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Photo courtesy Trent Titmarsh
Photo courtesy Trent Titmarsh

Texan born singer, songwriter Monte Pittman has been Madonna’s right hand guitar man since the pop icon’s 2001 Drowned world tour. He scored the gig after giving guitar lessons to Madonna’s husband at the time, UK film maker Guy Ritchie. It wasn’t long before Madonna too was taking lessons from Monte, which led to an invitation to play guitar with her on the David Letterman Show. He’s been with her band ever since, co-written songs with her and still gives Madonna guitar lessons while on tour. As well as attending to Madonna’s fretted instrument needs, Monte has also been an integral part of American metal band Prong, toured with industrial hard rockers Ministry and has released three albums of his own, the current one being Power of Three. He hopes to release a fourth album by year’s end. On the final day of Madonna’s Australian Rebel Heart tour, a very generous Monte Pittman kindly granted Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips some time to chat about his amazing musical world.

Photo: Kevin Wilson
Photo: Kevin Wilson

Monte, thanks for spending some time with us. Is this your first trip to Australia?
I have been here a couple of times. I played guitar with Adam Lambert. We came over here and did some shows and TV appearances. Me and Adam go way back. He was the singer in my band. We started a band together and then he went on American Idol and that was that.

Do you remember the moment that the guitar or a guitarist really sparked your flame?
I was one of those kids that stood on the bed and pretended they were Ace Frehley. I was like three years old. Ace Frehley was my favourite. Then when I was learning how to play guitar … what was really cool was that when I got my first guitar, that was when Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer, all those bands were just coming out. I am a huge Metallica fan still of course … and Steve Vai. I mean, I’m scared of Steve Vai. If I see him or meet him, I get so nervous. I think that’s from watching Crossroads so many times but there have been so many great guitar players along the way.

Do you remember your first guitar?
Yeah, it was called a Terminator from a company called Synsonics, my parents got me from Target for Christmas. Then my first real guitar was an Ibanez RG560, that’s when I was in a Steve Vai phase. Now I am with ESP guitars

I wanted to go through your stage gear for the Rebel Heart tour. I’ve seen a few videos of your set up but I believe it has changed recently. Are you using the Kemper Profiling Amp instead of the Axe FX II to run your sounds now?

How did you first come across the Kemper Profiler?
Dino Cazares (Fear Factory) told me about it at a NAMM show and he took me and Tommy Victor (fellow Prong band member) over to the Kemper booth and Christoph (Kemper) showed it to us and when I saw that, it was like there is no way I am going back to work with Madonna without one of these. You know it is one of the greatest inventions for guitar players ever … I mean ever!

Did it take long to set up the tones for Madonna’s show.
Yeah, it took a while and there are still things that I haven’t even scratched the surface of. We rehearsed the show for three months prior in New York and I did a lot of work on amps sounds, going back to all of those old Madonna songs and figuring out what amps Nile Rodgers was using. But there are so many things that you can do with that thing that I don’t even know about yet.

Is it something you will use with your own music as well?
Absolutely. I am working on my next album on Metal Blade Records and I recorded all of the guitars on the Kemper. I did a lot of the guitars in my hotel room on tour. I’d take the Kemper to my hotel room with my guitar because the drums are already done, so I recorded all of the guitars myself.

How would you set that up in your room?
I would just use Pro tools and Apogee Duet and on my day off I would just record guitars in my room all day with room service.

What guitars are you using on stage for this tour?
The main ones are an ESP FRX and an Eclipse but I use the FRX the most, that’s one of my favourite guitars ever. When I grew up I never played an ESP. Nobody had one. I’m from a small town in Texas and they only had like Ibanez or Gibson and Fender. A friend of mine works for ESP as a tech and I had him do some work on one of my guitars and then he had one, since he worked for them and I started playing his and I loved it. I didn’t know that I’d be jumping onboard with them. I just got drawn to it. I found myself really wanting to play when I was playing their guitars and it makes you a better player when you don’t want to put the guitar down. So those are the main two. I also have an ESP Strat. For acoustic, I use Bourgeois guitars.

I believe you make good use of a capo during a show rather than having to swap guitars with different tuning?
I personally like a lower tuning. I try to get away with that any chance I get. All my solo stuff, I tune down a step and a half. The way I think about is, if I am playing those guitars with Madonna, they’re broken in and I really know them .. rather than going on tour with Madonna for a year and playing one way, and going back to my stuff and it seems foreign to you. Also with her, you never know what’s going to happen. She will want to change a key right there on the spot or the next song we’re going to do afterwards is in a different key or she’ll switch up the set list just with a word she’s saying and you’ve got to be ready. With the capo, I can just move the capo down and there you go.


You’re still using Orange amps on stage?
Yes I still use my Oranges. I use that and the Kemper together

Is there anything happening under the stage in regard to your sound?
Everything is right there with me on my riser. I have two Orange Dual Dark heads and two Orange cabinets. So there’s like an Orange half stack and then the Kemper goes into the other Orange cabinet and that’s my on stage sound. I’ve got the Orange amps set at different levels. When we do the song Burning Up, we do it with distorted guitars, so it’s like a heavy version of a Madonna song. When we do that, I am cranked. When I hit the guitar, you get the response of the strings. It’s almost like you get instant feedback. Then the Kemper goes stereo to front of house.

What’s happening pedal-wise on stage?
I just got a couple of Real McCoy  custom wah wah pedals. They’re made by this guy Jefrrey Teese, those are amazing. I couldn’t decide which wah wah pedal to use so I got two of them and I have them both on. I use different ones for different times. I’ve got a SolidGold FX Rosie, which is a distortion pedal and that works great. One thing about Orange amps that I have always loved is that their clean channels work really well with pedals. With some amps when you are using distortion pedals there’s almost too much EQ and it doesn’t sound good but those amps work great with pedals. I use a Walrus Janus, which is a fuzz and it’s a tremolo, so you can put those together. The way that the knobs work on it, you can filter it out where it works really well with the synths for all of the Madonna stuff. It kind of just blends in there with them. There’s a company from Brazil called Darta Effects and I have a delay and a boost from them. He’s really known for graphics. He does really cool graphics, so he made me these Star Wars themed pedals.

Madonna has been busting out a Flying V guitar on this tour…
Yeah, that was my Flying V. I was playing with the band Ministry right before this and then I came back to Madonna. I had been playing that guitar a lot. I give Madonna guitar lessons. That’s how I met her. We’re working on songs and potential songs that she can play on tour and she told me that she wanted something different, some new blood, new ideas. I was showing her all of my ESPs and she picked up my V and started playing it and it was like instantly, that’s going to be your guitar now! So I gave it to her.

Photo courtesy of Trent Titmarsh
Madonna and her Flying V. Photo courtesy of Trent Titmarsh

Is she getting into metal? Are you feeding her some of your music?
You know she picked out those sounds. We went through the Kemper and I gave her all these different  amps, just going do you like this one or this one? I didn’t have too many heavy ones but I had a couple in there. I didn’t think that she would go for that. I was giving it to her as a reference and she kept saying, go back to that one. That’s the sound that I want. That was the profile of Kerry King’s signature JCM800. I am friends with the guys in Slayer and I love telling them that … hey, Madonna is using your amp sound!

I know she also has a pretty neat looking Les Paul, is that yours too?
Oh no that’s hers. She got that over ten years ago and that’s amazing. That’s one of the best Les Pauls I have ever played. The custom shop made it for her. She had one she got from Guitar Centre or somewhere but we had some guitars stolen in 2004 when we were rehearsing at The Forum (USA). On Sundays you can’t rehearse there because it’s open as a big church and someone stole some of our guitars on that day but then Gibson made her that same guitar and actually made a much better guitar.

Is this a difficult tour to play guitar on in terms of what is going on around you? You’re getting messages in your in-ear monitors as you play and looking out for cues and theatrics and dancers on stage … you really have to be switched on … is that difficult?
Well that’s why we rehearsed so long. We rehearsed from the beginning of May until out first show which was the beginning of September. There were some days during rehearsals where we didn’t get off stage until four in the morning. It was like 12 to 16 hour a day rehearsals. You go through everything. There’s some great things about playing guitar with in-ear monitors and there’s some bad things. When we’re rehearsing and we’re putting the set together, I’ll only put it in one monitor just so I can get the cues or click so you know when to start. That way I have the other ear where I can hear myself playing in a room and it completely changes how I play. Before on other tours where I just used in-ear monitors, I didn’t play as much because you feel like you are stepping on everything. When you are listening to how you are playing in a room, there’s a lot more ideas, a lot more you can do. You don’t feel like everything you do is stepping on everything else.

In Brisbane you busted out a bit of Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, which is not a difficult song to play but how much notice would you get of adding a song like that to a set?
Oh that happened right there. I just quietly to myself found where she was in the key and went behind her with the chords real quiet.

I guess because you have been playing with Madonna for so long that there’s a bit of intuition happening?
That’s the best word for it right there, is intuition. We just vibe really well of each other. For instance, I know what she is going to do. I can gauge when she is going to do that last note, even if she is on the other side of the arena, you know because the catwalk goes all the way out to where the soundboard is. If I am on my riser and she’s out there, I can tell when she is going to play, just by the way she moves and there is like an intuition.

Is there a favourite part of the show for you?
For me the song Burning Up because that is the biggest guitar song for me and she gives me a guitar solo, so that’s going to be my favourite. I love doing the acoustic with her too. That’s the great thing about this gig is that you do rock stuff, you do acoustic stuff, funk stuff. We always do atmospheric stuff, so I get to play so many styles, even jazz. There’s some jazz in there too.

I know that you have every Madonna song written out because you never know what she’s going to want to play …
Yes I do. You know, some songs don’t work. Some songs, I’m trying to put together and make it a guitar song but it winds up being a completely different song, like some of the dance songs.

Photo courtesy Trent Titmarsh
Photo courtesy Trent Titmarsh

I’ve been lucky to chat with a lot of musicians who work on the big shows like you and they all seem to go that step further and do as much as they can to learn about the artist and their back catalogues. For a musician aspiring to get to do what you’re doing, I guess that’s the key… going that extra step for the artist?
Absolutely. I say that you always have to keep putting wood in the fire. If you were to audition for someone, I would know every one of their songs. it is worth it, it is worth putting in that time. And also knowing the songs which influenced them. So if I was auditioning for Madonna again, if I went back … I mean I knew all of her songs anyway because I was teaching her how to play guitar, so I had to learn all of her songs to teach her. That made it a little bit different. But finding Edith Piaf and Sex Pistols, David Bowie and other things like her, Michael Jackson and knowing all of those things too.

What was the vibe like in the team when you heard that David Bowie had died?
We played in San Antonio and it was a great show. I’m from Texas so it was a really great show for me. I had tons of family and friends and we got off stage and someone read that David Bowie had died. We were like, what no way, no one said he was sick, how could he just die. So you think it is just an internet rumour for a few minutes and then it gets confirmed and it really bums you out. Then I was emailing with Madonna saying sorry at your loss, I mean he wasn’t just an influence, they were friends, they knew each other. She said, well let’s do something for him. So we did Rebel Rebel, which made a lot of sense. I guess in a way it was very obvious but being on the Rebel Heart tour and playing Rebel Rebel was interesting.

I know Madonna is a dream gig for many musician but after spending so much time on stage with the in-ear monitors and looking out for songs cues, does that make you want to jump on stage with just a guitar and amp and go for it?
Oh yes! Yeah, that’s what I do for my own stuff. I just use the monitors and what we have there. It’s a simple set up.

Power of Three was your last album, where are you at with the next solo album?
The guitars and drums are done. I go home tomorrow. I start vocals on Wednesday. We’re recording bass Thursday, so I would love to have this thing done soon. What we will probably do is put out a couple of singles. I would love to have it out in September but I won’t have a release date until I deliver the album to Metal Blade but it would be about four months after that. My number one priority is getting this album finished. I wanted to have this done before I came on this tour, that was the plan but then one thing after another happened. I’m kind of glad it has worked out how it has because I was able to go back and rewrite things and really perfect what I am doing. With the Power of Three, that was an album I made for fun because I was going to work with Flemming Rasmussen (Metallica producer) and I was just going to put that album out myself and I played it for Brian Slagel (Metal Blade) and he asked me who had heard this album and what are you going to do with it? I said I don’t know and he’ll said, we’ll take it and he signed me right there on the spot. This next album that is coming out, I can really look at where I need to go with my solo stuff. You find what you are good at and you make that better. You find your weaknesses and you make those better. I pushed myself way past my boundaries with all of the guitar playing and guitar solos.

I love the recorded guitar sound you got on Power of Three.
Thanks. That’s the same equipment that Flemming made Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets with. He said there’s even a tape he never used on Masters of Puppets and I didn’t know if he was saying that just to get me pumped up but it worked. He told me that when he did In Justice For All, they did that in LA, they didn’t do that in Copenhagen. After that he started doing other things and then digital came in and people started using Pro Tools. We recorded my album on tape.

Do you know the Metallica guys well now?
A little bit yeah. I don’t call them on the phone but if I see them, like we know each other. That’s not our first connection by the way. On Live Earth in 2007, Metallica and Madonna both played but me, James, Kirk and Rob all played with Spinal Tap. As fate would have it, as I walked on stage I grabbed a cable, looked out at the crowd, turned around and James was to my left and Kirk was to my right. In the photos it was us three, so it was like a dream come true for me. Now I have met them a few times and they are super cool, so unfortunately I don’t see it the same way now, it’s more like people I can go and grab dinner with or whatever, play a hockey game with.

Do you ever see yourself coming down to Australia with your own band?
I would love to. That is something I have to make happen.

Will you be touring your album once it is released?
Yeah, hopefully it comes out in September. At this point, that would be the earliest it could come out. What will happen is that I will go out as an opening act

The Rebel Heart tour wraps up in Australia today. Has it been a happy tour for everyone?
It has been. We’ve been out on tour for a year. There was a promo tour before we started tour rehearsals. The feeling of rehearsing all summer in New York, living in New York, it was great. Starting the tour in the states and the excitement and happiness of it.  Then Europe started out great but got really dark because of the Paris attacks. We were just a couple of weeks behind and we played there just two weeks after that happened. I’ve talked to some other bands too and some bands cancelled and went home but we stayed out there. It was crazy having specific threats and having an evacuation plan for heaven forbid, something might happen. Then Asia, Australia, we’ve seen the whole world. I wish we were going to South America. I wish there were a lot more places. We did the club show (Melbourne’s Forum) which we only rehearsed two days for and she wanted to play all of her ballads and dress like a clown and tell jokes. Hopefully she’ll want to do more shows like that because that would be easy to put together, so you never know. They filmed that and I can’t wait to see it. That was a fun show to play and the crowd was amazing.

Kemper amps distributed in Australia by

A brief but strong endorsement of the Kemper amp profiler by Monte

“Delusions of Grandeur” from Monte Pittman’s “The Power of Three” album.

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