The Gear of Four Jazz Greats: Armstrong, Coltrane, Rich, Montgomery

When it comes to examining, reviewing and obsessing over music gear, jazz players are usually underrepresented when compared to rock, pop and electronic musicians. But that certainly doesn't mean the sounds achieved by the jazz greats are any less deserving of exploration. On the contrary: if not for the musicality and invention achieved by these legends, none of these other musical forms would even exist.

I will admit, I'm not an obsessive jazzhead and what I listen to is somewhat limited to the classics. Coltrane’s "In A Sentimental Mood" finds its way back to me from time to time, and Armstrong’s "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" and the music he did with Billie Holiday for the movie "New Orleans" do the same. But whether you’re a true jazz fiend, a passing fan like myself, or even if you completely dislike jazz, one thing is for sure: the artists profiled below were, and continue to be, extremely influential. Here's a look at how four true jazz giants approached and used their instruments over the course of their lives in music.


Louis Armstrong

Armstrong’s influence extends to Miles Davis, Django Reinhardt, and Tom Waits to name just a few. But to say his influence stops there would be an understatement. He was an atom bomb in music. If he played with a band, they never sounded the same after he moved on. Suddenly their phrases couldn’t sit in 2/4 time anymore, as was common in bands of his era. They couldn’t help but stretch into a more sophisticated 4/4 feel like Louis did. His confident feel, unmatched tone, and his love and respect for a good melody were the calling cards of his sound. Eventually, his music would even be included on a disc attached to the Voyager Probe, meant to represent all of humanity if it ever encounters intelligent life outside our solar system, where it now travels.

Louis Armstrong - "A Kiss To Build a Dream On" (Live, 1962)

Originally from New Orleans, Armstrong played a cornet until he hooked up with Erskine Tate’s band in Chicago. The cornet is a little shorter than a trumpet, and Tate thought Armstrong looked funny playing the shorter instrument next to the trumpet section. In his lifetime, manufacturers around the world would make custom mouthpieces for him which he would try out to be polite, no matter how strange the design. But when some symphony musicians, who suspected he used some sort of trick instrument because of the brilliance of his tone, took a look at his trumpet after a performance, they only found a stock mouthpiece on a Selmer horn.


Buddy Rich

The first Ludwig bass drum Buddy Rich played on stage was almost bigger than he was. Buddy’s parents were in Vaudeville, and in a rehearsal the band noticed Rich on the side of the stage, not yet two years old, keeping time. They switched up to a waltz, and Buddy was right there, keeping time along with them. Both the band and his parents were impressed, and the eighteen-month-old immediately started his career on stage as a part of their act.

After becoming one of the highest paid child entertainers in the business as Traps, the Drum Wonder, Rich found an interest in jazz. Rich did not use a matched grip, as is common among drummers today. Rich viewed matched grip as a technique for timpani players, and said that it restrained a player’s ability to come up with creative fills around the kit. He believed that traditional grip, where the left hand uses an underhand grip and the right hand uses an overhand grip, allows a player more agility.

Buddy Rich, Live

Throughout his life, he played Slingerlands and Rogers Drums. He started out with Ludwig and switched back in the '70s and '80s. His usual setup, according to a 2012 article in Modern Drummer magazine, included a 14x24 bass drum (with a moleskin patch and a wooden beater), a 9x13 rack tom, two 16x16 floor toms (probably tuned differently, but he often used one of them as a stick and towel holder), and a 5x14 snare. His cymbals were Slingerlands and Zildjian: a 20" ride, two 18" crashes, 14" hi-hats, and a 6" splash. His drumheads were Remo Coated Diplomats (known for resonance and sustain), and his sticks were wood tip, about as heavy as a pair of modern 7As.


John Coltrane

Coltrane started out on the alto saxophone and clarinet. He went to music school before he was called away for World War II, spending the war in Hawaii playing in a navy band. After the war, he switched to the tenor saxophone, joined up with a few bands and eventually became famous while playing with Miles Davis. One of the most imitated saxophonists of any genre to this day, Coltrane’s influence extended even to the Doors’ hit, "Light My Fire."

John Coltrane Quartet - "Impressions."

Though he played a soprano saxophone, he was most famous for his work on tenor sax. For both soprano and tenor, he was known to use a Selmer Mark VI with a (possibly altered) 5-star medium metal Otto Link mouthpiece and a #4 Rico reed. His particular embouchure and practiced agility of his vocal tract were vital to his dark tones, screaming highs, his ability to create overtones and undertones, and his ability to play multiple tones at once. Coltrane tended to use an embouchure where the player tucks his bottom teeth under his bottom lip, and at the same time tucks his top teeth under his top lip. The position of the jaw, the glottis, and the tongue at the back of the mouth are paramount to a reed player’s sound as well. If the vocal tract is tuned properly, it allows a player to boost resonances especially in the higher octaves, where resonance is generally weak. ‘Trane mastered this through practice.


Wes Montgomery

John Leslie (Wes) Montgomery was a self-taught guitarist who worked as a welder and gigged in clubs into the morning. It wasn’t until his mid-thirties that he received much recognition for his playing, when one guy heard him (saxophonist, Cannonball Adderley), and called him an unassuming genius to another guy. That second guy flew out to Indianapolis to see Montgomery play at one of his regular gigs, and signed him to a recording contract at dawn the next morning. After that, Montgomery began recording two albums a year, as was the standard for jazz artists in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and quickly became a star among musicians because of his unique and masterful style.

Wes Montgomery - "Here's That Rainy Day" (Live, 1965)

A gentle and humble man by all accounts, he got his thick, clear, and warm tone largely by down strumming with his thumb. His playing employed a lot of octave work and complexity, but Montgomery mostly kept things simple gear-wise. He didn’t like a guitar that wasn’t easily replaceable or borrowed. Though he played a Gibson L-7 on at least one recording, he mostly used his Gibson L-5 CES (cutaway electric Spanish), with heavy gauge Gibson HiFi Flat wound strings. Throughout his career he used a few different amplifiers: a Fender Super Reverb, a 1965 Standel Super Custom XV, and a Fender Twin Reverb.

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