Fretprints: Ronnie Montrose

America’s Metallic Answer
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Fretprints: Ronnie Montrose
Ronnie Montrose onstage in 1978.
Ronnie Montrose: Chris Walter/ Photofeatures/Zuma.

The cultural and musical hotbed that was San Francisco in the ’60s produced numerous important bands – Santana, Grateful Dead, Steve Miller, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother, and Moby Grape were homegrown answers to sounds pouring out of Britain, Los Angeles, and New York.

It all proved so irresistible that visitors like George Harrison were prompted to partake of the atmosphere, while others, like Paul Butterfield, made it a second home. By the early ’70s, hard rock supplanted psychedelic pop, jam bands, and regional folk-blues-jug band amalgams. S.F. responded with its own brand of metallic mayhem, and prime among the proponents was an outfit bearing its founder’s name, Montrose.

Ronald Douglas Montrose was born in San Francisco on November 29, 1947, but spent his childhood in Denver. He came to music later than most, at 18 (after holding a friend’s guitar), and quickly began learning songs by ear. His education was through riffs and licks learned from records by Elvis, the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry, and others. He was recruited into a local band called Grim Reapers, where he played an unfriendly Danelectro 12-string, then worked with Daddy Longlegs before returning to San Francisco. His professional career began in ’69, with Sawbuck, which recorded a self-titled album for Fillmore Records in ’71. He then connected with David Rubinson, partner of promoter Bill Graham, who secured session work for Ronnie with luminaries like Van Morrison (on Tupelo Honey) and Herbie Hancock (Mwandishi). He performed briefly with Boz Scaggs, then joined the Edgar Winter Group in ’71 as lead guitarist, playing electric, 12-string acoustic, and mandolin on They Only Come Out at Night, with an all-star lineup that included Rick Derringer, Randy Jo Hobbs, and Dan Hartman. Produced by Bill Szymczyk (of Eagles fame), the disc boasted landmark tracks “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride.” Encouragement from Winter to “play heavier” led Montrose, then a journeyman session guitarist, to pursue a harder rock direction, harnessing the power of high-decibel amplification. It paved the path to Montrose, the band, which formed in ’73.

Montrose began its run with comparisons to the paragon of heavy groups, Led Zeppelin. Metal was in its infancy when the quartet debuted with vocalist Sammy Hagar, bassist Bill Church, and drummer Denny Carmassi. Produced and engineered by Ted Templeman and Donn Landee, the band’s first album was released on Warner Brothers, and though it didn’t initially attain hit status (partly due to insufficient marketing), it eventually garnered platinum status, international recognition, and remains one of the most-admired works in the genre. Touted as America’s first heavy-metal record, it was cited in Hit Parader’s Top 100 heavy-metal albums and voted fourth-best metal album of all time by Kerrang!. Montrose’s ’74 sophomore recording, Paper Money, was its most commercially successful, reaching #65 on Billboard. It found Alan Fitzgerald (later of Night Ranger) as bassist with studio keyboards by Mark Jordan and Nick DeCaro. Hagar departed to launch his solo career following a ’75 European tour and was replaced by Bob James, recruited from a Montrose cover band. The quartet became a quintet with keyboardist Jim Alcivar for Warner Bros. Presents Montrose, which reached #79. Jump On It was the band’s final album of the decade and featured James, Alcivar, Carmassi, and Montrose with additional studio bass work by Randy Jo Hobbs.

This burning phrase began the live version of “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” the opener at Montrose’s KSAN debut. Ronnie launches the tune with a free cadenza filled with virtuosic passagework which can only be called proto-shred. Like Van Halen, Rhoads, and many to follow, he develops a wealth of interesting sounds over a handful of introductory chords, here Bsus4 and Asus2 – two appropriately open and harmonically vague sonorities that invite decoration. And what decorating! Ronnie plays slippery modal runs in B minor, a rising sequential melody and wailing string bends with wide vibrato over the first chord. Over Asus2 he blends open-string diatonic legato figures, reminiscent of EVH’s flurries in “Eruption,” with some challenging chromatic moves that apply atonality and an excursion into D minor for an exotic twist before resolving back to A major. Quite daring in ’73, these sounds would become the norm in metal and hard rock within just a few short years, thanks to Ronnie.

After disbanding Montrose in ’77, Ronnie released his first solo album the following year; Open Fire was an instrumental recording cut from the same cloth as Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow, and reflected his eclecticism with forays into jazz, power pop, semi-classical and electronic/acoustic timbres. Produced by Edgar Winter, it is definitive prog-rock fusion with Montrose’s guitar voice (electric and acoustic) weaving in and out of ambitious arrangements and varied orchestral settings. “Town Without Pity,” an inspired cover, became a theme heard at concerts. Open Fire reached across genres to attract Miles Davis’ drummer Tony Williams, who in July of ’78 invited Ronnie to participate in a Tokyo all-stars show alongside Brian Auger and Billy Cobham. The set included originals “Open Fire” and “Heads Up” as well as “Rocky Road” from the album. Ronnie issued various solo albums in the following years, epitomized by Territory, Bearings, and The Speed of Sound, cited as his favorite instrumental outing.

In ’79, Ronnie formed Gamma, favoring an AOR direction informed by prog rock and reveling in a blend of heavy guitar with new synthesizer technology. Its lineup changed through four self-titled albums recorded between ’79 and 2000, relying on singer Davey Pattison and musicians from earlier bands including Alcivar, Fitzgerald, and Carmassi augmented by Glenn Letsch, Mitchell Froom, and others. Gamma enjoyed periods of activity and minor hits like “I’m Alive” and “Right the First Time,” but disbanded in 2000, after Gamma 4.

Ronnie continued his solo career, briefly joined Seattle’s Rail in ’85, assembled a new Montrose in ’87, and guested as session player on albums by Hagar and Paul Kantner. After surviving prostate cancer in 2009, he died on March 3, 2012, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the wake of personal tragedies and having suffered clinical depression since childhood. A posthumous solo album, 10×10 (featuring 10 songs by 10 singers), was released in ’17. It completed tracks begun in the early 2000s with bassist Ricky Phillips (Styx) and drummer Eric Singer (Kiss), and featured Hagar, Winter, and Pattison on vocals along with Eric Martin, Glenn Hughes, Gregg Rolie, and guitarists Steve Lukather, Dave Meniketti, Phil Collen, Tommy Shaw, Mark Farner, Brad Whitford, and Joe Bonamassa. It stands as a glowing tribute to the Ronnie Montrose legacy.

“Make It Last” was a leading track on Montrose and favorite of Eddie Van Halen and many others. It boasts one of those “big chord riffs” Hagar cited as Ronnie’s forté. The main riff established the groove from the outset with its driving rhythms and use of space. It hinted at ’70s/’80s metal hooks with a thoughtful mix of root-fifth power chords and power dyads in perfect fourths. Note the connective single-note line acting as a pickup into A5 midway and muted string scrapes as well as the unusual addition of an F5 dyad in the progression that injects modal content into an otherwise blues-rock setting. The D5 dyads are given Ronnie’s signature vibrato treatment via his left-hand string bending.

INFLUENCES
Ronnie’s early influences include Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop on Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s East West album. His listening expanded with Eric Clapton’s blues-rock on Fresh Cream and Jimi Hendrix’s futuristic exploits on Are You Experienced?; “Shoot Us Down” contains overt nods to Jimi’s “Foxy Lady,” while his singing Les Paul tone alludes to Slowhand’s Cream-era sound.

STYLE
A dedicated eclectic, Ronnie reconciled hard rock with power pop, electronica, and orchestral aspirations. His Montrose work strengthened the impression he was one of America’s most accomplished rock guitarists, however “Town Without Pity,” a model for Gary Moore’s instrumental outings, revealed his sensitivity in delivering a song sung on electric guitar and its navigation through orchestral arrangements. His efforts in Gamma found him changing gears to incorporate synth-driven textures in rock, going beyond precedents set by Foreigner and Journey. He later returned to straightforward melodic rock on The Speed of Sound.

Ronnie’s lead playing was influential beyond measure. Though never a household name, his effect on rock guitarists is self-evident. His singing lead sound is distinguished by exceptional intonation in string bends and the smooth vocal quality of his vibrato. The arpeggio ostinatos in “Make It Last” and “Shoot Us Down” (demo) are signatures that inspired similar figures in the work of Angus Young, Randy Rhoads, and Michael Schenker, et al, as well as the tap-on flurries in Van Halen’s “Eruption.” His superior technique was personified in blazing pentatonic/blues and diatonic runs, and double-timed note cascades that presaged shred trends, epitomized in the opening solo breaks in “I Got the Fire,” “You’re Out of Time” and Gamma’s “Solar Heat.” He was a risk-taking explorer on guitar. Consider the chromatic runs in “Roll Over, Beethoven” (4:16) and “Ready for Action” (2:15). Moreover, he set new trends with uncommon approaches to common devices. Case in point are the faux-pick-slide effects created by rubbing fingertip harmonics on roundwound strings, on the “Rock Candy” riff. Vibrato-bar antics on “Good Rockin’ Tonight” strike a middle ground between Jimi and Eddie, while harmony guitars on “I’m Alive” and muted technical passages in “Razor King” reveal deeper refinements gleaned from fusion. He applied conventional flatpicking and hybrid picking to lead and rhythm guitar.

Ronnie had his own approach to rock rhythm guitar, distinctly different from Clapton, Hendrix, Page or Beck. He was revered for big-chord riffs in driving tunes like “Rock the Nation” and “Make It Last.” Many of the signature riffs heard throughout his career are made of power dyads which he bent and vibrated with fingers not a whammy bar. He largely relied on standard tuning, however tuned his guitar to open D on “Bad Motor Scooter.” His arrangements and solo-guitar spots were sometimes colored with modern space-age sounds generated by a Theremin-equipped guitar. All the aforementioned elements were studied by a generation of nascent guitar heroes including a certain Ed Van Halen playing hard-rock fare in parties and clubs. The link between Van Halen and Montrose, two bands bearing the last name of their guitarist, is undeniable. Eddie was a devoted fan who insisted Templeman “get the Montrose sound” on their first record. Moreover, “Dancin’ Feet” was a VH staple at Pasadena backyard parties, “Make It Last” was on their set list during the Gazzari’s period, and “Rock Candy” was a song played live in ’86 when Hagar joined the ranks.

Ronnie’s powerful lead style was exemplified by solos like “I Got the Fire” on Paper Money. This telling phrase makes the case convincingly. Note the sense of musicianship and structure in his solo licks. The pentatonic/blues ideas introduced in measures 1 and 2 are imitated an octave higher in 3 and 4 where a string bend replaces the earlier notes, reached by sliding to them. That’s a typically slick variation heard in many of his solos. The double-timed blues-rock patterns in 5 are staples but the ascending chromatic line in 7-8, made of pull-offs on a single string, are a personal maneuver that adds an abstract touch to the hard-rock proceedings.

ESSENTIAL LISTENING
Montrose is a classic, and the expanded edition is recommended for its demos and live tracks. The Very Best of Montrose offers a serviceable overview, however serious hard-rock fans should explore all four albums. Also essential are Ronnie’s first solo record, Open Fire, and Gamma 1.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING
Important online clips include a 20-minute ’74 Montrose performance from “The Old Grey Whistle Test,” definitive live version of “Town Without Pity” from ’78, and several telling guitar interviews.

SOUND
Ronnie is closely associated with a Les Paul and he first brandished a late-’60s Deluxe refitted with humbuckers. Touring with Winter, he befriended J. Geils, who helped him acquire a ’58 Standard that later was stolen then replaced with another ’58 that became his mainstay. He also played a black ’55 Custom with replaced PAFs and ’59 Junior with a DiMarzio pickup. Other guitars include a highly modified ’65 Strat refinished red with a bridge humbucker used throughout Paper Money, a ’58 Flying V, a modified Gibson 6/12 doubleneck, and a Theremin-equipped Veleno heard to good advantage on “Space Station #5.” He later played a Gene Baker B2 with maple top and mahogany body, and, in the new millenium, Jackson guitars with wide fretboards (17/8″ nut) and Duncan pickups.

Early on, he created a string set from two Gibson Sonomatic packages, using heavier strings on the bottom (.050/.040/.028), lighter on top (.016/.012/.009). He preferred a West German Mica nylon pick and 2″ glass slide.

For acoustic sounds in the the studio, Ronnie relied on Gibson J-45, a Southern Jumbo, a CF-100E, and a mandocello.

His amp was at first a 300-watt Ampeg SVT with SRO speakers, but by the mid ’70s he’d jumped to Marshall stacks. Later, he dabbled with Gibson LAB Series, then preferred a Bogner Shiva. Montrose was recorded with an overdriven 40-watt 3×10 tweed Fender Bandmaster with Jensen speakers. With Van Morrison, he employed a “…Princeton set on about 4.” Ronnie used effects sparingly; stompboxes include a Big Muff fuzz (notably on “Bad Motor Scooter” played on a Les Paul Junior), Ampeg Scrambler distortion, Crybaby wah, and Eventide TimeFactor delay.


Wolf Marshall is the founder and original editor-in-chief of GuitarOne magazine. A respected author and columnist, he has been influential in contemporary music education since the early 1980s. His books include 101 Must-Know Rock Licks, B.B. King: the Definitive Collection, and Best of Jazz Guitar, and a list credits can be found at wolfmarshall.com.


This article originally appeared in VG’s August 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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