UPDATED: Monte Pittman: Madonna's Texan Guitarist Has Deep Metal Roots
Monte Pittman in downtown Houston, October 24
Photo by Chris Gray
UPDATED (3:15 p.m.) to correct the name of Pittman's first band, Insanity.
Just a guess, but when Madonna played to tens of thousands of fans at Toyota Center last week, most of them probably didn't know that onstage with her was a member of one of the most severe metal bands of the past 20 years.
But it's true. Native Texan Monte Pittman has been a guitarist in the pop empress's touring band since her Drowned World Tour in 2001. For many of those years, he was also a member of Prong, the bicoastal band founded by former CBGBs sound man Tommy Victor. On and off from 1987 through this year's Carved Into Stone, Prong has thrown thrash-metal and hardcore into a wood chipper and spat out brutal songs such as "Whose Fist Is This Anyway?," "Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck" and "Can't Stop the Bleeding."
The apparent disconnect between his two guitar gigs doesn't seem to faze Pittman much. To hear him tell it, people are a little surprised to learn Madonna has a guitarist at all.
"When I first started playing with her, people were like, 'I didn't even know that Madonna needed a guitar player," he told Rocks Off, reclining on a bench outside the Harris County Family Law Center the afternoon of the first Madonna show.
"But there's actually so much stuff in those tracks, there's so much going on and it's so strategically placed, if you took it away you'd miss it. 'Ray of Light' - that song has like eight guitar tracks to it."
Photo by Jeremy Saffer
Pittman, now 36, joined Prong only a month after he moved to Los Angeles from Longview in early 2000. His first band was called
Instinct Insanity, which he started with his best friend Chris Sheehan; they played their first show at an East Texas teen club when Pittman was 14.
"You had to be 15 to get in," he says. "[Sheehan] was six months older than me -- somehow we had to sneak me in. I don't know how that happened, because nobody had an ID anyway."
His later band, Myra Mains, shared a name with several others, including ones in Washington State and Austin (except that one called itself Myra Manes). Myra Mains even recorded its first album, Condition Yourself, in Houston. He describes their sound as "Pantera meets Rage Against the Machine meets Fishbone."
When Wes Borland quit Limp Bizkit in 2002, Pittman auditioned for the job. He made it to the finals, but was still waiting to hear a decision when Victor called him for another Prong tour. (Borland rejoined Bizkit in 2004.)
"I was having so much fun for Prong I never even called them again," he says. "Prong was one of my favorite bands learning to play guitar. Still is. I was like, 'I can't believe I'm in a van showering at truck stops, and I'm happier than I've ever been playing clubs with Prong."
Pittman played on Prong's 2003 LP Scorpio Rising and switched mostly to bass for 2007's Power of the Damager, but after that Madonna's touring picked up again. He first met her through another of his jobs; he had recently quit the Hollywood Guitar Center to become a guitar instructor, and one day Guy Ritchie's assistant asked him to give some to Madonna. The Snatch director had given his then-wife a guitar for her birthday.
"I figured she'd maybe take a lesson and that would be it," he says.
Instead, Pittman says Madonna turned out to be an excellent student.
"One of the best students I've ever had," he says. "If I gave her something, a sheet of chords or scales, the next lesson you could tell she had gone over it. Who knows all the things she has to do in her daily schedule, and she had taken the time, and she had taken the time to work on that."
Even with his Madonna work, Pittman has managed to work in a solo career. He has an acoustic EP coming out next month, but even a high-profile day gig like his doesn't guarantee a record deal these days.
When he had completed his most recent album, Pain, Love & Destiny, Pittman approched his lawyer about shopping it to labels, but the attorney told him the guitarist was no longer thinking correctly.
"He said, 'You can be the best band in the world, and if the worst band in the world has more YouTube hits, they're gonna have a better chance than you,'" Pittman says.
Luckily, it worked out OK. Pittman put aside his reservations about asking for money outright by using popular fundraising Web site Kickstarter. Since Kickstarter is partially structured around incentives -- someone gives so much money, and gets something extra back -- one thing Pittman could offer was easy: Guitar lessons.
For Pain, Love & Destiny, he met his original goal of $5,000 in one hour and eventually raised about $65,000, which Pittman says was a Kickstarter record at the time and is still the most for any rock album. A figure like that also puts him in some distinguished company.
"That's what Ozzy had to make Blizzard of Ozz, and what Nirvana had to make Nevermind," he notes.
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