Coco Montoya Builds on a Lifetime of Lessons

Guitarist Coco Montoya is a respected figure in the blues world. After years working with two towering blues figures, he launched a solo career, winning a W.C. Handy Award for his 1996 debut. Nearly 30 years later, he has a deep catalog and a well-earned reputation as a compelling live performer. But he hasn’t forgotten where he came from, or the lessons he’s learned along the way.

Today Montoya remains grateful for that award, but he shakes his head and laughs when the subject is brought up. “Believe me, I’m appreciative,” he says. “But I won for ‘best newcomer’!” At the time, Montoya had been on the road as a musician for nearly 25 years. “I had been hanging out with B.B. King, Albert King, Jeff Beck, Mick Taylor and Johnny Otis,” he says. “So I thought ‘Best newcomer’ was kind of hilarious.”

Montoya did more than hang out with famous names in the rock and blues world. A self-trained multi-instrumentalist from an early age, he attracted the attention of blues legend Albert Collins, who invited him to join his band. At the time, Montoya had zero experience as a pro musician, but Collins saw something in him. Working as a bartender in a Culver City joint, he played drums in a local band. “I was 19,” he recalls, “playing a Chicano circuit.”

One day, the bar owner asked Collins to play a matinee gig. Without asking Montoya, he offered Collins and his band the use of Montoya’s drums that were already set up onstage. At first, Montoya was pretty pissed off about it, but once he met Collins, he was so taken by his warm and friendly manner that he enthusiastically went along. And when Collins heard him play drums, he invited Montoya to join his touring band.

Though he would only stay with Collins’ group for a few years, Montoya says that he learned important lessons from his mentor. “He set me on a quest in my mind to find that inner power that I saw work for him,” he says. Day in and day out, he witnessed Collins’ perseverance and dedication. “He would drive hours and hours to a gig,” Montoya recalls, “and then have to deal with somebody treat him in a bad way because of his skin color.” “Or a cop would pull us over and give him grief.”

But even after enduring those kinds of insults, Collins would take to the stage with grace and enthusiasm. “It was amazing to watch him play after that,” Montoya says. “He’d get the crowd so excited that we’d have to do an encore. He would do all that, carrying us on his back.”

John Mayall is widely hailed as the “godfather of British blues.” Leading the Bluesbreakers, he employed a staggering succession of musicians including Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Jack Bruce, Mick Fleetwood, Harvey Mandel and many others. And the lead guitarist with the second-longest tenure in the group would be Coco Montoya.

Montoya didn’t even seek out that spot. “I was out of the business,” he emphasizes. “I had a bartending gig, making steady money, and I didn’t have to put up with any bullshit from club owners.” But he still played guitar. One evening he took part in a jam session at the Viper Room in West Hollywood. “Unbeknownst to me,” he recalls, “John Mayall came in, celebrating one of his birthdays.” When it was Montoya’s turn to play, he did what he describes as “a bastardized version” of the Otis Rush blues classic, “All Your Love (I Miss Love).”

A few months later, Montoya’s phone rang. “It was this English guy saying he was John Mayall, and that he was rebuilding the Bluesbreakers since Mick Taylor had left to play with Bob Dylan,” Montoya explains. Thinking it was a prank pulled by the British owner of the pub where he tended bar, Montoya hung up on the caller.

Mayall called back. “Don’t hang up,” he insisted. He offered Montoya the co-lead guitar spot in his band. Montoya joined, and spent nearly a decade with Mayall, playing alongside Kal David and then Walter Trout. His work would be featured on six Bluesbreakers albums.

Montoya learned a great deal during his years with Mayall, but one lesson was particularly important. “Early on, John took me out on the carpet,” he recalls. “Coco, I need to tell you something,” Mayall said. “I see what you’re doing, and that’s not what I need. You’re trying to be Mick Taylor on this song, and you’re trying to be Eric Clapton on this song. I want you to play you.” Montoya took the advice; he quit trying to copy the work of the guitarists who came before him. From that point forward, he applied his own personal guitar style to the Bluesbreakers.

And when Montoya went solo, he continued to follow that path. Drawing on his wide array of inspirations, he charted his own way through a successful career that endures to this day. His 11th and most recent release, 2023’s Writing on the Wall is more than a guitar showcase; Montoya writes actual songs. Still steeped in the blues, his work moves seamlessly beyond that framework to take in many other styles. “Genres didn’t matter to me as a kid,” he says today. “And they still don’t.”