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
Perhaps a weird question here, but can you
articulate what makes Ronnie Montrose sound
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
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.
Supporting vocalists is an art—especially
in a hard-rock context. From a musical standpoint,
how do you enhance the vocalist-guitarist
|Montrose playing his chrome Veleno guitar with a self-installed Theremin in 1973. He plans to reintroduce the “Theremin guitar” later in 2011.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
“If you want an ambient,
“but don’t want to
goop everything up,
here’s my secret: Use
minimal reverb, and
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