Monte Pittman: A Teacher Among Performers

Monte Pittman

It is not uncommon for the typical music student to continue with music in some capacity for the rest of their lives whether it be performing for their friends, gigging around for fun, or pursuing music as a profession. What is uncommon is someone like Monte Pittman who took his voracious appetite as a student of music and transitioned that into a successful career teaching and performing music with artists of the caliber of Madonna and Adam Lambert for instance. Not only has Pittman found the recipe to success as a recording and touring artist, but he also honed his chops as the guitar teacher for arguably one of the greatest performers of all time. That is the story you should be interested in and that is the story we have for you today.

Photo By Lisa Pittman

Tell me about how you got started playing guitar.

I got my first guitar when I was 13, but I’ve wanted to play guitar since I can remember, since I was like three years old. I took band in school and I played drums so I would have some sort of instrument to play. It was the closest thing I could play to being in a rock band. I finally got a guitar later on and I found the best guitar teacher in the area where I grew up; his name is Robert Browning. I took lessons from him until I moved to Los Angeles at the end of 1999.

I had my own band that I started there after about a year of playing guitar. So it was a combination of having a great guitar teacher, having that band education, and then also playing in my own band. When I got out of high school, instead of going to college or moving away, I stayed there and kept studying with my guitar teacher and just took classes at the local college. I took some music theory and vocal classes and then also history. I feel like in playing out with a band, I learned a lot more than I was going to learn playing it out of a book or something.

Then I started teaching also. My guitar teacher had me teach as part of my training. You have to know it so well to be able to teach someone. It’s not like if you know how to play this scale, you can just show someone and have them understand it. You have to know it in a completely different way.

You play so many diverse styles of music and you are able to integrate that into your own style playing alongside tons of incredible artists. How did you develop into such a versatile guitarist?

I’ve always liked all kinds of music. I love the heavy stuff, but I don’t just love that. A lot of it came from being in school and playing in the jazz band. I did that just so I could bring my guitar to school, but then I had to start learning all of these jazz chords and all of these standards. That definitely broadened the horizons for me a little bit. Then also in my band that I was playing in, Myra Mains, we would play tons of different stuff because everybody in the band liked something different. To start out we learned all of these covers because we hadn’t written any songs yet. We would play either something that a friend would suggest or just what we were able to play. Music in the ‘90s did have a lot of different styles — you had heavy bands, ska bands were becoming big, and then grunge and alternative had a wide variety of what that could be. Then I’ve always loved acoustic music as well — really just anything guitar-based. So I think that’s how my style came about. I would also take random gigs.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUi4PGUYkgc]

I used to play at a small, private airport in a restaurant and just play mostly classical guitar. I could really just play though, whatever I wanted. You kind of play off of people, if they like stuff that’s more uptempo or more laid back you go with it. Things like that would be a learning experience. I get bored easily too [laughs]. I like going from one thing to another.

Aside from being just stylistically versatile, what skills have you picked up — both musically and from a business standpoint — that have helped you become a first-call guitarist?

You have to always be ready for anything. You can’t just be versatile with your instrument; you have to be versatile with people. With talented people comes a lot of different personalities. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how good you are, it matters how well you can get along with the rest of the band. And in the music theory, you can play a G chord several different ways or with several different effects on it and that’s going to give you the different style of music that it is. There are only so many notes, so many scales, so many chords — it’s the attitude or emotion that you put behind it.

You started teaching very early on and then later you got this gig-of-a-lifetime in teaching Madonna. Tell me about interacting with Madonna in this student – teacher space.

I first started teaching when I was 15. My first student, which is really weird and ironic, actually brought me a tape from this band Prong. He wanted to learn some songs off the Beg to Differ album. That’s how I first learned about Prong and then that became one of my favorite bands and six years later I ended up playing in Prong. Almost immediately after moving to LA I met up with Tommy Victor and joined the band.

So I worked at Guitar Center when I first moved to Hollywood. I didn’t even live in Hollywood; I would drive into Hollywood [laughs]. There didn’t seem to be a lot of guitar teachers or any of guitar teachers really. Someone would come in looking for a guitar teacher, you’d give them a number and then they’d come back asking if you had another number. I decided that I should begin teaching because that’s what I was doing before I moved to LA. I just thought there would have been so many guitar teachers in LA. So I just started teaching and it just took off. It was scary though because if it would have failed, I don’t know what I would have done.

It took off and I started teaching Guy [Ritchie] and then Madonna after that. They’re both great students. Of course Madonna had an amazing ear for music already. When I teach anybody, regardless of who it is or what they’ve done, I start out with a sheet of chords all in C. If you get a chord book, the chords are all over the place and you can’t necessarily play them together. So if everything is in C, then your D is going to be D-minor and then E-minor, F-major, and so on. I would teach you A-minor and not A-major. That would be for another lesson. Once you get that, you can crisscross between any of the chords. Then on another sheet you have all of the scales in C, which are all of your different patterns all the way up the neck. That way I can play the chords and they can use the scales to solo, just to start to get a grasp of how everything works.

I don’t teach any songs for a while, unless there is a lesson in it. You don’t want to spend your entire lesson just learning one song. After you learn all of these chords and scales, you’re going to see hundreds of songs that are already in there.

By the time you started teaching Madonna, she was already an established artist. Was there something in specific she was looking for from you?

Right when I first started teaching her was when the Music album came out. The album had been out all day and at the end of the day I got this idea that I should go get that album and learn it. I went and got it right before the store closed. I sat down in my apartment and just wrote out chord charts for the entire album. The next day I had a lesson with Guy and I said, “Hey, check it out; here’s the album.” He was like, “How did you get this?” So I said, “Well I just figured it out last night.” So then I was able to show Madonna a couple of her own songs and how to play them from the chords. For instance “Don’t Tell Me” is B, A-minor, C, and G. So I showed her how she could do that and play her own songs.

What was her reaction to being able to do that?

She thought it was really cool.

You’ve also co-written a couple songs with Madonna. What was that process like?

The main song that we did together was a song called “Easy Ride,” which is the last song on American Life. It came from putting together some chords to play over a harmonic minor scale; it’s A-minor to E-major. One thing led to another and she started coming up with a verse, one of us added a bridge, and then we put a chorus in there and it became its own thing. We had been off the Drowned World Tour for a year and we wrote that one in London. It was right around the time George Harrison died, so that was in the news. So there is probably some influence of that in the song coming from listening to a lot of Beatles around that time.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vIzT31qX3g]

Do you think being on tour for a long time with Madonna or anyone for that matter affects how you write songs coming off the tour?

Yeah, I kind of want to go the opposite way [laughs]. That’s where a lot of things come from.

More recently you began working with the Amadeus Foundation’s Youth Orchestra. Tell me about that experience.

Yeah, we were just in Medellín, Columbia and I was able to meet with them. They learned “Easy Ride” and also four of my songs. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it was going to be little kids, but this is actually an incredible orchestra. When they are adults they are going to be forces to be reckoned with. I want to do everything I can to help them even more. It was an amazing experience and I passed on to them a lot of the same things I’ve been telling you. A lot of people ask why I am helping them or why I like to teach kids. The answer is that I wish somebody would have been around when I was a kid. There are a lot of people who can say things and tell you things, but I’ve actually experienced all of this stuff. I’ve been there. I’ve been on tour and I know what it’s actually like in a lot of different situations. I can pass that on to young musicians and young kids and that’s what it’s all about.

You said that a lot of people ask about the effect you’ve had on them, but what effect did they have on you on a musical level?

I was blown away by their passion and their playing. They can sight read a whole lot better than I can [laughs]. They put down this piece of sheet music and I was like, “I’ve been on tour since January playing Madonna songs. What is this again?”

Which songs of yours did they perform with you?

We did “Under the Same Sun” off of my first album The Deepest Dark, “Predetermined Destiny” off of my second album Pain, Love, & Destiny, “Tonight” from my new album The Power of Three, and “Lost” also off of Pain, Love, & Destiny.

Did you get some rehearsal time with them or was it pretty impromptu?

We had an hour before the whole thing started for rehearsal time. We had a little bit of a language barrier, so we had to get used to each other at first. They basically just told me to play whatever. And there was only so much I could bring on the plane, so I just had a little 15w amp and a guitar. The amp took a beating too. The entire front end was caved in and the reverb spring was broken off of it. We got through it though.

Do you have plans to continue teaching after you’ve settled down from the last tour?

I started a Kickstarter for my next album and I’m going to teach with that. I think I’m going to gravitate towards online teaching. That seems to be the way to do things now. I can’t get around to everyone’s house like I used to, so that’s what it will be.

How far along is your next record?

I have everything written, all the way through my fifth album actually. I like to write and then sit on it and almost forget about it before coming back to it. I’ve got the entire demo for this new record done. I’ll come back to it now and have new ideas and chip away at it again.

Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)