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Guitarist Monte Pittman finds strength in The Power of Three

Monte Pittman's Power of Three finds Madonna guitarist indulging his heavy metal roots.
Monte Pittman's Power of Three finds Madonna guitarist indulging his heavy metal roots.
Monte Pittman

Guitarist Monte Pittman is known for being Adam Lambert’s songwriting buddy and Madonna’s hired gun. But sessions for the native Texan’s latest solo album, The Power of Three, were overseen by famed Metallica producer Flemming Rasmussen and released on Brian Slagel’s own Metal Blade Records.

Monte Pittman finds strength in the power of three.
Monte Pittman

Few guitarists are as open-minded and versatile as Pittman, 38, who relocated from Longview, TX to the City of Angels at the turn of the century to pursue his musical dreams. Indeed, most players typically specialize in one particular style and either ignore or frown upon all other genres. Not so with Monte, whose pyrotechnic chops make the Material Girl sound good on discs like Confessions on a Dance Floor, Hard Candy, and MDNA. When Pittman isn’t rocking with Madonna or Lambert, he can be found thrashing with Tommy Victor’s metal band, Prong—or cranking the distortion with his potent new trio.

Taylor Swift six-stringer Paul Sidoti is another similarly well-rounded player who moonlights in other groups, but we suspect Pittman’s range—from soft acoustic to full-tilt heavy metal—is greater. Heck, Pittman even played bass onstage with Spinal Tap and members of Metallica at Live 8 a couple years back. So teaming up with the man who helped architect James Hetfield’s clinically crunchy sound on Master of Puppets only seemed like a natural next move for the guitarist, who issued The Deepest Dark in 2009 and Pain, Love, and Destiny in 2011.

It hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbows for Pittman, who played in hard rock bands like Myra Mains and worked as a guitar salesman in L.A. before shifting gears to teaching. One of Monte’s first guitar students was director Guy Ritchie, who referred his then-wife Madonna for instruction. Soon Pittman was strumming along with the “Vogue” singer on Late Night With David Letterman and backing her up at a Super Bowl halftime show.

The Power of Three finds Pittman indulging his metal side, however. The new disc has more in common with seminal albums by Megadeth and Slayer than anything he’s recorded with Madonna. It’s also his hardest, heaviest work to date. Sure, tracks like “Everything’s Undone,” “Away From Here,” and “On My Mind” bear some passing resemblance to radio ready rock by Foo Fighters and Alice in Chains, but lead-off single “A Dark Horse” and deep tracks “Blood Hungry Thirst” and “Missing” boast breakneck rhythms, cudgel-heavy riffs, and breathless solos. Kane Ritchotte’s snare drum stutters in rapid-fire staccato and his cymbals sizzle beneath Max Whipple’s undulating bass grooves as Pittman lets loose with bluesy leads, frantic hammer-ons and pull-offs, and two-handed tapping.

Lest anyone peg Pittman as another shallow stunt guitarist whose prodigious chops merely mask anemic songwriting, the new album’s dense, lengthy cuts feature clever time shifts (“Delusions of Grandeur”), intriguing musical interplay (“All is Fair in Love and War”), fascinating lyrics (“Before the Mourning Son”), and competent vocals.

We had an opportunity to speak with Monte on the eve of Power of Three’s worldwide release. Pittman was eager to discuss the new music, talk about his influences, and dish on jamming with Madonna.

Heck, he even gave us a free guitar lesson over the phone.

MONTE PITTMAN: Hello, Pete! Monte Pittman here. How are you?

CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: Great thanks! We appreciate you taking the time to chat with us. Can I ask where you’re calling from? Are you in L.A?

MP: Uh, yes. We’re in L.A. I’m at the Metal Blade office.

CME: Oh, be sure to give [Metal Blade founder] Brian Slagel a hello for us!

MP: I’ll do that, got it! And I’m sure he says hello back!

CME: So, we’re calling to talk about The Power of Three, your new album—and an early contender for one of the best hard rock albums of the year. We just checked it out, and it’s very powerful stuff.

MP: Thanks, man. Glad you like it!

CME: Apparently The Power of Three is the second in a planned trilogy of Monte Pittman / Power of Three albums? And it’s your second full-length solo effort?

MP: Technically it’s the third. Really the fourth release. But yes, it’s the third full solo album. The second album kind of became a rock album, then I did an acoustic EP. And that’s what brings us here.

CME: What was it like going off to Denmark to record with the legendary Flemming Rasmussen?

MP: It was great. It was great to get away and not have any kind of distractions. The other albums were recorded in L.A. so you might be in traffic for an hour or two on the way there, so you’re stressed out from that, and you’re trying to focus on making an album. In Copenhagen it was cold and snowing and we all rented an apartment and lived together and had an awesome time making the album. It was wonderful working with Flemming. Can’t wait to work with him again!

CME: I recall reading in a couple recent Metallica biographies about how cold and isolated it was in Copenhagen when they did Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. Has the technology improved, at least?

MP: Well, we still recorded it like we did the same thing he would’ve done to make Ride the Lightning. It’s even the same mics on that album. We recorded…we were in the same room, recording live. We tracked tape and then it was all analog on the board, no…he only used one piece of outboard gear, for the solos. Everything else he did right then and there on the desk. Same mics, all that stuff. You hear that cold, the room…it’s all part of that recording. And now that I know that, it’s one of the things I love about Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. It’s one of the reasons there’s something magical about them.
CME: You can hear it on the record. It’s got that dry, arid sound, and the guitars are very crunchy.

MP: Yeah, you can tell that Flemming Rasmussen recorded it. He’s got that signature sound, so you can hear what he added to the band. He becomes like, the fifth Beatle. You hear what he added. He even told me one day…he’d do these things. He’s on the psychology side of things. There’s times he’s right there, and he’s on you, trying to push your buttons to get something out of you for the recording. Then there’s times when he becomes invisible. And he’s always coming in to move the room mics around. He doesn’t just have the tracks and instruments working together, but the sounds of the room he has working, too. And someone else pointed it out to me, that they can hear like a sparkle in some of the guitars. And that’s from how he moves the mics and works the tracks. He tried to explain it to me, but it’s over my head [laughs]. One day he broke out the safety master to Ride the Lightning, and we played it in the room. He’s like, “Here, think about this when you’re playing.” Just things like that. And one of the tapes we recorded on, he said, “This was tape that didn’t get used on Master of Puppets.” Some of it might be something he said just to get me pumped up, but it worked [laughs]!

CME: And you recorded the album with Kane Ritchotte on drums and Max Whipple on bass. Both of those guys are fairly young; they might not even have been alive when Nirvana released Nevermind. It’s nice to see there are a few youngsters out there who still carry the flame. So what did these guys bring to the fold?

MP: Yeah, well, they had just turned 21. They’d been playing together, and they just turned 21 when we recorded the album. They know that music and they love that music, but they didn’t really…it’s like you said, that music had already happened before they were born. So I gave them Metallica’s Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and …And Justice for All, and [Slayer’s] Reign in Blood and South of Heaven, and [Pantera’s] Vulgar Display of Power. I gave ‘em all those classic albums to listen to before we went in, so you do have a fresh take on that kind of music. I think that’s one of the things you hear in the excitement of the recording.

CME: At the beginning of the album—before “The Dark Horse”—there’s a bit of a sizzle, as if there’s static from a vinyl record. It’s also at the end of the album. I like that lead-in and fade. What made you do that?

MP: What made me do that? Hmmm. I don’t want to give something away, because there’s something I want to do later that might include that. Then it would all make sense [laughs]. Because it could be a record, or it could be fire. It’s interesting that those two sounds are similar. But I don’t wanna give that away!

CME: No, don’t give it away! We didn’t know it was a piece of a larger puzzle. So yeah, we’ll let you keep that to yourself. How about the song “Blood Hungry Thirst?” There’s a line at the end where you invoke the album title in the lyric, almost like an anthem for your band. Did the album title come from that, or vice-versa maybe?

MP: No, I just had it. It just came to me. I wish I could create things like that, but it’s usually just something that comes to me, and it did when I was playing it. I sang it—“strength in the power of three”—as I was playing it, and thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” And then titling the album from that. These are good questions, by the way. But again, that’s another thing I don’t want to give away, because there’s an idea related to that and I might work it into a video.

Watch the official video for “A Dark Horse” here:

CME: Well again, we’re stumbling onto your secrets, so we’ll let you keep that to yourself! How about “Before the Mourning Son?” I haven’t deciphered all the lyrics yet, but the title of the song alone suggests it could be as much about death and grief as morning, as in the dawn of a new day.

MP: When I write lyrics, I try to make it sound like three different things, and see if I can be successful with that. So “Before the Mourning Son” could be taken as an eclipse. It could be taking as a reading of a royalty-type thing, like a prince becomes king. Things like that. It was before the morning sun—like how it sounds—but then it gets to the changing of the guard. But when you say it, they can have different meanings. Kind of a play on words.

CME: There’s a name for that—an English word referring to the technique, I mean—but I can’t remember it for the life of me….

MP: Yeah, I’m sure there is!

Watch the official video for “Before the Mourning Son” here:

CME: The last song on the album, “All is Fair in Love and War,” is a thirteen-minute epic that has tempo changes and dynamic shifts. Everyone gets a solo spot, and at the end there’s a protracted jam and a lot of shredding. With a larger piece like that, how much was mapped out beforehand?

MP: Well, most of the things…I had a demo for the whole album. And we recorded the album in the order that you hear it. We made an album. It wasn’t like we recorded a bunch of songs like, “OK we did that one, what’s the next one?” And that way you can change what you want to do, kind of as a listener might. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Like, we get into the fifth song—“On My Mind”—and it’s a more straight-ahead rock song, and the listener can take a breath. But “All’s Fair in Love and War,” there was a demo for that, a model, and when we got to the first solo, we were kind of free-forming right there in the studio. And the idea was, we’ll just break down and jam here, and when we feel it’s time, we’ll bring it back together into the next part. Then, after that is said and done, Alex Skolnick does a guest guitar solo and Chris Barnes does a guest vocal. So you hear Chris Barnes—he does the death metal vocal. That’s not me [laughs]! So I do a solo, then Chris, and then it’s Alex doing the solo that leads into the final chorus.

CME: You mentioned Testament’s Alex Skolnick. When did you pick up the guitar, and who were your influences?

MP: Well, when I got my first guitar I was 13. That’s when Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, Testament, Death Angel…all those thrash bands were getting big. And I tell people that I was so lucky for that to happen at that time, because you got so much material. Plus you had guys like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. It was just a fun time to pick up the guitar and learn to play. And when I started teaching on my own, that was after Nirvana had become a big thing. And I was like, “Man, I kind of feel bad for these kids. It’s just a few chords!” Vince Neil said in an interview one time that they [Motley Crue] were all about sex and drugs and having a good time. Then Nirvana came out, all the grunge bands, and they were all about hating your parents and being depressed. And he’s like, “That’s not any fun! I’ll take the titties and the cocaine!” But one thing kind of influenced another, and that’s what I had to listen to when I was growing up. It all started for me with KISS. I was one of those kids standing on the bed, pretending that was the stage, listening to my sister’s KISS records. I was just lucky growing up, all the things that came out. It was perfect timing.

CME: I know what you mean. Satriani and Vai were amongst my favorites, too. I remember searching out Vai’s first proper solo album, Flex-Able, and I picked up David Lee Roth’s Eat ‘em and Smile just to hear what he’d do with Roth.

MP: Yeah, he’s one of my favorites.

CME: You did some acoustic covers not too long ago on an EP—“Needle and the Damage Done” by Neil Young and “Turn the Page” by Bob Seeger. What made you decide on those particular tunes?

MP: That’s one of the things on my Sound Cloud page, the covers. And I did those just for fun. What came out on my EP—those were original songs. I had a day off in Copenhagen on tour. And they called me saying I’d have a day off. And I called Flemming at the studio and said I’d be in town, and he said, “Well let me fire up the studio!” That’s what led us to working together. And my first album is all acoustic, The Deepest Dark Album. When I play some of that stuff live, it’s pretty complicated. And I hadn’t realized that. And it’s in a bunch of alternate tunings. That was influenced by guys like Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley. That kind of thing. Then that became…some of it was tricky playing live. And playing an acoustic guitar live, it doesn’t sound anything like playing an acoustic guitar in a room. But things really started progressing, and I wanted to just have some really simple acoustic songs. And that’s what we recorded when we did that EP. And those songs we did on the Sound Cloud page, just for fun. On the Madonna tours I’d do solo acoustic shows, and every once in a while I’d take on some covers. I think it’s a great thing to do, just to see what makes them tick. Some songs, you listen to them, and it’s a great recording—but it doesn’t work live. So you try to find out how they work, or why they work or don’t. One of my favorite songs is this classic rock song, “Blinded by the Light,” by Manfred Mann. It’s a great song, of course—but I don’t see how they’d ever play that song live. Because there are just so many things that are mixed up and down, these things that just fade in and out throughout the song.

CME: I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’m not sure how they’d do that either, presuming that they do somehow play it live. So, you’ve been working with Madonna on and off for thirteen years or so….

MP: Fourteen years, now. How time flies!

CME: You met up with her through her husband, Guy Ritchie. What was it like giving guitar lessons to those two? Can Madonna hold her own on the instrument?

MP: Well, she can do what she wants to do. So that’s a success. And I tell people, “If you learn these scales, one day you’ll sell a million albums” [laughs]. I worked at a Guitar Center, and I wasn’t very good at selling guitars. Because there’s a lot of politics, and it’s about commissions, and there’s someone who talked to that person—the customer—and that becomes part of your sale. It was just so impossible. And I lived down in Redondo Beach, and I’d drive to Guitar Center, which is about an hour and half of traffic. Then after I got off work with Guitar Center I’d have to drive to Prong rehearsal, which was in Burbank. And then I’d have to drive home—and I’d do that every day. And I’d never want to play guitar, because I’d be around it all day long, listening to other people try to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Enter Sandman” [laughs]. It was enough to drive you crazy! And people would come in asking for guitar teachers, and we didn’t have any. So I quit, and I started teaching. And I started teaching Guy, which led to me teaching Madonna. And they were great students, and it was a great time for teaching guitar, I have to say. Because there were these bands—the acoustic thing was very prominent—bands like Coldplay and Oasis, stuff like that. Songs that can go with your lesson. The hard thing with teaching is finding music that everybody knows. Like, I can tell someone to learn this Led Zeppelin song everyone knows. Or “Smoke On the Water,” which is a great song with a great beginning. But once you get past that…everybody listens to something different. But it was a good time to be teaching.

CME: I’ve taught my daughter a few things on guitar, and recently my sister-in-law asked me to show her a few chords. Any advice for someone looking to impart the basics, but isn’t exactly a “teacher?”

MP: The way that I teach is different than any other teacher I’ve seen, and I think that’s why my method is so successful. When I have a new student, and they’ve had another guitar teacher, they’ll have C and they’ll have D, and they’ll have E and have A. But those chords don’t go together—they’re not in the same key. So the first thing that I do is teach the open chords in the key of C. So you get C major, D minor, E minor, and F major and G major—and G 7th—then A minor and B diminished, and then you’re back to C. And when you’re back to C, you have B minor 7th…and so on and so forth. And you’ve got all those on one page. And those open chords are what give you the barre chords. You just take your first finger pretty much, and you cover where the nut is on the guitar, and you can use those shapes anywhere else. And that way you can do pretty much what you want with them, anywhere on the guitar. Then you take your scales, and the five positions, and they go all up and down the neck. And that makes the world smaller, and makes it so it’s not so overwhelming with all these notes. And I tell them how they can take all these chords—all in the same key. And say I want you to go C major to E min 7th then A min 7th and then G 7th , and that’s gonna bring it home to C, and you keep that going. Then you play this scale here. And once that’s down, you say, anytime you’re on an A minor, you play this scale in the third position, which starts on an A. Or you move around so that the scale you’re playing is based on the chords you’re playing spells out the chords you’re playing—or the other way around, so they’re interchangeable. It also really helps to just take songs. Kids between the ages of 5 and 10 love AC-DC. I teach so much AC-DC because it’s so simple. And that’s a great way to introduce to them that, like, less is more is one of the best things I could ever teach you in music. Less is more. I think that for simplicity—if you think about why AC-DC are so big and have lasted so long—you take a song like “Back in Black.” By the time that sound [sings riff] gets to the back of the arena, it’s not stepping on anything else. Those kinds of band work. KISS works like that. So then you just take simple songs and get them to play so they can read some sort of tablature. I’ll just take like, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” And you play all these things with just one note, so that you’re just playing. That’s something I use Spotify for. Because if somebody knows something…you ask people what they listen to. And I get requests for Taylor Swift and One Direction a lot. Like “Best Song Ever” from One Direction. It’s really popular with kids. And it’s just F#, C#, G#. And it’s like, okay. You’re playing on the second fret on the top string, and after that it’s the fourth fret on the fifth string, and then fourth fret on the sixth string. And that way, they’re playing something that they know—and it’s like the recording—and that’s what you want to get them doing. I do a couple things like that. Then I’ll say I’ll give them something tricky now, like the “Crazy Train” riff, or give them “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” And then they’re being introduced to a new kind of music in a way that it isn’t getting forced on them, and they get to discover it in the way we discover it. So that it’s like, “That’s pretty cool!” Like with “Smoke on the Water.” We all take it for granted because we’ve all heard it so much. But what a genius song! I can’t say enough about it. It’s amazing. I’m fascinated by that, and it’s so simple. And just the story. I tell people, what’s the song about? I dunno. And then you tell them the story. That’s all very important.

CME: The fire at Montrose in 1971, how the place burned down during the Zappa concert. That idiot with the flare gun, or whatever.

MP: Yeah, and you tell ‘em the story. I was teaching a kid “Panama” the other day, and I asked, “Well, what’s this song about?” And he said something like, “Is the guy going to Panama?” I said no, “It’s about a car, and a girl compared to a car.” And it’s like, “Oh!” And I get them to think about what they put into all the songs and the story. “Is this about a girl, or is this about a car, or…?” That all goes back to having successful lyrics, and having a song that could mean three different things.

CME: You did some high-profile gigs after starting on with Madonna’s band. I know you played in your own bands—but it was probably something else playing at the Super Bowl halftime show or appearing on David Letterman. Were you nervous at all?

MP: The only time I’ve ever been nervous to play onstage was when we played the With Full Force Festival in Germany, and we played after Napalm Death. You don’t want to do that [laughs]! The kids were all out in the mosh pit, and the band was so bad ass, and it was like, “Okay guys…what are we gonna do now?” But that was one of the only times. But like with Madonna at the Super Bowl, it was like I had the best seat in the house. Letterman, I was a little nervous. But it was so cold in that theatre that I was more worried that the guitar was going to go out of tune, because I’d just changed the strings. I was tuning and retuning, and then I got to the room where the theatre is, and I was worried that the guitars were going to start reacting. So I tuned and retuned—but I couldn’t be loud, because they were doing their interviews! And then [Letterman stage manager] Biff’s like, you’re next. And I didn’t know what to expect, and there’s two stools, and there’s so many lights that you can’t even see the audience. So I started playing, and it went by really fast!

CME: Next week you’ll be appearing at NAMM to work with the folks at Orange amplification, right?

MP: Yeah, they’ve been such great supporters, too.

CME: And you’ll also be promoting the new documentary about Arthur Fogel. Can you tell us about that?

MP: Yeah, Who the F--k is Arthur Fogel? That’s going to be on TV on January 31st on Epic, and it’s a documentary about Arthur Fogel, who was head of Live Nation. You’ve got to watch it. It’s a great music film, because you’ve got Madonna, U2, Sting, Rush…and it’s great just seeing how he started and took risks. It’s great. It’s a wonderful thing to be part of, just being interviewed for that.

CME: Hopefully it’ll play here sometime or come out on DVD….

MP: I’m sure it will. It was a great thing just to be part of.

CME: You’ve also got a gig next month at the Whiskey a Go-Go. Will there be more extensive touring in the spring and summer for The Power of Three?

MP: Oh yeah. This is just the first show where I’ve got all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed, and we’re working on booking elsewhere. So right now people are just hearing the material, and I’m taking it one step at a time. Now I’m trying to book San Diego and Phoenix and Vegas, and just go and keep stretching it out one day at a time. The Whiskey has been so supportive of me over the last few years, so I definitely wanted to go ahead and knock that one out.

CME: Well, Monte, thanks again so much for your time. It was cool taking guitars and The Power of Three with you. The album comes out next week, right?

MP: Thank you! Yeah, it’s Tuesday the 21st it’ll be out. So check that out!

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