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Classic Interview Ron Wood December 1975

November 11, 2010
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During the musically bountiful years of the late Sixties, the Jeff Beck Group emerged; it was an outfit of undisciplined nature and unabashed energy. Featuring Beck on guitar and Rod Stewart on vocals, the band focused primarily on these two members, but below the flash was the lifeblood of the quintet. Bassist Ron Wood laid down flowing lines around which Jeff and keyboardist Nicky Hopkins improvised, and it was Wood’s ingenious fretwork which helped to make the band’s first album, Truth [Epic, BN-26413], a (now realized) rock classic. This early association with Stewart led to Ron’s more recent position as lead guitarist with the Faces. And associations with the English rock scene in general most recently led to his enrollment as second guitarist with the Rolling Stones on their 1975 tour.

Wood first began playing guitar when he was eight, on a loaned instrument from a friend who was joining the army. He used the guitar for two years, until his companion returned from service and resumed ownership. For nearly two years after that, Ron was without an instrument, until his brother’s friends chipped in to buy him a guitar that cost five pounds (£12). “It had really quite bad action on it,” Wood recalls. “It was only an old beat up acoustic. But I would often play in my bedroom - there was a little record player with a tiny little speaker. I just used to learn solos by ear.” Ron’s biggest influence in those early years was Chuck Berry, so it was not too surprising when a few years later, at age fourteen, he purchased an electric. Costing $60, it came from the local record shop and served as his first serious experience in music. He also acquired a Bird amplifier, which provided the only amplification for several amateur groups he was involved with.

“The vocals, two guitars, and bass went through the Bird,” Ron says. “I was the lead guitarist - I had that title.” Born near the London Airport in the Middlesex area, Ron was weaned on the early Motown scene. Marvin Gaye (“Ain’t That Peculiar”) and Eddie Hollander (“Leaving Here”) are a couple of the artists whose music he played. That early group was called the Thunderbirds (eventually evolving into the Birds, not to be confused with the Byrds), and as primitive as the music was, Ron feels the people listening were even more so. “That was the time,” he states, “when people thought there were special guitars for rhythm and lead.” Wood reached a saturation point with the Birds, and - not quite knowing what he was looking for - he left the band.

That search ended when Ron met with Jeff Beck, who had just left the Yardbirds and was giving thought to forming his own group. The two musicians had a working relationship of sorts, since the Birds (playing six nights a week up and down the English countryside) often backed the Yardbirds (as well as groups like the Graham Bond Organization, then sporting a young redhead named Ginger Baker, who would later become Cream’s percussionist). “I suppose Jeff was one of my best friends,” Wood states, “even though he was in another band. When he left the Yardbirds, my group had already wilted and was just about to fold, so that’s when we got together.” This was in early 1967, and though Wood knew Beck, he was not too familiar with his playing. The only time he had really had a chance to see Jeff perform was when the guitarist was. in a pre-Yard birds band called the Tridents, and they used to support the Birds (at such London halls as the 100 Club and the Marquee).

Unknown to many people is the fact that Wood first joined the Beck ranks as guitarist, and for several gigs the lineup read;Wood and Beck on guitars, Dave Ambrose (then playing with Brian Auger) on bass, Rod Stewart on vocals, and Ray Cook on drums. This order was short-lived, due to creative emptiness, although when John Lord (organist for Deep Purple) saw this band perform he thought it was magic. “He [Lord] came to one show at the Marquee and thought it sounded great,” Wood says. “He thought that it sounded best when it had two guitars.” Wood, however, didn’t feel entirely comfortable playing guitar in a band with Jeff Beck, and was much more at ease allowing the established guitarist to handle all 6-string duties. Following that first membership, Aynsley Dunbar came in on drums, and Ron remembers with particular satisfaction his role as one-half of that rhythm section. While. Wood was on guitar, the band was playing much of the material which later showed up on Truth, songs like “You Shook Me,” “Let Me Love You,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” and “In My Time Of Dying” (a tune which can be heard on Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, [Swan Song, Swan 200]).

Ron really never asked Jeff for any guitar pointers (“Not at the time; I’d never ask”), but the two often sat down together, and Beck would ask if Wood had ever tried this or that lick. “We had a nice feel between us,” Wood states, adding, “There was never any competition. I used to respect his playing, and I still do.” It was natural for Wood to come into the group as a guitarist since his previous training was on that instrument. The switch finally came after several rehearsals when Ambrose did not show up, and Jeff was in a quandary about who would play bass for the practice session. Ron offered his services, and after frequent switches to the bass, Beck asked if he wouldn’t mind playing 4-string permanently. Wood’s first bass was a Fender Jazz he “obtained” from Sound City, a music store around the block from where they rehearsed. “I had no money,” he explains. “I couldn’t pay for it, so I borrowed it and never took it back. About five years later I paid for it, after they tracked me down.” Past rumors about Wood’s so-called feud with Beck over his switch to bass were false. Ron realized his contribution on bass would far outdistance his role as second guitarist. “Some people thought, ‘Oh, you can’t go to bass, it’s an inferior instrument if you’re a guitarist,’ but it’s the other way around. I’m really glad I had that training on bass, because when I went back to guitar I had a whole new viewpoint.”

Ronnie was using a Marshall 100-watt stack along with the Fender. All the lines he played were his own, except when he and Beck listened to old blues records and picked out certain riffs to include in their own versions. Wood did not listen to many bass players (either “live” or on record), but does confess to a liking for the Yardbirds bassist, Paul Samwell-Smith. “Bass to me then was strange,” Ron muses. “I didn’t know too much about it. I just played what I felt.” The same was true with his harmonica playing, which showed up in spots with the Beck band, as well as later with the Faces. At first his bass playing mirrored exactly his guitar work.

Consequently, one of his first basses was a six-string Danelectro. However, he soon realized that playing lead lines and chords on a bass was too confusing, and changed to the normal 4-string. While the change to bass guitar was partly due to the group’s need for a bassist, another factor was Beck’s feeling that, “It was his show, and I should stay back,” as Wood puts it. “It was kind of forced on him at the time, that he was the main man and shouldn’t accept any other offers. That was the way it had to be.” Did Stewart act the same way? “Rod had to play down his role a lot,” Ron says, “He was still looking for a role at the time, too. That’s when I first met Rod - at the first rehearsal. He didn’t quite know what he was trying to do about showmanship either. So whenever he was uncertain, he used to run behind an amplifier and hide.” Wood found it easy to play bass behind Beck, whose stylistic approach left a lot of holes, and it was up to Ron to fill them. He played a bass solo every night, and recently, when he heard a tape of the Beck band and his solo, he admitted, “They used to get good! I was knocked out, I wasn’t so bad after all.” During the Beck days, Wood used a pick, as well as wire-wound strings; he played with a lot of treble on the guitar and amplifier. He was on bass for nearly four-and-a-half years and during that period never once lifted a 6-string. He states he had to “brainwash” himself on the bass, though he knew he would go back to guitar eventually.

After the Beck outfit splintered (due to management and personality conflicts) Ron returned to a Gibson SG that he had prior to moving to bass guitar. That instrument was stolen and replaced by a red Stratocaster which was also stolen, and in its place came a Danelectro. This, too, was taken, and in the end Wood resorted to having his guitars made. He learned about Tony Zemaitis [see GP, April ‘75] and approached him. “No one would dare steal his guitars because he makes them so individual,” Ron says. “He plasters your name all over it.” Wood now uses three guitars for “live” and studio work: Two Zemaitis instruments (one black and the other silver and pearl), and a Stratocaster given to him by the “noble hands” of Eric Clapton. The Zemaitis guitars are all hand sculptured and, according to Wood, are tonally true; the two-octave fretboard is flawless. Wood’s guitars are three-pickup instruments and have been fitted with the humbucking, Telecaster, and Stratocaster modules, which Wood brings to England from the U.S. One guitar has each of the three pickups on it and allows him a wide range of sounds and effects; another has three humbuckers; and the other is fitted with two hums buckers and a Stratocaster pickup.

Ron utilizes Ampeg amplification for its heavy-duty quality. “They’re really sturdy, fantastic amps,” he states, and though he is unsure about the exact type, he is reasonably certain they are SVT’s (one stack on his side and another column on the far side of the stage). He uses normal Ernie Ball Wood with Mick Jagger on U.S. Stones tour. Super Slinky strings with a heavy pick from Manny’s (156 W. 48th St., New York, NY 10036). “I can’t use loose [soft] picks except on an acoustic,” Ron says. “You can’t get any control if they’re too thin.”

The move back to guitar was, quite oddly, a “natural” process for Wood, and his feel for the instrument had so expanded that the first thing he practiced was bottleneck . guitar, a style he had never attempted. “I’d heard Duane Allman on record,” he explains. “I didn’t know who was playing, but I just thought, ‘That sounds great - that’s the only direction to go in.’ “ Wood now incorporates a lot of slide work in his playing, using an open-E tuning on one guitar, with the others tuned normally. He uses a 3/4” copper pipe and states a liking for such players as Hound Dog Taylor, Earl Hooker (when he was with Muddy Waters and doing the original versions of songs like “You Shook Me” and “Little Brown Bird”), and Allman. “But I only used these people as a starting block,” he asserts. “I’ve gone my own sweet way since then.” Wood achieves a great deal of treble from his guitar and amp and uses certain settings every night. On the Ampeg, volume is at number 7, and treble and bass volume about midway; the intensity controls (those three-position switches) are always on full boost for treble, on the middle for the midrange, and entirely cut off for the bass. Ronnie used to use a UniVibe (giving a Leslie effect), which he abandoned, and he plans to use an MXR phaser. He has two basic reasons for disliking pedals: Each is just another piece of equipment which could foul up, and unless you really know how to use them, they are meaningless, he feels. “The effects are not that stunning unless you’re a master of them,” he explains. “The wah-wah pedal sickens me unless it’s played by Clapton, Page, Beck, Hendrix, or Zappa maybe. But when you hear it on every record, ‘wack-ee, wack-ee’...” Wood recently purchased a Hi-Fly (“It looks like a bathroom scale,”)’which includes a phase shifter, wah-wah, fuzz, octave divider, and “meow-meow.” “But they’re only toys,” he says, “and I don’t know if they’re worth the money.”

One thing certainly worthwhile was Ron’s involvement with Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert appearance [RSO, 877] “Eric showed me some stuff, like the chords to his songs,” Ron recalls. “I’d never played along with him, and it made me realize they weren’t as simple as they sounded. I used to think, ‘Here he goes again with another twelve-bar.’ But really it was nothing like that at all; he had some very clever changes. I picked up some stuff via Pete Townshend (also on the album). I’d say, ‘What’s he doing, Pete?’ and he’d say, ‘He’s doing this and this and this,’ and then Pete would come up to me and say, ‘What’s he doing?’ and Eric would come up to me and say, ‘What’s Pete doing?’"

Though the technical pointers Ron gained from his work with Eric were important, he thinks the philosophy behind Clapton’s playing is equally as significant.” Basically,” Wood elaborates, “as long as everyone underestimates himself, he’s fine. Eric thinks he’s terrible and really believes that half the time.” Wood, too, imbibed a bit of Beck philosophy, though Jeff’s attitude tends to land somewhere on the other side of the scale. “The thing is, when Jeff’s good, he knows he’s good,” Wood explains, “which is great; he celebrates the fact that he’s good. I like that.” The Faces’ guitarist maintains that all guitarists blow their own horn from time to time; if a player performs admirably there is no denying it. “Jimmy Page is like that, too,” Ron continues. “He’s very critical of his playing, but if he plays something good, he knows it’s there.” Wood adopts the same philosophy, only he’s not quite sure what he is initially after. “I just go in blind,” he says, “and start playing, and see what comes out.”

While Beck tended to overshadow Wood as an instrumentalist, Rod Stewart makes him feel comfortable, and consequently Ron’s playing reflects this sort of unleashed power. “It’s not easy playing with him,” Wood states. “He just makes you feel good - as long as you’re playing in the pocket.” And Stewart lets him know if he’s not. However, Beck did influence Wood’s playing somewhat, particularly the country picking and blues work in Ron’s style. In this second category, Buddy Guy influenced both players. Another great influence (and close friend) was Jimi Hendrix. “I was reminded the other day of some early B. B. King albums that Jimi gave me,” Ron recalls, “and I could never puzzle out where I’d got them. I knew him, but I knew him more than I thought I did. I spent one whole day sitting in his room; he was playing me all these ideas and all these tapes he’d made. And for some reason I’d forgotten all about it. I’d guess I was so caught up in it all at the time. He was a great guy. Everyone has been staggered since that and King Curtis [Jimi played with the King Curtis All Stars in early 1967; both musicians died early and unexpectedly].” Ron played bass with J imi several times, and Hendrix even played with the Beck ensemble for a “live” performance on Long Island. Wood also jammed with Jimi a few times in the now defunct New York club called The Scene.

Another eye opener for Wood was the recording of his own LP’s, I’ve Got My Own Album To Do [Warner Bros., BS-2819] and Now Look [BS 2872], which allowed him a bit of guitar exploration, but not enough for satisfaction. He would like to do another album of a more technical nature. “One good thing about the guitar,” Ron concludes, “is you don’t kn0w where it’s going to take you next if you don’t practice, which I don’t ever get the chance to. The only chance is in the studio or when I’m working concerts. But it seems to have a way of creeping up on you when you’re sleeping. You get a new vantage point when you wake up.”

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