Ronnie Montrose

February 6, 2012

If you had a gang of friends who were crazy into guitars in 1973, you could be absolutely certain of one thing: that every single one of them was playing the grooves out of the first Montrose album. Ronnie Montrose’s mammoth riffs and soaring, melodic solos—seasoned to near perfection with stunning songs and audio production, as well as Sammy Hagar’s vocal swagger—practically guaranteed that Montrose would become one of the most exhilarating and influential hard-rock releases of all time. For a lot of guitarists seeking to fuse ferocious guitar playing with pop-music culture—Eddie Van Halen being one of them— this album was an inspiration, a benchmark, and a firestarter. It was also a flame that burned brightly for but a short time.

Creative squabbles tanked the Montrose/Hagar partnership after 1974’s Paper Money, ending any chance for the band to evolve into a juggernaut.But Montrose’s restless creative spirit never seemed to be driven purely by the promise of stardom, or financial considerations. From his session days with artists such as Van Morrison, Edgar Winter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Gary Wright to his post-Montrose Gamma project to his solo instrumental work to his early imagining of guitar-driven electronica with keyboardist/producer Mitchell Froom in 1983, Montrose has always trusted his instincts. Perhaps that is why, at 63 years old, he appears to be as fervently committed to the guitar as ever. His recent summer tour was a thrill-fest for legions of adoring fans, and Montrose brought the fireworks every night. Under the stage lights, his joy and passion were obvious, proving that, at least for some players, a love of music can conquer all.

Perhaps a weird question here, but can you articulate what makes Ronnie Montrose sound like Montrose?
A guy once said to me, “You play one note at a time. You’re not hammering on and all this stuff.” Now, I do use hammerons as a trick once in a while, but, mostly, I pick one note at a time. I got that sensibility from my father, because he listened to Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, George Shearing, Jerry Mulligan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. I listened to melody and phrasing—not speed. I like to take breaths like we do in conversation. I try not to go, “Dwiddle, dwiddle,dwiddle,” ad infinitum.

Is there any calculated approach to using your influences to compose melodies and riffs?
It’s never a conscious thing. The melody comes from my head. I just think, “Okay, these notes would be good to play here.” Also, I will always consider myself a pentatonic- based, rock-blues player. That’s what I do. I can manage some different textural scale colors with my instrument, but, for the most part, I’m just a pentatonic guy. You know, Chuck Berry, the Stones—all that early rock stuff.

I hear a bit more in your playing than conventional blues-rock motifs.
Well, the pentatonic scale is my home base, but I don’t just play Chuck Berry licks. I think of melodies and vibrato and phrasing and tone, and what comes out is my style.

If you hear something in your head, can you immediately nail it on the fretboard?
Yeah. Pretty much.

Is everything you play pretty much generated off the cuff, then?
Let me put it this way: Van Morrison liked that I was from Colorado. He once told Peter Wolf [J. Geils vocalist], “Hey, I’ve got myself a cowboy!” He liked my youthful energy. When he wrote “Wild Night,” I just started playing something on the spot. I didn’t even know the chords. Van says, “That’s the intro. Don’t forget it!” Those are the kinds of serendipitous things that happened throughout my career. There was no reason for me to do what I did—I just did it. And it worked.

Montrose playing his chrome Veleno guitar with a self-installed Theremin in 1973. He plans to reintroduce the “Theremin guitar” later in 2011.
Supporting vocalists is an art—especially in a hard-rock context. From a musical standpoint, how do you enhance the vocalist-guitarist partnership?
I like to create a dialogue. I want to answer the vocal melody with my guitar— a call-and-response. Today, I find that, in a lot of bands, the singer and guitarist don’t have a dialogue. They’re just playing their individual parts. But I like to make the relationship between the guitar and vocal a living thing. A journey. A conversation.

That approach sounds reactive, rather than planned or rehearsed.
I just cannot fathom or imagine always playing things exactly the same. There has to be some life and some interaction. I like to tell my rhythm section, “Pretend it’s 1968, and it’s the Allman Brothers at the Fillmore. It’s a jam—a loose, hippie jam.” Obviously, there are points in the song where you must play the riff, but, eventually, you need to get to a place where you just let the night take you wherever it’s going to take you. Plus, I’m now improvising more than ever, instead of repeating the signature parts. So far, I’m lucky that no one seems to mind!

So you’re not concerned with improvised moments where something might not work out?
The “danger factor” is what has always been exciting about rock and roll to me. The bands that came up in the ’60s weren’t thinking about being perfect—they were thinking about creating a vibe. Acts like Cream, Zeppelin, and Hendrix lived or died by the jam, and, some nights, those bands sucked, because you can’t be on fire every single performance when you’re jamming. The point is, when you’re “on,” it’s so worth it to have gone through the “off.” You have to endure, and learn to shake off the bad nights.

What is the most essential weapon in your arsenal?
Vibrato is the way you express your own personality. My vibrato, for example, is always a bit behind the beat. That’s just the way my hands, muscles, and mind voice it. It’s funny—in 1973, I didn’t have a vibrato at all. When I first joined Edgar Winter’s band, we were playing in Pittsburg, and during my solo on “Tobacco Road,” this guy shouts, “Play some f**king vibrato, man!” I didn’t get pissed off, but I did realize I had something else to learn [laughs].

Do you actively practice to keep your chops in shape?
I never practice. I have one little warmup scale I do that I’ve done all my life. I’ve read that some guitarists like to practice really hard passages, but, for me, it’s just about getting loose and limber. These days, I have arthritis in both thumbs, and, sometimes, it really pains me. But I’ll run this simple little scale, and I’ll be fine.

What guitar are you bringing on the tour?
My current electric guitar is the B3, which is made by Gene Baker. His new guitar company is called B3, as well. He builds the best guitars ever. But, you know, everything is a tool, right? You have a Black & Decker or a DeWalt—it’s the tool that helps you get what you want to have done, done. The B3 happens to be the right tool for me to express myself. But the bottom line is, it’s not about the guitar—it’s about the music you’re making with the guitar.

So what is it about the B3 that makes it the right tool for you?
It has a mahogany body, and a mahogany neck that’s 1u" at the nut. I got spoiled years ago when Grover Jackson sent me a neck he had made for Warren DeMartini that was too big for Warren at the time. Well, now I can’t play anything smaller than a neck with a 1u" nut. Anything else feels like a mandolin neck to me! There’s also something about the resonance of the B3’s mahogany neck and mahogany body that just works for me. I had Gene install Seymour Duncan ’59 humbuckers in both positions with a pickup selector switch and one Volume knob. No tone control. It’s totally straight ahead.

Any preference for strings and picks?
My strings are Dean Markley Helix, and those things never go out of tune. And because I want my acoustics to play exactly like my electrics, I put the same gauges on all my guitars: .009, .012, .016, .030, .040, .052. The only difference is for slide, where I tune to DADAAD, and use .014, .017, .017, .032, .042, .056. My picks are 60mm Dunlop Ultex.

How about your amp?
My amp of choice for the past 15 years has been the Bogner Shiva—it’s my favorite amp on the planet. But if I have to fly to a gig, it’s more practical to have a rental company bring an amp to the venue. The typical choice is a Marshall JCM 900, and while I can still sound like Ronnie Montrose with that amp, it doesn’t give me that same, singing “Ronnie Tone” that I get with my Shivas. So I always take along a Foxrox Captain Coconut 2 pedal to help out the tone. It’s an absolutely amazing pedal—a 3-in-1 device with the most perfect octave driver and phaser/ flanger sounds. It also has a distortion, but I never use it—I just turn the distortion down to zero, and use that part of the pedal as a mute so I can tune my guitar. I’m also a huge fan of the Rocktron Intelliverb. It’s my favorite device ever—so intuitive and easy to use. And I’ve just discovered the Eventide TimeFactor pedal, and I absolutely love it! It’s perfect for the Gamma songs I’m doing on this tour.

I’m a super freak for the TC Electronic PolyTune pedal. It’s the perfect tuner.

How did you audition players for the summer tour?
I gave people a list of about six songs— “Bad Motor Scooter,” “Rock Candy,” “Rock the Nation,” and so on—and I let each musician play two-and-a-half songs of their choice. Everyone knew there would be no decisions made that day. I would decide afterwards who made the team. We’d play from noon to six o’clock, and I would be totally worn out, because I had to go full bore all the time. The drummers, bassists, and vocalists had to know they were playing with Ronnie Montrose— mano-a-mano—and that I expected them to kick my ass. It was rough.

What type of musicians were you looking for?
I want it all—great players that I can have fun with. No attitudes. You have to be a good hang, and have a good vibe. I’m 63 years old, I still love playing guitar, and I want to have fun.

Is it difficult managing open auditions?
Oh, yeah! Carlos Santana once warned me that people come in totally unprepared and waste your time. For some of the auditions, if you were listening from outside the room, it would have sounded like the worst little high-school band trying to play Montrose tunes. But I still had to be respectful.

What are your favorite Montrose songs to play?
In no particular order, I love playing “Rock Candy,” “Space Station Number 5,” “Bad Motor Scooter,” “Make It Last,” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

From the Sammy Hagar era onwards, was there any particular lineup that spurred you to be more creative, or were all of the band evolutions relatively equal?
Of all the Montrose albums I’ve ever done, I was most happy with Sammy, because we had tons of that raw, naked creativity. I’m sure there will come a day when Sammy and I will share a stage together again, and play some of the old songs for fun. But I must say that I’m very comfortable with my new band, and we’re really starting to take things to that same level.

Hip Tip

“If you want an ambient, singing tone,” advises Montrose, “but don’t want to goop everything up, here’s my secret: Use minimal reverb, and add 200ms-300ms of pre-delay in order to ensure your notes are clearly audible before the ambience fades into the picture. I want the reverb to enhance the tone, rather than define the tone.”

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