Having recorded with Prong, Adam Lambert, Sophie Ellis-Bexter, Sporty Spice Melanie C as well as a solo artist over the years, session guitarist Monte Pittman is a man that prides himself on versatility. And the gig that landed him in the spotlight, working as Madonna’s lead guitarist for the past 18 years, is one that calls for precisely that.
Before filling us in on his two latest albums and offering his tips to becoming a top session artist, we hear the story behind one of rock and pop’s most brilliantly impossible collisions – when Madonna started covering A New Level by Pantera to unsuspecting crowds on her Sticky & Sweet Tour.
After initially teaching her partner at the time, British film-maker Guy Ritchie, Pittman began instructing the queen of pop, which lead to eventually joining her band. Years later, he was sat with her working on right-hand picking techniques…
“I was trying to explain how to keep the pick on top of the strings,” explains the guitarist.
“I learned it when Dimebag Darrell came to see Prong in Dallas. He wanted to know if we were doing the song Cut Rate and asked about the rhythm part which doesn’t let off, which is when he said his secret was never letting the pick leave the string when playing really fast.
“I remember being really impressed he knew the song and said Prong were one of his favourite bands. So I was telling Madonna about this and it was around the time we had a new band…”
As it turned out, the group’s music director was looking to do a rock version of her song Hung Up and suggested moving it from F or D minor to drop B – which would free up Madonna to only hold down one finger per chord…
“And I said, ‘Sure!’ How did I not think of that, haha?! Because Madonna has a lot of things to think about, standing in the right place, singing the lyrics, what happens next, etc. She really doesn’t need to be stood there wondering if it’s a G major 7 or G major 9.
“I showed her A New Level by Pantera in that lower tuning to give her something easy to learn, because the notes go up one fret at a time.”
The chromatic simplicity made it a fine choice indeed to master dropped-D coordination, synchronising both hands for a clean and articulate melodic climb. For Madonna and her bandmates, the results were instantaneous and it was how one of the WTF?! moments in music history came to be…
“The next day, she came in with a bottle of wine with two glasses, so we sat there drinking and playing,” continues Pittman.
“Then she started playing Pantera and it sounded great; she remembered to stay on top of the strings. At rehearsal with the full band, we’d work through the songs in order and she’d start playing that riff, so we’d play along. Every time we all thought, ‘Oh that was fun today,’ but then she did it the next day and the day after.
“After a while, despite it being a closed rehearsal, tour managers and techs started showing up specifically for that part of the set as if word has gotten around that Madonna was covering Pantera. And it stayed in the set! I didn’t know if people were gonna hate it and be pissed off, but everyone loved it. Madonna fans tend to love every kind of music.”
At the double
In his down-time from headlining the world’s biggest stadiums, Pittman has been busy working on not one but two solo albums: Between The Space and its acoustic accompaniment, Better Or Worse.
Along with tracking all the guitars and vocals, the multi-talented guitarist played drums and bass, while also engineering and producing – leaving only mastering duties and artwork to be handled elsewhere.
It was a labour of love where the demos themselves turned into the final finished product…
“I didn’t realise it, but I was actually recording the album,” laughs Pittman. “I didn’t program any drums; I went to a friend’s studio to record them and was planning to get someone else to play on the final version like I’ve done before, but I realised my parts were fine.
“I didn’t want it to be too crazy; I’d rather this sounded like something anybody could play, like Back In Black. If I can play it, anybody can play it!”
For all the electric guitar tracks, the guitarist utilised his Custom Shop ESP Eclipse with quilted maple – swearing by the tonal difference of the wood rather than its aesthetic eloquence – and ESP bass. This was fed into a hybrid digital and analogue setup, very much taking the best from both worlds…
“I profiled my Orange TH30 into my Kemper on the last album and stuck with that,” explains Pittman.
“But I also then run the direct out into my Orange Dual Dark 100. I used one analogue and one digital signal so you get a bit of separation between the two, and that’s my perfect guitar sound.
“The vocals were done in my closet, which is soundproofed like any other vocal booth. I would play shows on a Friday and Saturday night, noticing that the latter performance would sound better vocally, so I recorded on a Sunday feeling fully warmed up!
“Even in one day, the way you play changes through the hours. If you wake up and write riffs with a cup of coffee, it will probably sound different to what you think of coming home at the end of the night!”
Here, the session master gives his five tips of the trade…
1. Don’t forget the basics
“Warming up should be the simplest thing, but I’ve only started doing it over the last couple of years. Most of the time, I would pick up a guitar and start going for it straight away.
“I realised this after hanging out with a lot of big legendary metal bands and seeing them practising for hours before showtime. As far as scales, most guitar players reading this will know their major and minors… so I always recommend finding a new one that you don’t know and start learning it just for fun.
“Think about where you can use it and then start putting the notes together to makes chords - that’s how I came up with the riff in [new song] Evidence, which was a magic chord that came from a pure experiment. I like thinking about where I can take my guitar playing next.
“That’s also how I wrote the last song, Beguiling, which came out of what I call the Snake Charmer scale, which is Hungarian Minor. I teach guitar and sometimes to kids - who aren’t usually interested in scales, but if you call it the Snake Charmer scale and say it makes cobras come out of the basket, they think it’s cool! So I harmonised it and came up with all those creepy chords you hear at the beginning.
“Then, for the solo, I took the concept of diminished chords repeating every three frets and did it with augmented chords, which repeat every four frets. Say in the key of C, that will give you a G# which is technically out of key. That’s where you can find new inspiration!”
2. It’s about what you don’t play
“I was teaching somebody one time and told them it was not about what you play, but actually what you don’t play… it’s the space between the space. And then I thought I better write that down because it sounded clever and like a good album title, haha!
“I’ve always joked that you should play the melodic minor scale whenever you want to get fired, haha! Seriously, if I played those notes at my gig, I don’t know if it would be my gig any more. But it’s still good to know these things, learn those scales and build the chords that live within it.
“When I’m playing a solo, I usually prefer to look at what I’m playing over every two measures and try to figure out what would work the best. I might even just loop two chords and change what I would naturally play to what links the chords – after that, all you need to do is learn it and execute it! I guess this is more of a jazz way of looking at it.
“For the Madonna stuff, it’s very much the opposite. I learn everything inside and out and then take away as much as I can. Classical music is the same in that regard: you might hear a melody that could have all these chords and parts underneath, but they all get taken away and leave your ears with nothing to follow other than the melody itself.
“Listen to Jimmy Page’s parts in between the verses on The Wanton Song - it’s like he’s playing an F6 but there’s no bass or root notes. By playing just four strings, it’s like he’s playing major 7s, minor 7s and diminished 7s. That’s just one example of what I’m talking about.”
3. Pay attention to the finest details
“Learn songs correctly, exactly how they are played on the album. Sometimes I do these jam nights at the Whiskey here in LA and have only one day to learn new songs that I’ve never heard before. The last one was a Judas Priest night and there’s a song called Bullet Train off Jugulator that I wasn’t familiar with, so I had figure out exactly how they play it.
“I went on YouTube and look at how the notes are fretted – it’s all about that exact kind of detail, which can be the difference between you getting the gig or not getting the gig. In turn, that will inspire you creatively in a certain direction, and I ended up writing a bunch of songs that sounds like Priest!
“The look side isn’t as important - you don’t need a certain haircut or style of clothes to get the gig - but you should carry yourself as a professional and show you know more about what the gig requires. To make yourself more employable, sound like part of the team or the gang.”
4. Versatility is of the utmost importance
“Versatility is a huge thing for me. If I just did one style, I don’t know if I would have survived this long. As guitar players, we tend to like a lot of different music - doing the new acoustic record meant I was looking at different ways to play, whether it be chords or scales or feel.
“When I was younger, I’d get home from school and would jam over to a lot of Metallica in G major knowing that it’s the parent scale of E minor. But I also learned a lot from the [American jazz guitarist] Tuck Andress instructional; it changed my life - you could see how he knew every note on the neck without thinking about it. That’s what gives all your notes and options. Steve Vai was a huge influence, too. I always joke that despite him being a super-cool and nice guy, I’m still scared to death by that Crossroads scene.
“So that’s how versatility is the main thing that has helped me in my career. A Madonna show has nearly all styles of music. There’s always something acoustic, she loves acoustic guitars. And then there’s stuff that’s not necessarily heavy but definitely on the distortion channel. In 2008, I had my amp cranked all the way up and she was like, ‘No – I need more, c’mon you can go heavier!’ Then I got my MXR Dime Distortion pedal and she said, ‘That’s exactly what I’m talking about!’
“Beyond that, there are the more atmospheric sounds, with reverbs all the way up and a bunch of delays where you hit one note and people think it’s a keyboard. Of course there’s plenty of what I call party guitars, too, when I’m strumming triads on a Strat to get those funk pop cleans.”
5. Stay on top of it
“With speed picking - and this comes back to the school of Prong - it’s best not to let your pick leave the string. Stay on top if you are going really fast. Any time your pick leaves the string, it’s going further away from where it needs to be and you are giving yourself more work to do. So when people say, ‘Relax when playing,’ that’s one of the things they mean. Try to move your pick less.
“Think about Master Of Puppets and watch James’s right hand; he makes a circle around his finger and thumb connecting. There is pressure between the fingertips holding the pick, and Glen Tipton was similar, too; it looks like he’s barely picking anything. The notes just fall out of his hand!
“I don’t really think about my picking approach much beyond that - with me, it’s mainly down for rhythms and alternate for solos. For riffs, I try to do everything down. Prong was all about down-picking as much as you can. With lead stuff, I might do more of circular picking/strumming approach. I try to simplify everything as much as possible, and with me, it’s a simple up and down.”
Between The Space and Better Or Worse are available now via Metal Blade Records.