Monte Pittman, part 2: the man who put Pantera in Madonna’s hands

Some of you may have already watched, probably incredulously, the infamous video of a Madonna concert in which the planetary pop star plays Pantera’s “A New Level” on guitar. This episode only proves one more time that Madonna is not your average popstar, and that she still is a rock girl. The man behind this curiosity: Monte Pittman, her guitar teacher, later becoming his live guitar player for more than a decade.

We dissected with him his excellent new solo record The Power Of Three in the first part of this interview published a couple of days ago – we suggest you to read it, if you haven’t already. Today, in this second and last part, the guitar player speaks about Madonna and the musical relationship they have together, and, most specifically, how an old guitarist-to-guitarist trick from Dimebag Darrell ended up in Madonna playing a Pantera riff. At the end of the interview, he also talks about Adam Lambert, the [participant] that got hard rock and metal to be heard on American Idol, and about Prong, the band of his friend Tommy Victor in which he played for a while.

Radio Metal: You’ve been for more than 10 years Madonna’s guitar player. So how do one become a musician for such a huge pop star?

Monte Pittman (guitar & vocals): I started giving her guitar lessons. When I moved from Texas to Los Angeles, I started teaching guitar lessons. I started teaching her and a month after my first lesson with her, she asked me to play at the David Letterman show. That was life-changing to say the least. Soon after that, she said: “I’m going to be on tour.” She hadn’t been on tour in 7 years. I figured she would take a couple of guitar lessons and that would be it. But then she was like: “Hey I’m going to go on tour, I want you to keep teaching me”, because she loves playing guitar, that’s like her escape. Now imagine all the things going on in that woman’s head, all the things she has to take care of: family, business, being an artist, paying the gardener [laughs], you know, but she said: “Come on, you go on tour with me and play guitar for me.” I’d never been on tour before! But I wanted to, so I answered: “Yes, of course!” I already knew most of her songs. For example, the Music album had just come out when I first met her, and luckily for me, that album had a bunch of acoustic guitar on it with the electronics. Mirwais from France did those albums, so I gotta thank him for a lot of that. That made it easy to teach her and to say: “Here’s this song, it’s this chord and then this chord and then this chord, and then look, here’s your chord sheet so you play that…” Then I would just start teaching her all of her own songs so she would have something to play. One of the hardest things for me teaching guitar to a student is finding a song that we both know. A student may bring you a song that you don’t know, and then you have to learn it and figure it out. I teach a lot of kids between 5 and 10 years-old, so when I tell them: “OK, I’m gonna teach you ‘Crazy Train’”, they’re like: “What’s ‘Crazy Train’?!” [laughs] So I say: “Well, you’re gonna know after this.” That was a cool thing. I was playing in Prong at the time but we hadn’t done any shows yet, so I had to leave Prong and then go to Madonna. People ask: “So what was it like for you to go teach and start playing guitar for Madonna?” And I like to say that… Imagine for Madonna! Taking a little kid from Texas who had never gone on tour before as a guitar player! That’s quite a risk! I think she took a huge risk on me by taking me up. I could have freaked out and say: “I’m not doing this tour!” Who knows what could have happened? I think she took a huge risk taking me out but I’m glad she did. I learned a lot, I’m always learning a lot from those experiences.

« I was like: ‘How come no one is around? It’s just me and her a room, how come no one else is around to see this?!’ [laughs] Me and Madonna playing some Pantera on the guitar! »

Actually there’s a video of Madonna playing a Pantera riff. I’m sure you’re responsible for that!

Yes. I am responsible for it. What happened was that we were getting ready to do the Sticky And Sweet tour, and she had a new musical director named Kevin Antunes. He wanted to do her song “Hang Up” that’s in D minor, and the way he would play the chords as an example on his keyboard – he’s got so many keyboards and on one of these he’s got the electric guitar sound – you would have to tune the guitar down, so I thought: “This is a good way to introduce dropped D tuning to her.” If she didn’t tune the guitar all the way down we would have to carry two guitars around everywhere for her for lessons for one song. So I showed her the dropped D stuff and I said: “You know what? We need to work on your right hand, let’s tighten up that right hand!” I told her this story where when I play with Prong, Dimebag came to a show in Dallas after soundcheck. It was me, Tommy Victor and Dimebag hanging out. Tommy introduced me to Dimebag. We got a lot of mutual friends, and we’d met a time or two I think. So Tommy was like: “Here’s my new guy”, and we were talking about the setlist, and Tommy walked off, he had to do something else. So it was just me and Dimebag hanging out and he said: “What do you guys play? You do ‘Cut-Rate’?” and I answered that we did. He said: “Oh man, that’s one of the most badass riffs ever.” He said Tommy was one of his favorite guitar players and that Tommy had one of the best right hands in the business, right under James Hetfield. He said: “You can play that part in the solo that plays [he sings the part]?” He knew the song, and I was amazed by that! I said: “Yeah, that’s the hardest thing I ever had to play because it does not stop…” Tommy’s playing the solo, so his hand just kinda gets a break. Me, my hand is still going, so Dimebag said: “You gotta stay right up on that string”, and I was like: “Yeah, yeah I know…” He just kept saying it. Years later, I understood what he was talking about when I was back playing bass in Prong, and I was thinking: “How the hell did Raven do this on a bass? The strings are so much bigger and he’s doing that part!” And then that voice came in my head: “You’ve got to stay on top of that string, stay on top of that string!” Suddenly I realized what he was talking about, and it changed my playing for ever.

So I passed that on onto Madonna. I told her this story, and said: “You gotta stay on top of that string! Your pick does not need to be away from the string! When you’re playing fast, your hand naturally pulls away from the string. So really, you relax and it’s more like you’re kinda scratching something off the string.” The next day, Madonna came back and said: “Check this out!” She had a bottle of wine in one hand, set it down on the table, too glasses, and went: “Check this out!” [he does the riff] and I was like: “Wow”, I couldn’t believe it, she’d got so much better! And she said: “Yeah, you gotta stay on top of that string, brother!” Dime said something to me and I passed it on to Madonna and it helped her. So I thought: “Now, I gotta teach her some Pantera.” I showed her the riff for “A New Level”, there in dropped-D tuning, because that would be easy to remember how it goes up, how the song dramatically walks up. For me, Pantera was not just this band that I like: I’m from that area, so I knew Pantera back in the early 80s’, from my cousin was talking about them and stuff like that. It’s like your home town heroes. It’s like your home team goes to the Super Bowl or wins the World Cup! And then Madonna just kept playing that riff. And I was like: “How come no one is around? It’s just me and her a room, how come no one else is around to see this?!” [Laughs] Me and Madonna playing some Pantera on the guitar! So we were in rehearsals doing her song “Hang Up”, that’s how far we’d got on the set-list – we do a song a day and we don’t move songs around, it’s like “ok, here’s the first song we’re opening with, and that’s the first song in the set” – but when we got to “Hang Up”, she just wouldn’t stop playing that riff. Then the rest of the band would just start jamming on it, not knowing Pantera, they didn’t know that song. That’s why you kind of have their different take on the song, and it stayed in the set. That’s how all that happened.

Excellent! [Laughs]

[Laughs] I know that’s a long story, I ramble, but the story doesn’t make sense unless you tell every detail. I think it’s just a great story for guitar players, the whole “Stay on top of the string”. You do see a lot of guitar players playing fast, and your hand, your pick does not need to be away from the string at all.

« It’s not like she just sits around and listens to Amon Amarth, but then again you can play it for her and there would be something she would like somewhere in here. »

Are you giving guitar lessons to other pop stars?

It comes and it goes. I’ve been living and teaching in L.A. for fourteen years now, so there’s been a lot of people. I can’t think of anything that just comes to mind. I’ve seen so many people I’ve forgotten more than I can remember. Some of them became famous after I taught them. There’s one girl, Kathryn Morris, that used to take some guitar lessons from me, and then years later, she was on the TV show Cold Case. Some people just wanna learn to play guitar for fun, or just to have another skill. It’s not that they want to be the best guitar player in the world, for a lot of people I’ve met and a lot of my students, they just wanna be able to play a couple of chords, “Wish You Were Here” or something like that.

I know that Madonna is very open-minded musically…

Oh, yeah!

Does she listen to metal, actually? Does she enjoy that?

She listens to a little bit of everything. A couple of times she just had her iPod sitting there and I would look and be like: “What’s in there?” She listens to a lot of dance music because her work out routine is hardcore. So it’s a lot of dance music, but she likes a lot of different stuff. It’s not like she just sits around and listens to Amon Amarth, but then again you can play it for her and there would be something she would like somewhere in here. She always likes me to turn her onto something new. If you think about Maverick, they signed Deftones. A lot of people see her as a pop star, and maybe I see her a bit differently because I taught her, I’m her teacher and she’s my student, but especially when she plays guitar, I see that girl that moved in New York in the late 70s’-early 80s’ before she got signed, before she became Madonna, who went to CBGB, who was a huge Patti Smith and Sex Pistols fan… It could have gone that way too. When she came out, Seymour Stein signed her, and I think that’s the guy who signed – was it the Ramones or the Sex Pistols? – some of the biggest bands, I don’t know exactly who, I could look it up. But then you have the whole MTV era that started right then too. So that had a lot to do with those things, but she could have easily been a punk-rock chick, had that road presented itself.

Did your work with her actually changed you or influenced you in any way as a musician or as a solo artist?

Oh yes, because before, I played for fun, I enjoyed playing. But the way she would look at things, for example, when I first started teaching her, she wanted to know everything about how to hold a pick, everything about every strumming rhythm that I was doing. And I was like: “Well, you just hold the pick and you play! I’m just strumming, just do this rhythm!” And she was like: “What is the rhythm? How many times the pick is going down before it goes up?” So I kinda had to relearn and rethink about what I was doing from the way that I was playing.

Did you experience some kind of negativity from the metal world because of the fact you were playing with a pop star? The metal world is very conservative…

Oh yeah. And I understand that, I might have been the same way if I heard of someone else playing for her. But you have to remember that she’s not just any pop star. Let’s pick any other pop star that’s not Madonna, if her guitar player was coming out with any heavy album, I would be like: “Why? Whatever!” But you have to remember that’s she’s way different than any other artist, not just pop artists. There’s a lot of other people that wouldn’t even be around if it wasn’t for her. There’s times where people would say: “Why are you playing with Madonna? That’s not cool!” Those same people years later would be like: “Oh man that’s so cool you’re playing with Madonna!” History kinda changes things. In 2003, she came up with the American Life album, and I’ll never forget the day when her manager showed me the video for the song “American Life”: it had actors portraying George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein kissing in there. I thought: “Oh man!” As soon as that was over, there was something coming out on the news with George Bush saying: “We’re gonna invade Irak.” And there was this whole controversy… If you spoke out against the war, that was it. The whole thing with the Dixie Chicks, they were just black-listed. But now, History has kind of changed that. At the time I heard that album, people just turned their backs on it. It was and I think it’s still probably my favorite Madonna album ever, because it was different. You had the electronic music, like the drums and the keyboard, and an organic element, acoustic guitars. It was a mixture of two things that you wouldn’t really think would go together. But now, people look back on that album as being really cool. So I think History kinda changes things, and people who think something is not cool when it first happened, will then look back and maybe like it.

« When it comes to Madonna, there is no comparison with anyone else, like you can’t compare anyone else to Hendrix. »

Actually, there seems to be many metalheads or hard rockers who have been musicians or touring musicians for pop stars, I’m thinking for instance about Nuno Bettencourt from Extreme who’s playing with Rihanna. How can you explain this? Are they better musicians?

I think if you looked at it all, the metal musicians are usually the best musicians that you find out there. In metal music, there’s a lot more going on, it’s way more fun to play on the guitar. So therefore, I think you get better quicker. Like I never really got into funk because it didn’t seem like much was going on, it was just a couple of notes that you were playing over the whole song and to me that’s boring. I would rather play “Angel Of Death” on the guitar. To me, that’s a lot of fun to play. But I’m sure if you play funk that’s better if you’re at a dance club. Look at Nuno, he is a phenomenal guitar player and a phenomenal musician. I almost did that same audition, but I was doing something else at the time. Rihanna was looking for a guitar player and I think Lady Gaga too, which I wouldn’t have done. The only reason for the Rihanna thing is that I knew a lot of Madonna’s crew would be doing that, and some of them were like: “Hey you should come and do this audition”, but I was going to do something else at the time. Then they would tell me later: “Oh man, Nuno Bettencourt’s here to try out”. And I said: “Why did you tell me to come out? Why would they choose me if they got him? [Laughs]” Anyhow, I think you’ll find a lot better musicians in the metal world, it’s a lot more musical. It’s the closest thing you’ll find to old classical music.

You just mentioned Lady Gaga. Everybody’s comparing her to Madonna. What is your opinion on that?

There is no comparison. You know, I don’t know of all her stuff how much of it is real. A lot of people would do some things in order that you talk about them. If you’re referring about the fact that “Born This Way” is the same music as “Express Yourself”, I don’t know. I just have my opinion as an outsider that her calling Madonna out, thinking: “Ok you’re done, I’m the new queen” hasn’t worked very well for her. I’ve met Lady Gaga a few times and she was really nice to me, so I don’t have anything bad to say about her. She’s an awesome piano and keyboard player and she can write a song, you know. But when it comes to Madonna, there is no comparison with anyone else, like you can’t compare anyone else to Hendrix. There may be other amazing guitar players, but they wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for Jimi Hendrix. He’s the one who paved the way. Madonna is about 35 years in her career, around that, I can’t keep up with it, and you can’t say that about many people.

You also played with Adam Lambert even before he did American Idol and did an album with him called Beg For Mercy, but for some reason that made kind of a polemic…

OK. I wanted to start a rock band, that’s why I moved to Los Angeles: to play music professionally, whatever I had to do. But eventually, I wanted to have my own band, and I would do these gigs where… And it was really cool, there were all these different musicians, different bands, and then you would have different singers singing on each of the songs, and a lot of these singers come from a musical theater background. And I guess that has to be a requirement, you have to be a phenomenal singer, because all those singers are just outstanding. I’d just asked a friend: “Man, I wanna start a band, who’s the best singer that you know?” He said Adam. So we ended up playing together. We started a band and he was really into that at the time, but it was hard getting everybody together. I played guitar and was the one who booked the shows, wrote the songs, and took care of it all. Adam was the singer and he was in the play “Wicked”. Tommy Victor played bass, and that’s what led me to playing bass in Prong: he said: “I wanna play bass just to kind of refocus on some things and just for fun. What about I play bass in your band and you play bass in my band?” So I said: “Yeah, cool!” Steve Sidelnyk was playing drums. He was Madonna’s drummer, at the time. He had played with Massive Attack and all kinds of people. That was the band; we called it The Citizen Vein. At the time, American Idol was on TV and I would say to Adam: “Dude, you should go on that show, you’ll win!” At the time he thought: “No, I would rather go on the CBS Rock Star kind of show…” But then, I went on a Madonna tour and when I came back I found out that he was going to go on American Idol. I was like: “Oh dude, that’s it right there!” He told me: “I’ve got to quit the band, I can’t be in a band”, and I said: “You’ve got my blessing. Go out there and just kick everybody’s ass, then.”

We had worked together as songwriters, just as a job. That was my job: I worked for this company and just wrote songs, sometimes just putting together chords or whatever. And then that music would go up on a server and all these singers would pick something they wanted to sing on. I brought in Adam because he needed experience singing in the studio and because he had never played in a band before, he’d never sang on a studio, he’d never sang on his own tracks. He’s a phenomenal singer and had done a lot of musical theater kinda stuff. So after he’d gone on American Idol, he was gonna have his own band. He had me audition and I became his guitar player, and I would say as a joke: “Adam used to be my singer and now I’m his guitar player” [laughs]. He did a tour after American Idol and I was the musical director on that, and that was it. That was the end of things, and a lot changed for everybody. He got really famous really fast, and that was it. Unfortunately that’s kind of a sad story about the whole thing, but the guys who we worked with released that material that we wrote together. It is called the music business, you know, they weren’t out to be making friends for sure, but not that they have to be… But it was at the time I was releasing Pain, Love & Destiny that they released the material that we had done together calling it an Adam Lambert album. That of course pissed him off, and pissed me off too. But at the time, there wasn’t a lot of information on it, so everyone kind of was led to believe that I was releasing this. I would never do that. There was nobody else to say: “Hey, no no, Monte just played on it and he wrote it.” So I spoke up saying: “Hey, look everybody, these people can release this music. And look! You’ve got extra music to listen to. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it! You’ve got some extra stuff, this is us then, there you go, enjoy it.” And that did not go well either. That was the last time we spoke unfortunately.

« [About Tommy Victor]Tom is the closest thing to a brother I’ve ever had. »

And how come you left Prong and didn’t continue with them?

I left Prong because Tommy needs somebody who’s there all the time, and it is Tommy’s band. There was no leaving, really. We didn’t even tour much during the Power Of The Damager tour cycle because Tommy went back to Ministry, and then he would also have Danzig. When it came time to do the Prong Carved In Stone album, Tommy and Tony [Campos] would be jamming together because they’re both in Ministry together, and then there’s never been a situation for me to come back. Actually what’s funny is that those situations kind of tie in together, because the recordings that came out, called Beg For Mercy, [one of them] was written as a Prong song, and Prong was going to include that on the Carved In Stone album. But since Adam had sung on it; it got released with the other material and I had to call Tommy and say: “Dude, it looks like this album is coming out…” and so then they couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t know if they did want to… Because there was a lot of drama unfortunately surrounding it all. So, it hasn’t been a situation to come back. Me and Tommy are still very close, totally cool with each other and he’s got a new album that he’s finishing up now.

We’ve talked about getting together and writing but we’ve been so busy doing our own things that we haven’t had a chance. I’m always here to help Prong in whatever shape or form I can, whether it is playing guitar or playing bass, or just take my camera and take some pictures of the band… Whatever I can do so that band is out there making music. I’ll be changing Tommy’s guitar string, whatever it is, just so that’s happening. And I told them: “We should get together and do some shows, me opening, do some Monte Pittman-Prong shows”, but Prong would probably be opening for another band. You never know what’s gonna happen but Tom is the closest thing to a brother I’ve ever had, one of my favorite guitar players, and one of my best friends. But it sounds like he’s had his head in doing his new album called Ruining Lives, and they’re coming over there in April, at the end of March. I really like the line-up that he’s got now, and new blood has always been what has kept Prong going. Even if you look back at the beginning, for Beg To Differ, you had Tommy, Ted (Parsons) and Mike Kirkland, then Prove You Wrong had Troy Gregory on bass and he had a different sound. After that one they did Cleansing with Paul Raven on bass and John Bechdel doing keyboards. Cleansing is one of my favorite albums. Then after that you had Rude Awakening, but Prong got dropped from Sony about a week after it came out because it only sold 10,000 albums. I’m sure that was a tough blow. Then he did some stuff with Danzig, he was jamming with Rob Zombie, and it kinda led him to start Prong again when I met them.

Interview conducted on February, 25th 2014 by Spaceman.
Transcription : Chloé
Questions & introduction : Spaceman.

Album The Power of Three, out since January 22nd 2014 via Metal Blade Records

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