Veteran guitarist Ronnie Montrose is still rocking and still recording. The renowned player’s fret efforts first came to public attention with Van Morrison over two decades ago, and his further ventures are probably known to (and have probably been heard by) many Vintage Guitar readers.
Recently VG had the opportunity of talking with Montrose; we conversed about his history and his ongoing musical efforts; he advised that he was born in San Francisco but spent most of his earlier years in Denver; he returned to the Bay Area around the beginning of the Seventies:
Vintage Guitar: Had the San Francisco ‘acid rock’ phenomenon influenced you enough to make you want to move to that area?
Ronnie Montrose: I moved back right around the end of that time; that type of music never did really appeal to me all that much, but I knew there were a lot of musicians in the area. I picked up the guitar when I was seventeen; I’d only been playing a couple of years when I moved out here. I wasn’t really playing professionally; I was looking for people to jam with and thought it might lead to something.
Once you started playing, who were your influences?
Just about everybody I’d listened to when I was a kid. Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, Chet Atkins, Johnny Smith, even Hank Williams. I was basically working out chords when I started, as opposed to trying to be a blues player with a vibrato style. I fell in love with the guitar the first time I picked it up and hit my first ‘E’ chord.
Did you say to yourself: “This is what I want to do for a living”?
Absolutely not. I didn’t consider that being a full-time player might happen until I got an offer to play with Van Morrison in the early Seventies, although I think my first “big gig” was with Edgar Winter.
What about your instruments, “pre-Edgar Winter”?
My first guitar was a Gibson Melody Maker that I got at a pawn shop for sixty dollars; I was really brazen, and I put a set of humbuckers on it. Then I got a Goldtop Les Paul Deluxe around the time they began introducing them; I put full-size humbuckers in it as well. Later I had it refinished in a dark sunburst like an old Gibson L-4; I’m still very partial to that look. I have an old “Banner series” Gibson SJ in a dark sunburst that’s my favorite guitar.
How did the gig with Van Morrison come about?
I was doing carpentry work to make money; I’d do work for Bill Graham and his partner, David Rubinson. It was a trade-off; they’d let my band rehearse in their office space at night.
One day David asked if I’d like to play with Van Morrison; I thought he meant that my band would open for Morrison’s band! (chuckles) I went to the audition determined to get the gig, and I got it. I owe a lot to David; he also got me my first recording session. I was with Van a little less than a year. After that I toured with Boz Scaggs right after his Boz Scaggs and Band album came out. We did some recording in Muscle Shoals, and in Kansas we opened a show for Edgar Winter. That’s how the gig with Edgar came about.
An obvious question would be why Winter wanted to shift gears from an R & B-type band with horns to a small rock combo.
He just wanted to try a rock style, and they were looking for a young rock player, so I passed that audition as well. (chuckles)
If I remember correctly, the original lineup was you, Winter, Dan Hartman on bass, and Chuck Ruff on drums.
Not quite; in the original lineup Dan and I both played guitar, and Randy Hobbs, who’d been in the McCoys and Johnny Winter And, played bass. One night in Texas, Randy had a seizure an hour before we were supposed to go onstage. Dan filled in on bass, and it worked. Randy, wasn’t in good health at the time, so we decided to stay a four-piece. (NOTE: Both Hartman and Hobbs died in 1994).
I recall seeing the band on the old “In Concert” series, and there was a song where you and Hartman switched instruments in the middle of a song; I think it was called “Let’s Get It On”.
That was the song; you’ve got a good memory! I’d go play bass while Hartman would play with his teeth; that kind of schtick. (laughs) But there’s a sad story about that part of the performance. We were playing in Dudley, Massachusetts one night; I was using a ’58 Les Paul Sunburst that I’d gotten from J. Geils. When the time to “switch” came, I put it on a stand like I’d always do; I went over and played bass while Dan played a white Strat. When I came back over to get my Les Paul, it was gone; there was just a strap there. That was in the days of no security, and I never did get that guitar back.
So you were into vintage, great-sounding guitars by that time.
Yeah, I’d gotten into them around ’73 or ’74; I’d seen Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Duane Allman all playing Sunbursts. I could never afford them for the longest time, and I finally bought one once I was a full-time musician. I remember calling my wife from New York, telling her that I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to play music! (laughs) That was when I first started playing for Edgar. Another rare instrument I had was a transitional reverse Firebird with a straight headstock; I was so upset that the Les Paul had been stolen that the next night onstage at Philadelphia I trashed the Firebird; it was a “youthful fit of anger”, I guess.
Once you could afford good guitars, used or vintage, did you have a preference for Gibsons?
I sure did. I had two or three Les Paul Juniors, a Les Paul TV Special, and three Sunbursts. Robert Johnson of Memphis got me my ’58 Flying V.
You only played on the Edgar Winter Group’s first album. I need to inquire about your departure.
Well, it was one of those things where there wasn’t enough room for everybody’s “growing pains”. I was thinking that it was still sort of a ‘sideman’ gig; between Edgar and Dan, there was a lot of writing power in the band. I put out the word that I was going to do something different, and I got a lot of phone calls, including one from Sammy Hagar. I was on vacation from the Edgar Winter Group for about three or four months; I rehearsed with Sammy, Denny Carmassi, and Bill Church, and committed to doing the Montrose band with them, but I went back and did six or seven more gigs with Edgar.
Before I forget about it, I want to inquire about a particular sound on the first Montrose-album. I’ve seen Hagar doing the “Bad Motor Scooter” intro in concert on a lap steel. Is that how you did it on the first album?
Well, one thing you ought to know is that the song almost didn’t make it onto the album! (chuckles) We thought it was a “loser” track; just a little ditty that Sammy had written, but it was missing something. Then one day I was sitting with my red, double-cutaway Les Paul Junior, and a Electro-Harmonix Big Muff fuzztone, and the one amp I wish I’d never got rid of, a three-ten tweed Fender Bandmaster. I’d gotten it for ninety dollars, and when I bought it, it was covered with woodtone Contact adhesive paper! The Contact paper peeled right off; it didn’t leave any residue and the tweed looked brand new. I used that amp so much I blew it up several times before I finally got rid of it.
I tuned the Junior down to Open D, and started dinking around with a slide; I was probably doing Johnny Winter riffs. I happened to hit something that sounded like a motorcycle, and everyone yelled “STOP!” all at the same time. (laughs) We all knew where that riff belonged, so we changed reels and did it as the intro to “Bad Motor Scooter”.
How many albums did the original Montrose band do?
There was never the same “cast of characters” on more than one album. Bill Church was replaced by Sammy’s friend Alan Fitzgerald on the second album; Alan played keyboards as well as bass. We did a European tour, and Sammy and I had a real falling out; it was somewhat like what happened while I was in Edgar Winter; band members tend to get growing pains. There have been a total of five albums by Montrose; all lineups.
Did you hear any feminist protests concerning the cover of Jump On It ?
Sure did. (chuckles) We had hired Hipgnosis, who’d done album covers for bands like Led Zeppelin and U.F.O.; great stuff. We gave them the title of the album, and when they sent it back the album was ready to be released, and we opted to go with it, even though we knew it might be controversial. I had one call from some feminist group. David Rubinson had a comment; he said they’d done a good job airbrushing my ****s off of the cover. (laughs)
Open Fire was released around 1979, and it might have considered to be ahead of its time, since it was an all-instrumental album; I’m thinking about how instrumental albums have gotten more popular since then.
Well, it wasn’t ahead of Blow by Blow. I was at a point in my career where I wanted to make that kind of album; I’ve always followed my muse. It seemed natural to do an instrumental album like that at that time. I may not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue as their favorite guitar player, but I get a lot of letters from other players telling me that they respect what I do, so that helps sustain me. I did get a strange mix of comments when Open Fire was released. Some people said they couldn’t stand it and that I was going to lose all my fans, and others told me that I’d finally grown up and started playing decent music. (chuckles)
You were also on the first Guitarspeak album.
One of the best-kept secrets of the Eighties is that I did three albums on Enigma; I got a good response to the guitar work on The Speed of Sound. Edgar Winter played sax on the Territory album.
You’ve chosen some unique songs to cover, including “Town Without Pity” and “Telstar”.
Such songs simply have a melody that I like. I was actually working on a song in 6/8 time like “Town Without Pity”, and we opted to record the ‘original’, because it has a great melody and structure. Edgar helped to arrange it and did a great job.
How do you feel about collecting guitars?
After that ’58 Les Paul got stolen, I got real uptight about taking valuable instruments on the road. I’m known as a player, not a collector, and I look at instruments from the viewpoint that they should be played; I don’t look at them from a “commodity” viewpoint. Now, if someone wants to collect instruments and keep them like they’re works of art or maybe Americana items, I respect that, but there’s a difference between such a collection and buying and selling guitars as commodities. I’ve been through a lot of guitars; these days I’ve only got about a half dozen instruments, the oldest of which is my Gibson SJ. I’ve kind of spoiled myself as far as getting into vintage pieces goes, because some years ago Grover Jackson made a Strat neck for Warren DeMartini that was too wide, so he sent it up to me. It was beautiful and it was 1 7/8 inches at the nut, which is very wide, but that’s what I like; with my reach I do a lot of thumbing and “wrapping around” on the neck. I have three custom-made Fender-style guitars; a Tele-style, a Strat-style, and an Esquire-style that has a B-Bender. Almost every pickup in every guitar is made by Seymour Duncan.
I also have a guitar that I designed with Steve Klein that we call the M.K. Steve then modified that design, and it became the Klein electric. I use “parts guitars”, but a lot of fine builders and technicians like Glenn Quan, Mike Gardner, and Chris Hutchins have been involved in making them. That way I get what I want. I still appreciate vintage instruments, but right now it seems like most of them aren’t comfortable for me.
What’s the story on the rifle guitar?
That was made by a builder named Gordon Branch. I met him about ten years and discovered he not only built guitars, he was also a gunsmith. I’d always wanted a guitar that looked like a rifle, and some had been marketed but they weren’t very good. The one Gordon made is more for concerts, of course; at one point it had a working laser inside the scope, and Steve Klein recently put a Steinberger vibrato on it.
Even though you don’t collect anymore, what do you think of what prices have done, especially on some of the models you used to own?
I’ve taken guitars apart all the way down to the last screw, and I know many of them are now considered works of art, but as a player, when I go to guitar shows and see people bringing guitars in and thinking of them in terms of nothing but dollar signs, it’s somewhat depressing. There isn’t really any single person that’s responsible for the prices being driven up, it’s the fantasy of certain people who have to have a certain instrument or instruments.
To wind things up, what’s the story behind you falling off of a stage with your ’58 V?
We were opening for Journey in front of 50,000 people; this was in the early Eighties. I jumped over the monitors and headed towards the front of the stage, but I fell through a piece of shabby plywood. All I remember is that my instinct of reflex was to lift the guitar over my head; it was a thirty-foot drop. I caught my leg on some other plywood and scraped my back. I was dangling there and nobody in the audience knew I’d missed a beat; they thought it was part of the act. I had to go to a doctor for a couple of weeks because I tore a muscle in my leg, but I saved that V! (chuckles)
I had an album released in the Spring called Music from Here; it was done a bit differently from some of the other instrumental albums, because the songs are mostly straight jams. We did a lot of writing in the studio and I did do some overdubs, but it was very loose and a lot of fun. We usually tour around the Bay Area to support my newest releases, but this year we’ve been touring all over the country.
I’ve also been doing design and consulting work with Big Industries on an amp they’ve built. It runs on a nine-volt battery and it looks like a work of art. It weighs about ten pounds and has a six-inch speaker. It sounds really great and it’s loud. It’s called the Ronnie Montrose Signature model. So I’m keeping busy and still having a good time.
Ronnie Montrose is indeed respected by many guitarists for his past efforts, and his ongoing efforts are respectable as well. He has a commendable attitude concerning music and guitars, and such straightforwardness is also respectable.
CIRCA 1980: Ronnie Montrose with a 1958 Les Paul Standard. He purchased it in 1977, and retired it after seven years.t
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’95 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.