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Wes Montgomery Guitar Licks


How to Play Jazz Guitar in the Style of Wes Montgomery



There is no doubt that Wes Montgomery was one of the most legendary players of all time. In fact, when you say the words “jazz guitar,” many people immediately associate the genre with "The Thumb", as he was affectionately known.

Beginning his career by learning and performing note-by-note transcriptions of Charlie Christian solos, Wes quickly moved on to become one of the most influential guitarists from his, or any, era. His influence can be heard in the playing of great guitarists such as Pat Martino, George Benson, Pat Metheny and Emily Remler, just to name a few. You would be hard pressed to find any jazz guitarist that wasn’t influenced by Wes’ playing at one point or another in their development.

Since Wes was such a powerhouse in the jazz guitar world, it is a good idea to spend some time studying his licks, phrases, and improvisational concepts, which is what this lesson is designed to do. So, grab your favorite axe (an L-5 if you have one handy) and begin exploring these commonly used phrases and improvisational concepts taken from the playing of one of the greatest jazzers of all time, Wes Montgomery.


Recommended listening: Smokin' at the Half Note (live)


How to Practice These Licks

To help you take the licks on this page further in your practicing and performance ideas, here are a few exercises that you can use to work these phrases into your playing.  

  1. Before you learn how to play any lick, check out the theory behind the phrases to figure out the building blocks of the line, allowing you to create your own similar lines in the future.
  2. Play the licks in different keys across the neck.
  3. When studying a lick, find at least one other fingering in a different part of the neck.
  4. Transpose licks up or down an octave to have them available in at least two ranges on the neck.
  5. Begin to alter the lick in your solos by changing the rhythms, adding notes into the phrase and taking notes away in order to make it less of a memorized phrase and more of a part of your playing overall.

II V I Licks

The first lick starts with a series of arpeggios. The first 4 notes make a Dm7 arpeggio, followed by a Cmaj7 arpeggio, then again a Dm7.

The Cmaj7 arpeggio in the first bar contains all the tensions of Dm7:

Cmaj7 C E G B
Played over Dm7 b7 9 11 13


The last bar is build around a C triad arpeggio.


Listen & Play:


Wes Montgomery Lick 1



The next lick is played over a 251 in G major. The second half of the first bar consists of a chromatic line that is also used a lot by Pat Metheny, outlining a D7b9.


Listen & Play:


Wes Montgomery Lick 2



Here's another ii V I lick in G major, with a nice voice leading.


What is Voice Leading?

Voice leading is making the transition between chords in a chord progression as smooth or musical as possible. It is not only useful for comping, but also for single note soloing.
I go into more detail in this lesson about voice leading here... 


Listen & Play:


Wes Montgomery Lick 2

  • The voice leading (the notes in blue) makes a decending line starting at the 1 of Am7.
  • Although the rhythm section plays the 2 5 over 2 bars (1 chord/bar), the voice leading suggests an Am7 on beat 1 and 2 and a D7 on beat 3 and 4 of each bar, like this:| Am7 D7 | Am7 D7 |
  • Bar 2 starts with an Em triad, which sounds like Am9.
  • The other notes besides the voice leading are scale or chromatic tones (more about chromatism here).



Here's another good voice leading example between the b7 of D7 and 3rd of Gmaj7.


Listen & Play:


Wes Montgomery Lick 3



This one's a blues cliche, though in the hands of a master like Wes any cliche sounded good.


Listen & Play:


Wes Montgomery Lick 4



The next lick over a 251 in C major has a nice chromatic line in the second bar, delayed by the Dm arpeggio.


Listen & Play:


Wes Montgomery Lick 5



This one speaks for itself.


Listen & Play:


Wes Montgomery Lick 6



Minor Lick

This minor lick is in the D Dorian scale with some added chromatics. Here is a sample D Dorian fingering to get you started if this scale is new to you:


Listen & Play:

D Dorian Scale Diagram


Listen & Play:


Wes Montgomery Lick 7



Dominant Licks

The first measure of this dominant lick is fairly straight-forward, except for a cool arpeggio on the 3rd beat of the phrase. Here, you are playing Dbma7 over Eb7, which is like thinking of a maj7 arpeggio from the b7 of a dominant chord

By doing so, you are highlighting all of the upper extensions in the Mixolydian mode:

Dbmaj7 Db F Ab C
Played over Eb7 b7 9 11 13


At the end of the first bar, you will find a commonly used Wes Montgomery rhythm, an 8th note followed by two 16th notes. This rhythmic pattern then continues for the rest of the second bar until you resolve the line to a Bb triad over a Bb7 chord.


Listen & Play:

Wes Montgomery double time lick



A bluesy lick over G7 with double stops (playing 2 notes at once).


Listen & Play:

Wes Montgomery Lick 8



Octave Licks

This first octave lick is a bluesy line over an A7 chord, mixing the major 3rd (C#) with the blue note (C) to get that classic Wes sound.


Listen & Play:

Wes Montgomery Lick 9



Another approach Wes liked to use with octaves was to run a rhythm across a ii V I phrase, which you can hear and see in the next example.


Listen & Play:


Wes Montgomery Lick 10


Chord Licks

This first Wes chord lick uses a number of Bb7 inversions, including 9ths, as well as a chromatic approach chord to finish the lick in typical Wes style.


Listen & Play:

Wes Montgomery Lick 11



Here is a bluesy chord lick that uses a Bdim7 chord to create a Bb7b9 sound over the given chord change.


Bdim7 Chord B D F Ab
1 b3 b5 bb7
Played over Bb7 b9 3 5 b7



Listen & Play:

Wes Montgomery Lick 12



Wes Style Blues Solo

To help you take these licks from the technical side of your practice routine to the musical, here is a sample solo over a Bb Blues that uses licks from this lesson in its construction.

Here is a backing track that you can use to practice this solo, as well as all the licks in this lesson, as you take these ideas further in the woodshed.

Listen & Play:


And here is the solo to practice. Go slow at first, learning each 4 bar phrase, as you learn the entire solo build in a typical "three tier" appraoch that was characteristic of Wes' playing.

Listen & Play:

Wes Montgomery Lick 14



How to Play Jazz Guitar in the Style of Wes Montgomery




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