RONNIE WOOD RAIDS L.A. TO ROCK IT UP ON HIS LATEST ALBUM, I FEEL LIKE PLAYING
THE LATEST CHAPTER IN THE STORIED LIFE OF RONNIE WOOD FINDS THE ROLLING STONES GUITARIST BACK IN ACTION FOLLOWING THE RELEASE OF HIS LATEST ALBUM, I FEEL LIKE PLAYING [EAGLE]. THE ALBUM COVER FEATURES WOOD’S HAND-PAINTED EXCLAMATION OVER AN ABSTRACT BACKGROUND, AND THE apt title probably best explains the mindset that enabled Wood to push some personal issues aside and get down to playing the kind of gritty, bluesy rock and roll that has been his hallmark for more than four decades. Created in a sort of “musical chairs” environment that brought Billy Gibbons, Slash, and Waddy Wachtel into the mix, the new album, which was recorded over several months in a variety of L.A. studios, combines Wood’s distinctive melodic leanings with the whiskey-soaked swagger of ’70s-era Faces and the steamroller rhythms of the Stones. Wood penned many of the songs on the spot as a rotating cast of players dropped by to help out. They included Darryl Jones, Flea, and Rick Rosas on bass; Ian McLagen and Ivan Neville on keyboards; Jim Keltner, Steve Ferrone, and Johnny Ferraro on drums; and vocalists Bernard Fowler, Blondie Chapin, and soul singer/songwriter Bobby Womack.
Although Keith Richards is not on the new album, the scent of Wood’s most notorious solo project from the late ’70s is all over it.
“In many ways I Feel Like Playing is the latest version of the New Barbarians,” said Wood when I spoke with him in New York last September. “We were up in the clouds a lot back then, and I don’t remember too much about it other than how great it was playing with Stanley Clarke, Bobby Keys, Keith, and Zigaboo [Modeliste]. Fortunately all of the original members are still around, so it’s quite possible to get any combination of players in the engine room and just take it from there.”
To hear Wood describe how the album came together, one has to enter a state of suspended reality for a minute and realize that someone with so much fame, experience, wealth, and just plain goodwill among his fellow musicians doesn’t necessarily have to follow a roadmap to get from point A to point Z in the recording process. As Wood said, “I had some basic ideas, which I kind of put on the back burner, and then when I left home my life had sort of changed and I was like this wandering gypsy. I found myself in Los Angeles, and my old friend Steve Bing rang me up and said, ‘Hey Ronnie, people want to hear you play. I’ve booked the House of Blues and I’ve got Jim Keltner and Ivan Neville.’ I told him, ‘That’s great because I’ve just spoken to Flea, and we were going to get together with Bernard Fowler.’
“I decided we should meet at the studio and cut something we all knew. So we did ‘Spoonful,’ and then from there I had a few phrases for songs like ‘Why You Wanna Go and Do a Thing Like That For’ and ‘I Don’t Think So.’ Bernard also had ‘Sweetness My Weakness.’ A lot of the songs came together in my hotel room in the afternoon, and we put them together in the studio in the evening. I was surprised at the way everything fell into place—like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming together nicely and without any pressure.”
How were you able to get the creative juices flowing to the point where you could write and arrange these tunes on the fly?
I was seeing things a lot more focused, and I was trying hard to lay off the booze and the drugs and all that—my ongoing battle. And now I’ve really nailed it, and I feel comfortable with my sobriety. I’m seven months in now, and I really feel good about that. So a lot of the time when I was cutting the album I wasn’t drinking, and I think that had a lot to do with it. I was able to think a lot about how the keys of the songs matched my voice, and also different approaches from the guitar angle—like adding a little pedalsteel, or some Dobro and slide guitar.
Is it fair to say that some of the musicians sort of magically materialized when you needed them?
Well, like I bumped into Kris Kristofferson and asked him to write me a couple of verses, and he said [mimic’s Kristofferson’s voice], “Okay, come back tomorrow night Ronnie and I’ll have ’em ready for ya.” And then Slash, who was in the next studio down the road, says, “Hey man, you need any help?” So I hadn’t planned who was going to be on it—apart from Bernard, Keltner, Flea, and me. And then Flea had to go off and work, so Darryl Jones took over. And then Rick Rojas filled in when he left. When Keltner had to go off to work on the Jerry Lee Lewis album, Steve Ferrone came in.
How did Billy Gibbons get involved?
I was in a studio called Stage and Sound in Hollywood—one of five different studios I used during my wandering nomad phase— and Billy stopped by. He just sat and listened to what I’d been doing, then he said, “Hey man, I got a song for you,” and began singing the line, “I got a thing about you.” So we started writing that song. He was busting me around and going, “Play this part [sings the guitar riff], and I’ll play this over it [sings a lower riff]. We sparred together for a while and then went, “Right, let’s rip!”
How do you deal with that kind of input when you’re trying to make an album that reflects your own ideas?
Well, I didn’t want to flood the album with guest guitar players, but I think the contributions that Slash, Billy Gibbons, and Waddy Wachtel made helped pad out certain songs. Waddy helped me get the arrangement together for “Tell Me Something,” which really needed to be beaten into shape. And my old mate Ian McLagen came into town, and he knows what I want. He was only there for a couple of days, but he overdubbed on six or more songs.
Did you bounce your conceptual ideas off any of your peers?
I told Jeff Beck about this idea I had for using the cast of Stomp on a couple of songs that we were going to be playing at a little place in London called the Ambassadors Theater. He was really crazy about the idea. He goes, “You could spar with those kids on the guitar—give them a question and they answer it. That would be my dream.”
What do you think of Beck’s direction lately with the orchestrations and all that?
I think it’s so impressive. I was with Jimmy Page a couple of weeks ago and he said, “There are guitar players, and then there’s Jeff Beck. He just takes it to a completely different realm.” Jeff is still like a kid in a candy store with his guitar. He’s always going, “Man have you seen this?” [mimics Beck’s guitar playing]. He’s bending and pulling and making it sound like a pedal-steel or playing harmonics with a slide. He’s still very experimental. He’s got all of those licks from Cliff Gallup amalgamated with his classical style of playing, and he combines it with an erratic bluesy style and a bit of comedy. I’ve seen him quite a lot lately. The last time I went to visit him at his house in London he was very interested in what I was doing.
Are you mainly playing Fender Stratocasters on the album?
Yeah, it’s my favorite adaptable guitar— you can take a Strat anywhere. I used a really nice old Strat on “I Don’t Think So” and “Fancy Pants.” I’d wanted to use my Tele with the B-Bender, but didn’t get around to it. I should have, though, because that’s an easy way of making a guitar sound like a pedal-steel. Just bending that one string makes a hell of a difference.
Do you still play your Zemaitis guitars?
Most of my original ones got stolen. And they’re probably up in some old lady’s attic, because they’ve got my name all over them and are inlaid with Treasure Island maps and stuff. I’ve still got the original black one with the silver plate that I used on “Stay With Me” with the Faces. I played that one recently when the Faces reformed. That was great fun. I did “Around the Plynth” and “Stay With Me” with that guitar. I’ll break it out again when I take my solo band out to promote this album. I have a Zemaitis with me here but it’s not from the early days. After Tony Zemaitis died, his company was taken over by these young guys, and they’re keeping on in the same handmade tradition and making really good guitars.
Have you owned Zemaitis acoustics, as well?
I’ve still got my original fretless bass that Zemaitis made for me—it’s a big, beautiful kind of Mexican mariachi double bass. It’s blonde with a heart-shaped soundhole. Ronnie Lane first turned me on to that because he had one. Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Clapton were the only ones who had Zemaitis acoustic guitars with the heartshaped hole. I had a 12-string, which I’ve still got somewhere, and a 6-string that I keep at my house in Ireland. Both are from the early ’70s, and they’re perfectly handmade. Their sound has been maturing over the years, and they just keep getting better. Tony never made two guitars the same, and he refused to do a production line thing, but he put a lot of love into each one he built, and that’s why they sound so good.
The rhythm tracks on this album have such a great vibe. What’s your formula for getting the grooves down?
Capturing it live—that’s the only way I feel satisfied. And if it ain’t there in one or two takes, forget about it. Luck has it that I always get the basic track in the first or second take, and that keeps the spontaneity and the live feel. By playing live, you also get the atmosphere of the room sound.
Did you use different amps for the rhythm and lead parts?
Yes. Dave Rouze [album coordinator and technical assistant] is very good at helping me with that. He’ll say, “Hey Ronnie, why don’t you try a Fender Vibratone [rotary speaker] on this? So I’ll go along with it whether it’s a Vox AC30 or a Mesa/Boogie or a Twin. But if all else fails, I always go back to the Fender Champ or Deluxe. On the controls I use half middle, a little over half bass, and a lot of top, and then combine that with an in-between setting toward the treble pickup on the Strat. Often, though, I’ll use the bass pickup with a lot of treble, or the treble setting by itself if I want it really shrill.
Are you a fan of vintage amps?
I prefer to use old valve amps, but some of the reproductions they’re coming out with now are also okay. I used a Fenton-Weill [a very early British amp maker] when I played on “Maggie May,” which has a funny little solo. That amp was like a little homemade job, and was most likely a converted radio.
What inspired the reggae feel on “Sweetness”?
It’s like a reggae song, but none of us were playing reggae—even the drums are playing straight fours. It’s a homage to Gregory Issacs, so it’s kind of like grown-up reggae. I was very pleased with that sound.
I thought maybe you were channeling Jimmy Cliff as you’ve played with him before.
Yeah, I made an album with him. His guitar player Dougie Bryan had this way of playing [mimics his style], and I used a little bit of that towards the end of “Sweetness.” Slash kept the little chops going, and he also did the first solo, which is very good. I played the second solo, and then we blended together on the third part. We did kind of the same thing on “Fancy Pants.” I thought it was great to interplay with Slash on that one. He goes, “What do you want me to play?” I said, “Just go for it. Let it rip!”
Reggae had a big impact on the Rolling Stones in the ’70s. Why do you think that style drifted out of mainstream rock?
Well, we’ve never forgotten the roots of Gregory Issacs and the Heptones and Jimmy Cliff. Some of those early things are so deep— like Jacob Miller and that stuff. We came out of it with riffs like “Beast of Burden” and “You Don’t Have to Mean It.” But reggae got bastardized and kind of incestuous, and kind of fired back on itself. But for the rock stuff, it sorted out the men from the boys. It put a lot of simplicity back in—like what you didn’t play became more important. It was a real contrast to where rock was headed at the time—which was about confusing you with science and fiddly bits.
The guitar tones on “Lucky Man” sound like you could have recorded it 30 years ago. Were you consciously thinking of a sound you had then or does that just come naturally?
When Bob Rock presented that one to me, he said, “I have this idea that you might like, but feel free to do whatever you want with it.” I was in Hawaii at the time, and Eddie Vedder was there, too, so I asked him to write some words for the middle eight. The lines that start with, “I don’t feel like crawlin’, got to get up off the ground,” is all Eddie’s interjection.
I thought the guitars were very much like you said, and could have been off a Rod Stewart solo album session. I didn’t set out with any particular sound in mind for that song, though—it’s just what I do. On the other hand, “Forever” is something I’ve actually had forever. I wrote it 36 years ago, and I was going to use it on my first album. It has an interesting rhythm thing going on with that ascending line. It’s always been a special song to me, and I thought it was time for it to see the light of day.
Why did you wait so long to use it?
I did it live with the First Barbarians [First Barbarians: Live from Kilburn] when I took my first solo album onstage with Andy Newmark, Willie Weeks, Keith [Richards], and Mac [Ian McLagan]. We did a great version of it live then, but it never really got used or heard. Bernard Fowler really helped me with the vocals on that one. That’s another reason I kept it on the back burner for so long, because it’s a little too high for me to sing. It has to be played in E. I guess I could have detuned the guitar to do it, but that’s how it ended up.
What did you use for the sitar sound on “100%”?
It’s one of those old electric sitar things [Coral Sitar] that has a drone on it. I’ve also had that song knocking around for a few years, and I finally got to put it to use. This album was great way for me to get songs that I’ve had on the back burner and put them all to bed for a bit. Now I can rest until I do a live version of this album.
How did you come up with that soulful intro on “I Gotta See”?
I wrote it one afternoon at the hotel [laughs]. Bernard says, “I’ve got these words for you, Woody, that are kind of summing up your life in my opinion.” So I just came out with the melody and it was a very natural thing. Billy Gibbons played the rhythm part on that tune.
You’ve played on a lot of very different albums with artists like Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Rufus, Rick Danko, Alice Cooper, and Bob Dylan. What do you think makes you so versatile?
I’m very adaptable and I think it’s because I kind of talk through the guitar. If you can talk with someone through the guitar, then you’re off and running. I played with Bob Marley like that, because at the time he didn’t know who I was from Adam. So I just played him a little bit of guitar and he went, “Oh, now I understand.” And I’ve been like that with everybody I’ve played with, from Led Zeppelin to Guns ’N’ Roses to John Prine.
You’ve had a particularly long history of making records with Bob Dylan.
Well, being a fellow Gemini he only has to give me the key and I know more or less what he’s going to do. We read each other a bit like Keith and I do with our ancient form of weaving.
How has working with Keith Richards all these years affected your playing?
It has kind of put the reins on me and made me think twice about just tearing in there like a bull in a China shop. I’ve learned what not to play, and to play pieces that mean something. Often we just talk through our guitars. A lot of playing with Keith is about having a conversation with the guitars.
IT’S ONLY ROCK AND ROLL
KEITH & THE BOYS REVEAL A FEW OF THE STONES’ MUSICAL SECRETS
ON BLURRING THE LINES
“Rather than going for the separation of the guitars, we get them to the point where it doesn’t matter which guitar is doing what. They leap and weave through each other, so it becomes unimportant whether you’re listening to rhythm or lead, because in actual effect, as a guitar player, you’re in the other player’s head and he’s in yours, and you two are on this little mental plane where no one else is—trying to guide and follow, all at the same time. You’re in the front, and you’re in the back, and this is a fascinating thing—and, on a larger scale, that’s what a good band is. See, a lot of guys are scared to do that. They don’t want you to know what they’re thinking [laughs], or they’re out for personal glory, so with a lot of players, you can’t do that. Or you have to put them through a rigorous re-education— which is a lot of hard work [laughs].” —Guitar Player, December 1989
“I just go in blind, and start playing, and see what comes out.” — Guitar Player, December 1975
ON CHARLIE WATTS
“I’m probably the most drummerinfluenced guitar player around. Over the years, Charlie and I developed a style between us, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that for many, many years I couldn’t hear us onstage at all. The chicks are screaming and the band has no P.A. [laughs]. So we developed a way of playing where it didn’t matter if we heard the voice or the bass—it was just Charlie and me. I’d be forced right up against Charlie’s kit with my amp right next to him. My playing would have been totally different if I hadn’t gone through that with Charlie. I developed more and more of the rhythm things and licks because he was really all I was playing to.” — Guitar Player, December 1989
“I think the best Stones music was done between ’68 and ’72—never mind about when I left in 1992. I last saw the band at London’s O2 Arena in 2007 or 2008. I don’t hear the Stones the same way now as when I was in the band, because in those days, it was all sort of dangerous and loose. Now, it’s like a machine. It’s like they’re playing to click tracks—which we never did. The music has become more machine-like than I would like, and that’s not the way it was when I was with them.” —Bass Player, September 2010
“Keith and I never really consciously worked out parts— they just kind of happened. He played most of the riffs on the songs, and I played most of the solos. Most of my solos were overdubbed, and they were usually all first or second takes.
“The recorded sound of the Stones is unique, I think, because they’d master things really, really hot. It’s not that we played incredibly loud in the studio—we used to use small amps. Most of the time, we’d use Fender Twin Reverbs. But there’s a certain kind of tape echo they used to use a lot when Jimmy Miller was producing records for them—like a Revox echo. That’s the kind of echo on the guitar intro from ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ and a few other things. It’s a very fast, tight echo.” — Guitar Player, February 1980
“It was much harder to get a Rolling Stones sound with Mick Taylor. It was much more lead and rhythm, one way or the other. As fabulous as Mick is as a lead guitarist, he wasn’t as great as a rhythm player, so we ended up taking roles. It was. ‘You do this, and I’ll do that, and never the twain shall meet.’ When Brian [Jones] and I started, it was never like that, and with Ron, the basic way we play is much more similar to what Brian and I did. With Ron, if he drops his pick, then I can play his lick until he picks it up, and you can’t even tell the difference.” — Guitar Player, April 1983