I don't hold my hand exactly the way he does because my hand is different than his. Sometimes I curl a couple of fingers under the first string as an anchor, while sometimes I splay all my fingers and fling my thumb up and down with wrist action. I try many different angles of attack it's all fair game.
Click on the link below for a transcriptions of the start of Wes' solo on the famous "Road Song", as it appears on The Dynamic Duo. This cut was an alternate take, not released on the original vinyl version of this record. The take that this is an alternate of appears on a different album: The Further Adventures of Jimmy And Wes. Are you confused yet? Well there's more. The originally-released, (non-alternate) take also appears on Impressions: The Verve Jazz Sides, a 2-disk collection of some of his most burning material.
At any rate, it's really instructive to listen to BOTH solos, to hear what the differences and similarities are. The "non-alternate" take seems to have protean (earlier and simpler) versions of some of the licks transcribed here.