He would be the first to admit that he was no Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, John McLaughlin, Danny Gatton, or Robert Fripp, but he kicked all of those wonder boys’ asses by charting much higher than them on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list at number 29. He would not have been accorded the same honor on a Guitar Player survey—which says as much about the vast difference between the music community at large and niche guitar culture as it does about Asheton’s impact on rock and roll.
On the Stooges’ self-titled debut album (1969) and Fun House (1970), his snotty, relentless, and rhythmically erratic riffs— usually delivered with enough slop to horrify sophisticated music lovers—were not exactly soundtracks for evolving hippies or social optimists. This was truly pissed-off noise from a guy living tough in the often-treacherous morass that was Detroit in the ’60s and ’70s. A guy who never backed down from spewing off-kilter shards of distortion or enveloping audiences in feedback squalls—even though just about everyone who heard or saw the original Stooges absolutely despised them.
But it’s not fair to impose a facile label on Asheton, and define him solely as a sonic primitive.
“Ron Asheton has beautiful, long, lyrical hands that look like painter’s hands, and you can hear that in his playing,” said his Stooge mate Iggy Pop in 2005. “He can get rough, but there’s a certain refined edge to his playing. It’s not exactly bar music. There’s more lyricism there.”
That Muhammad Aliesque trait of “floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee” was a wonderful—and perhaps an underappreciated—element of Asheton’s style. Take “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” for example. Asheton kicks off the track with a blitzkrieg of cacophony, and then launches into a swooping riff that punches out the groove like a jackhammer while simultaneously leaving room for the piano and Iggy’s snarling vocal. It’s also a riff that could be easily translated to a string quartet without losing any of its menace or propulsive drive. Few punks could have devised such a vicious, yet inherently musical motif.
“The beauty of Ron’s playing is that he didn’t need chops to make a grand statement,” says Reverend Musical Instruments president Joe Naylor, whose company worked with the guitarist last year to produce its Ron Asheton Signature model. “He was all about aggressive attack, brutal tone, and a catchy riff. I grew up in Ann Arbor, where the Stooges are hometown heroes, so when they made their comeback a few years ago, a signature model was a no-brainer for us. And it was amazing how humble Ron was—no ego-tripping or attitude at all. He was actually very nervous about appearing at our NAMM booth last January—like he was going to let Reverend down because he wasn’t some famous shred dude. And we’re like, ‘C’mon, you’re f**king Ron Asheton!’”