Steel Trappings

Spotlight ON! Feature

Spotlight ON! Jess Montgomery

July 15, 2022 • Addison ChingEntertainment

Jess Montgomery is well-known in the Kaua‘i music scene as a versatile and talented Hawaiian steel guitarist and musician. However, there are many facets to Jess, and in his own words, "Like most of my generation, it started, and will probably end, in the garage. Chainsaws, dirt bikes, and electric guitars are all WAY more fun when you're the one pulling the trigger, and 'the band' is always a perfect excuse to ignore more pressing matters – that, and a great way while away many a blown-out, surfless, afternoon with your buddies – and toss back a few lagers in the process."

"I was born in rural Southern California, about 30 miles north of San Diego, and moved to Kaua‘i in 1973, where I have lived ever since," says Jess. "Tracing my interest in music and instruments played with slides, however, goes back to 1955, when I started playing slide trombone in my elementary school marching band. I played for 6 years and learned much more than I realized at the time; things like reading music, but more importantly, how the different sections of a larger orchestra work together to meld dynamic from separate parts, how music can be broken down mathematically, and how to count rests when laying out! All of these things became focused later when I stared playing in smaller bands with friends. By 8th grade I had become more interested in athletics, mainly surfing. I quit the school band and didn't think about it much until after I'd graduated from High School, when, like every other kid my age, I took up guitar."

He continues: "My next experience with an instrument played with a slide happened on Kaua‘i; there I was a cook for 40 years, and the daily grind was "surf all day/cook all night." When the surf was lousy, friends would get together and play music. At that point I didn't have a guitar, but a friend and I ponied up $12.50 each for a flat-top from Larry's music in Kapa‘a. The logo, applied to the headstock on a printed piece of clear tape, said it all – "ALOHA". How could we go wrong? The high action made it pretty unplayable, but the tone was alright, and it ended up working perfectly for bottle-neck style slide blues. I soon bought out my friend's half-share, added a DeArmond sound-hole pickup, found a small Tweed amp, and the screech could peel the paint off a wall 20 feet away".

"I really enjoyed the '70's contemporary Hawaiian music - Gabby, Sons of Hawai‘i, Hui ‘Ohana, the Beamers, Peter Moon etc, and I tried to play it, but there was no way I was ever going to sing Hawaiian words with any authenticity. I also failed miserably (and still do) at learning to play anything note-for-note. I loved the sound of 'Feet' Rogers' steel guitar, and that seemed like a possible pathway to become more involved in the music. A trip to Honolulu in 1982 yielded my first steel guitar, and after work one night I took it over to the Coconut Palace at Coco Palms. Ernie Palmeira played steel there and I'd gotten to know him when he would eat at the restaurant where I worked. Ernie grabbed it, muttered, and started twisting the tuning knobs. When I asked what tuning he had put it in he grinned and ran thru a couple of tunes. "No worry, bro," he said, 'Just play it. It's easy!' (It turned out to be C6.) Despite what he'd said, it wasn't easy for me. I went to Honolulu to Jerry Byrd's 1st Steel Guitar Ho‘olaule‘a at McCoy Pavillion in Ala Moana Park. Seeing Jerry, Billy Hew Len, David Keli‘i, Alan Akaka, and others performing made me more determined to figure the thing out. A few years later the Biennnial HSGA Conventions on O‘ahu began and, while it was very intimidating to play in front all those steel fanatics, it was also plainly the best way to come to terms with one's grasp of the instrument. I was friends with Ken Emerson on Kauai, and we got together a couple of times. The first thing he did was to change my tuning to G6 (GBEGBD), so of course that lesson was lost because I was totally confused. I stuck with that one, but a year later at one of the HSGA events in Kona Jerry Byrd heard me noodling one morning in the hotel lobby, asked what tuning I used, and told me I HAD to get rid of that low G and make the interval (BDEGBD). Who's going to argue? That's the tuning I have stuck with. Besides being versatile, something I like about it is that I can detune the low D to C# and get an A-eleventh interval easily for 'Sand' etc."

"A lucky break came in 1990 when I was playing my acoustic steel at the beach one day and met Ilima, one of Larry Rivera's daughters. We played a few tunes and she asked me to join her playing at the Sheraton Kaua‘i in Poipu, along with Rick Hanapi. We played there for several months and off & on ever since. Ilima's shows often included her dad, and one afternoon in 2005 he called me on the phone."

This video is of Jess Montgomery on the acoustic steel with Lady Ipo Kahaunaele-Ferriera doing "Hanalei Moon".

The video can also be seen on YouTube.

This feature is a snapshot of the complete tribute that is posted on the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Showcase website. See the complete tribute here.

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