Coco  Montoya

Coco Montoya

By Brian D. Holland
April 2007

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Blues guitarist Coco Montoya (birth name Henry) was actually a drummer when he made his entrance into professional music. As the drummer for Albert Collins, he’d often sit with the late, great blues icon in motel rooms on the road, playing guitar and chatting about the music.  This, no doubt, provided Coco with the desire to eventually favor his second instrument, one that initially took a back seat to pounding the rhythm for the icy notes Collins conjured from his Telecaster.

Coco finally switched to guitar after realizing it was the right instrument for him to persist in the ever-changing and unpredictable music business. His aptitude for the instrument and his adoration for the blues were both evident when John Mayall called and asked him to join the legendary Bluesbreakers. Realizing he’d be following in the paths of the greats, it was a stint he hoped would last long enough to get his name in the books. In other words, he realized how lucky he was. Being lifted to the same platform that helped launch the careers of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor, he was more than aware of the shoes he had to fill.

Coco went on to fill those shoes quite nicely for almost a decade, from the mid- eighties straight up until 1993. He was the guitarist of record on Behind The Iron Curtain, A Sense Of Place, Power Of The Blues, and Wake Up Call, to name just a few huge Bluesbreakers’ albums. His performances put him in the limelight and helped to set the stage for a burgeoning solo career.

His 1995 solo debut, Gotta Mind To Travel, was a solid blues release. His guitar playing downright wept in places, and scorched in others. It’s an essential CD, not only because it’s so good, but because of the tremendous guest appearances on it as well. Though it’s safe to say it contains some of Coco’s best recorded guitar work, his next four releases didn’t compromise on talent either. The passion continues in everything he does.  His second release, Ya Think I’d Know Better, is absolute killer in tone and substance.

This year’s Dirty Deal doesn’t wane in any of those areas either. From the Little Feat propelled ‘Three Sides To Every Story’ (Paul Bararre on guitar, Richard Hayward on drums, and Bill Payne on keyboards) to the slow blues of Johnny Clyde Copeland’s ‘It’s My Own Tears’, not to leave out the roadhouse ambiance of Lowell Fulson’s ‘It’s All Your Fault’, Coco Montoya’s playing bursts with fire and fervor. If you’ve ever seen him perform live, then you know this is true in that environment as well. His tone is as sweet and sundry as in the studio. He’s modest about his vocal aptitude, but it’s one that’s as passionate and energetic as his playing.

Below is my interview with the amazing Coco Montoya, conducted on the afternoon of January 17th, 2007. I began the conversation referring to the blues festival that took place at Great Woods (now the Tweeter Center) in Mansfield, one magical summer day back in 1990. Those who were there know what a magical day it was.

Brian D. Holland: Coco, forgive me, because I wasn’t aware of the scenario in the Mayall band back then, and my seats were way up in the nosebleed section at the Tweeter Center one afternoon in the summer of 1990.

Coco Montoya: [Laughing] I’ve sat in those sections a few times.

BH: I’m fairly certain you were John Mayall’s guitarist at the time.  It was a blues festival emceed by Ronnie Earl that lasted all day, and on the bill were John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, The Johnny Winter Group, and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. Those were the three main acts.

CM: Yes, I was there. I left the Bluesbreakers in 1993.

BH: You were incredible that day.

CM: That was a funny time. They provided a speaker cabinet for me from backstage, probably owned by some guy who wanted people to notice his equipment. They had a ton of these 4/12 cabinets back there; just what I needed to get my sound out there. It caught fire in that set. That’s what’s so memorable and funny about that concert, because Stevie and I spent quite a bit of time talking and hanging out that day. Actually, many profound things happened that day. [Laughing] The funny thing about it, from my perspective anyway, was that I thought I was going over good when people started standing up. In the wings were Stevie Ray, Ronnie Earl, and a couple of other people. Stevie was grinning away while looking at me. I thought I was really doing it. Mayall started hollering at me, trying to get my attention. I saw him pointing toward my amp. I looked back and saw the grill melting and flames coming over the amp. Keep in mind that the amp head was mine! People talk to me about it all the time. It was hilarious, and the look on Stevie’s face, he was laughing his head off! Backstage he wouldn’t let me forget it. He was funny as hell. “You’ll do anything to get some cheap applause, won’t ‘cha!” he said while laughing. We had a really good time that day.

BH: It was shortly before he passed away.

CM: Yes, it was.

BH: I put that show, as a whole, up there as one of my favorite concerts I’d ever attended.

CM: Man, it was fun, and it was a magical day.

BH: It sure was. Coco, your guitar playing, especially early on, possessed certain details of the Albert Collins ice picking style.

CM: Oh, yeah. He was definitely an influence.

BH:   Is that what fueled the desire to pull away from the drum set, or were you already into the guitar before that?

CM: Well, guitar was already a second instrument for me. I had my first acoustic when I was thirteen. It was something to make notes and music on, you know. Nothing I did was a conscious effort to do anything really. I mean, I liked music; I didn’t question it; I just gravitated towards it and did it. It wasn’t “Oh, I’m gonna be a musician, or the worlds greatest drummer or guitar player.” I just liked music and played it. I never really thought about it, and guitar was just something that came along. After I left Albert Collins in the seventies, around early ’76, I think, I came back to top 40. Top 40 obviously kind of passed me by. I’m a self-taught blues musician. But blues wasn’t real popular, and I knew I wasn’t going to make a living trying to play drums in bands. I couldn’t play the funk and stuff that was going on. It really wasn’t my forte at all, probably because I never really took lessons or anything.

BH: You must have displayed to Albert Collins quite a willingness to learn, just to rationalize his desire to teach you what he knew.

CM: It wasn’t really a ‘teach’ thing with Albert. It was just hanging with him and absorbing. It was never a lesson. We sat down and sipped whiskey in our hotel rooms while playing guitars and messing around. You absorbed him.

BH: There was something about drinking whiskey and playing the blues. [Laughing] I don’t do it anymore, but …

CM: Neither do I. I’ve got twelve years now. I had to give it up because I was too good at it. [Laughing] But that was the essence of it all, just hanging out and absorbing the guy. I spoke with Robert Cray about it, and that’s what he said as well; it was just being able to sit down and hang out. Being in a motel in the middle of Eugene somewhere, Motel 6 or something, that’s where you learn. Just absorbing and watching him play. But when I left Albert, I got out of the business. There was no money in it and I had to pay my bills. I needed a straight job. The guitar, well, that came from having a straight job and a steady paycheck. I went and bought a guitar and an amp and basically went to jam sessions. I was a weekend warrior just having fun. I was out of the business, and it wasn’t until John Mayall called that I got back in. He got me back into the music business as a guitar player.

BH: ‘Collins Mix’, was that your only recording with Albert Collins?

CM: That was the only one, and I played guitar on it. That was when I met Jim Gaines, and we had just finished it up. It wasn’t long after that we found out Albert was sick. He had to go back and finish the stuff he had going on. In my humble opinion, nobody else has ever taken the stage with his power. I saw that man tap into an inner strength that was phenomenal.

BH: When it comes to Mayall, you were on A Sense Of Place and Wake Up Call.

CM: I’m trying to remember how many I did with John. I started out with a thing called Behind The Iron Curtain, then came A Sense Of Place, Power Of The Blues, and Wake Up Call. Wake Up Call, was the last one I did with him, but I can’t remember them all right now. It’s been too many years. I did about five albums with John, I think.

BH: It must have been quite an experience to be onstage with the likes of Collins and Mayall. What was that like?

CM: Oh, yeah. I’ve told this story before, but it was just amazing for me to be sitting at home, hanging out with my friends and having a cigarette out in the backyard. We were talking about what we were going to go do that day. And then, I get a call from Albert Collins. My mother says, “Albert Collins is on the phone.” I’m doing nothing; I’m not hunting a job or anything. He needed a drummer, so within a couple of hours I was heading to Eugene, Oregon, to play a gig with Albert Collins. This just came my way while I was standing out in my back yard. Same thing with John Mayall. I was working my day gig, bartending, when I got this call from John Mayall. I didn’t believe it at first. I hung up on him. I thought this English guy I knew was messing with me. [Laughing] I was a big fan of Mayall. So this thing fell in my lap, too, which is really unusual. I was really excited about it at first. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. I figured if it lasted a month I’d at least be in the book. [Laughing] The hard part was realizing that there were a lot of ghosts. People came to see him, wondering, “Who has Mayall found now?” Who’s going to compare to the big three, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor?

BH: About a year ago, I spoke with your friend Walter Trout. I asked him about that very thing, being a part of the great alumnus of star guitarists from the hugely famous Bluesbreakers. Was it like attending one of the ultimate Ivy League colleges and graduating with a great wealth of musical knowledge?

CM: Oh, yeah. There’s no doubt about that. Walter had put more time in with John previous to that incarnation of the Bluesbreakers. They had played together in Canned Heat and the John Mayall thing that had gone out on the road for a while. The first year we had a guy by the name of Kal David. He was from back east and had a band named Illinois Speed Press, also the Fabulous Rhinestones. He was a popular guy and a very good player. He also played with Bonnie Raitt and a bunch of other people. But, I’m sure, for Walter as well as I, it wasn’t only ghosts of guitarists past that you had to deal with; you had to deal with the guy on the other side of the stage.  It was a hell of a time, and we learned a lot. But there was a lot of pressure. The audience, and I’ve got to say John, too, to a certain degree, would kind of pit one against the other. You know, who’s better tonight? It got unhealthy. That isn’t what music is about. The relationship I have with other guitar players is more of a thing in which we share music. We don’t compete; we enjoy each other. I never wanted to get into music to compete with anyone. But it was an incredible time working with John. I learned so much. He was a whole basket of information, and he knew a whole lot about my hero, Eric Clapton. I was like a kid sitting around a campfire, my hands on my cheeks, you know, and he’d keep telling me more. I learned a lot. But it was pressurized, a real lot of pressure.

BH: Is there a secret to that icy hot style, as in ‘Talkin’ Woman Blues’?

CM: I’m not so sure about a secret. I try to do songs by Albert on all my albums. I’m not really trying to play Albert as much as people think. I have stuff of his, just like I do of Eric, Freddie King, Magic Sam, and all the greats. I have pieces of all those influences in me. Albert just had this magic about himself. When trying to emulate him, you can run into that scary area where you over do it. You’re not really making a statement; it’s like a parrot. You’re not being original; you’re just imitating.

BH: Do you ever break strings when plucking like that?

CM: Oh, yeah. [Laughing] Albert, too, was vicious with strings. He did it with bare fingers, too. I use a pick. It was amazing, watching him pluck those strings. He’d take the capo and put it up in the key of E or D, and bend the hell out of it anyway. Those days he was using .10s. It was amazing the power that man had, physically as well as spiritually. He played from his soul, and he was not to be denied by anyone.

BH: Talk about some of your other influences.

CM: The three I had already mentioned from the Mayall band, Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, and Peter Green. A friend showed them to me, and it blew my head off. As the years went by I realized I was influenced by just about everybody. I like to have an open mind and listen to people. I usually come away with something. There’ve been so many greats I’ve been privileged to be around. Anson Funderburgh was a big influence. I love Anson. Duke Robillard is incredible. Robert Cray was always one of my top faves. He’s so all around everything and has it all happening. Though he can play the blues hard, people don’t give him credit for it. He’s unique, and you know him when you hear him. He has that distinct voice we’re all trying to get.

BH: He gets into some amazing chordal arrangements.

CM: Yes, he does.

BH: Lonnie Brooks is like that, too.

CM: Oh, yeah. And he doesn’t get the credit he deserves either. I’ve known Lonnie since my first days in the Mayall band. He’s tremendous. His son (Ronnie Baker Brooks) is a great player, too. Lonnie has incredible soul and talent, and he has a great voice.

I can never say enough about the unsung heroes either. You know, the ones people don’t even see. The guys that are in every town, but never become famous. There’s this guy I went to see every time I had the chance. He doesn’t play professionally, yet to this day, if you sat in front of him and watched him, you’d say, “Who is this guy?” Tom Enriquez is his name and he’s a monster player. I’ve known him since I was about twenty years old. There was this great guitarist who wrote a book called ‘Chord Chemistry (Ted Greene). He went to see him. We all went to see him. He had the feel and the touch. He had the fire that Eric had on the first Bluesbreakers album. Tom has it to this day. He’s an unsung hero. I owe more to him than to anyone because we did so much playing together. He was a local hero for me. I’d love to get him on an album, and I may attempt to do that. But they’re everywhere. Earl Cates is another unique player. He’s part of the Cate Brothers, from Arkansas.

BH: General popularity of blues music seems to happen sporadically. Performers like Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and you and Walter Trout have a tendency to do something that spurs into the mainstream.

CM: Yeah. That’s what we hope happens. It always seems that blues, old r&b, and stuff like that goes dormant for a while. Then someone like John Belushi comes along and rediscovers it and puts it in a movie or something. The movie GoodFellas comes out, or something else with Cream music in the background. Young people say, “Who is that?” It becomes brand new, even though it’s been there forever.

BH: Last year, you did some recording with Walter Trout, your old friend and band mate (Full Circle – Walter Trout and Friends.) How was that experience?

CM: It was a very emotional experience for me, for Walter, too. He’s a very emotional guy. We went through hell together in the Mayall band. Neither of us will ever regret it, but there was a certain period of time when we were doing far too much drugs and drinking. And the other stuff I had already mentioned, the pressures of the competition we didn’t really buy into. We had some hard times, Walter and I.  There were times we treated each other very poorly. We were caught up in it. You know, I wasn’t going to let him outdo me and he wouldn’t let me outdo him. We got pissed off at each other. Number one, the ego to play was there. You’ve got to have that to even do it. But people were always asking me, “Hey, when are you and Walter going to start playing together?” Some guy booked a festival and had Mayall, Walter, and me on it. Part of it was to get us to play together. I think we were all kind of hesitant. We eventually did just one song together at some festival and then we were through. We were all putting together our own identity at the time. Buddy Whittington was with Mayall at the time as well.

BH: He’s a good guitar player.

CM: He’s tremendous. He’s a great guy and a great player, and he’s trying to establish his own territory, too. But getting back, Walter eventually called and asked me to come out and play. I said I’d love to. We’ve had wonderful times getting together. We’re both sober; we see things more clearly. There’s a lot of love between Walter and I. I love him; he’s a great guy. Getting together and seeing his family and all, that was a wonderful day for me.

BH: Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t it the first time two guitarists shared the stage simultaneously in the Bluesbreakers?

CM: Well, that’s probably true, but Kal David did the first year. It was the two of us. Then Walter came and did about four and a half years with us. Actually, when I went on to be the only guitar player, the band rehearsed with Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris (renowned violinist and guitarist). It was the band that never was. We rehearsed for about three days, but Sugarcane never showed up when we got on the plane to start touring. We ended up going out as a four piece. [Laughing]

BH: You possess amazing style and tone. You’re solo release, ‘Ya Think I’d Know Better’, is a personal favorite. What comes to mind is ‘Seven Desires’ and the Warren Haynes’ penned ‘Hiding Place’. Both scorched with tube driven heat and sustain.

CM: That was a great time. I worked with Jim Gaines for the first time. It was a tremendous and magical time for me. I used a redknob Twin head with a 4/12 bottom. It was a Randall cab that was owned by Mick Taylor at one time. It has since been stolen. I said to Jim, “I want more of that Bluesbreaker ambiance, biting thing.” He went crazy out there, sticking up mics in the room, on the walls, and everywhere. That’s how he came up with that tone.

BH: I love that tone.

CM: I do, too. I think I’ve come close to it on this album.

BH: Yes. You have nice tone on Dirty Deal as well.

CM: That’s a small 1/12 amp by Steve Carr. I have its prototype. We ran it through a 4/10 cabinet. That’s actually how I got those tones on the new album.

BH: I’m especially fond of your slow blues on that, ‘How You Sleep At Night’. It’s got that icy hot tone. I like your cover of Otis Rush’s ‘It Takes Time’ as well. That’s a scorcher. Johnny Clyde Copeland’s ‘It’s My Own Tears’ is a good one, also.

CM: I love ‘It’s My Own Tears’. That was a real hard one, in a way. That wasn’t an easy vocal to do. I’m pretty proud of the outcome, though.

BH: Talk about co-writing with Dave Steen. You guys write together a lot.

CM: Yeah! We do. I’ve also written with Gary Nicholson and Doug McCloud. I plan to write with others, too. But Dave has been a mainstay with me since that second album. That’s when I met him, when I recorded his tune ‘The Heart Of Soul’. He’s a brilliant writer, and actually a wonderful guitar player and great singer. He’s one of those guys who’ll send you a demo that’s so damn good you’ll go “How will I top that?” [Laughing] It’s just so good. He’s a very talented man.

BH: Blues songs have a tendency to be titled something blatantly true, like ‘Three Sides To Every Story’, which goes on to say: yours, mine, and the whole darn truth. Isn’t that the truth? [Both laughing]

CM: That’s absolutely it. When talking about stuff like that, especially when it’s a disagreement, you try to find that medium place.

BH: Frequenting the blues festival circuit, it must be an interesting thing to be surrounded by so much amazing talent all congregated together in one location.

CM: Yeah. It’s wonderful for me. I’m kind of like a kid in a candy store, because I’m just as excited as the audience to see many of these people play. I’ve done shows with B.B. many times, you know, with Jimmie Vaughan, the Thunderbirds, and Robert Cray. I love listening to all of them. I’m a big fan, too. I’ll tell someone, “I was on that show with Jimmie Vaughan”, and it feels real good. He’s a unique guy and an incredible player. He’s one of those players you recognize as soon as you hear him. He’s got an identity. I met Stevie before I met Jimmie. I never knew Jimmie that well at first until he married Robin, who’s a friend of mine. She’s a sweetheart and a wonderful person, and they’ve got beautiful kids. That’s how I met Jimmie. He’s a shy but wonderful guy, great to talk to, and he’s very knowledgeable.

So, yeah. You do all of these things and big festivals and you get to catch up with all these people you thought were on the other side of the earth. You get to talk a little and see what everybody’s doing. It can be pretty exciting.

BH: Will you be releasing a live DVD anytime soon?

CM: Well, everybody’s pushing me. Not the record company or management as much as people and fans, but it appears they’d love to get at least a live CD. I’ve been kind of kicking the dirt about it, because it’s hard for me. I tend to be a little rough around the edges. So, for me, just on a personal level, I’m not as confident in my live performances as maybe other people are.

BH: Maybe you’re just more honest and open about it. I think most players feel that way about it.

CM: Yeah. Or some people just have more guts. [Laughing] But I think it’s going to go there. I’ve got a feeling it’s going to happen. I think it’ll be the next mountain for me to climb, to do a live DVD or album. After six albums I’ve certainly enough material now.

BH: Suppose someone came to you, and said, “Coco, I want to learn how to play blues guitar.” How would you answer that?

CM: Well, I would question that. The only way I know is from my own experience. There are so many things available to people these days if they want to learn to play guitar, DVD videos and such. I wish I had that stuff when starting out. There are [instructional and concert] DVDs of Albert Collins now, Albert King, Mick Taylor, Robben Ford. They’re all over the place, and it’s great footage. When I was a kid, I used albums. I had to ruin them by playing them over and over just to hear how they were doing something. I must have bought the Bluesbreakers Beano album about seven times. And that was just when I was young. [Laughing] That was part of my Bible. I had to learn all that.

But my question would be, “Do you have the fire?” Can you go there and hurt your fingers so much that you don’t even want to touch a counter afterwards. And about an hour later try to do it again. That’s what it was. It was an obsession for me. That was the only way I learned, by listening, watching, and then trying to emulate. I think anybody can learn an instrument or a genre of music. It depends on what level they want to take it to. There are some people who just pick at home, getting together in the backyard on weekends. That’s fine if that’s what you’re looking for. But it takes a lot of dedication to make a real mark in this thing. And that’s just the instrument. There’s also the music business. Making music and the music business are two different things.

BH: Okay. Let’s talk about gear; your guitars, amps, effects, and everything you use to get that sound, on and off the road. 

CM: As far as guitars are concerned, there are two I’m using right now. My Stratocasters are built by a fellow named Toru Nittono. I’ve been playing his guitars for a while. I’ve got several of his Strats. I’m also going to start taking a new guitar out on the road made by a fellow named Mike Lipe. It’s Lipe Guitars. All of those are the ones I’ve been using. Some of the Strats have Bill Lawrence pickups. Also, I just got these PUs from this guy named Jerry Amalfitano. Though he’s actually from back east, he lives in Texas now. His pickups are great. He has great Tele pickups also. Mike Lipe’s making me a Tele now, and we’re going to stick Amalfitano’s in it.

I’ve been using the 80watt Slant 6V by Steve Carr for about five years now. I love it. Just recently, I kidnapped a wonderful amp Steve had sent me, the one I was telling you about, called the Vincent. It’s a 33 watt, single 12-inch combo. It’s really nice, and I’m amazed by how much tone this little amp has. I’m seriously considering taking two of them on the road. I went to a jam session not long ago. Not a real huge place, but I put the amp on 7 watts. A guy sad, “Man, that thing’s loud.”

BH: It must push the tubes nicely at a low volume.

CM: It’s incredible, and really sweet. I strongly advise everyone to check these amps out. He makes great stuff.

I’ve been using this pedal called a Hoochee-Mama (BrownTone Electronics). I got it from a guy in North Carolina. Tim Brown makes them. He told me that Chris Duarte told him to come and see me. It’s a killer pedal. It’s warm and it doesn’t squash the tone. It’s fat sounding, and you can get that Bluesbreaker tone at times. It’s definitely a part of my arsenal at this point.

BH: Talk about your band.

CM: Two of the guys have been with me for about five or six years. That’s Randy Hayes on drums and Steve Evans on bass. They’re from the Bay area, and have played with a lot of people. They also played on the last two albums before Dirty Deal. Tony Stead played keyboards on the album. He’s a great player.

BH: He has a nice B3 sound.

CM: Yeah. We rented a B3 and stuffed it into the room and it sounded great. He did the piano work, too, except that one or two of the songs was Billy Payne of Little Feet. But they’re great musicians to bring in. I’m really lucky to have these guys. I take the rhythm section with me on the road and turn them loose in every show. Everybody in my band gets a chance to shine and do their thing. That’s the way it should be. And touring with us now is a great keyboard player I met through Lloyd Jones, by the name of Dover Weinberg. Come to find he played with Albert Collins, too, back in the 70s. He was also one of the early guys with Robert Cray and Curtis Salgado. He still plays with Lloyd Jones. He started playing with me about halfway into last year.

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