Fretprints: Mick Ralphs

Delivering in Bad Company
Fretprints: Mick Ralphs
Mick Ralphs playing a Les Paul Standard onstage with Bad Company, circa 1975.

Unabashedly British and irresistibly swaggering, Bad Company personified ’70s arena rock. Detractors denounced them as machismo, but fans have bought more than 40 million albums, 20 million in America alone. Guitarist/founder Mick Ralphs was a prime role model for numerous players.

Michael (Mick) Geoffrey Ralphs was born in Herefordshire, West England, on March 31, 1944. Raised on pre-Beatles radio, he was captivated by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. He began teaching himself guitar at 17 after hearing Steve Cropper on “Green Onions,” and supplemented his studies by assimilating the blues lexicon of Freddy and Albert King, et al. He played rhythm guitar with local R&B bands, worked German nightclubs by the mid ’60s with the Buddies and Doc Thomas Group, joined Jimmy Cliff’s soul band in ’69, and steadily grew into a skilled lead player. Silence, a ’68 quartet lineup of Doc Thomas, became Mott The Hoople (referring to Willard Manus’ novel of that name; a name suggested by Island Records producer Guy Stevens who imagined a group that evoked Bob Dylan singing with the Stones). Signed to Island in ’69, the quintet with singer Ian Hunter recorded their debut, which featured Ralphs songs “Rock and Roll Queen,” “Rabbit Foot” and “Half Moon Bay.” Mad Shadows (1970) contained Ralphs’ “Thunderbuck Ram” and “Threads of Iron,” followed by Wildlife, a transitional album that flirted with country rock. Brain Capers had but one Ralphs offering, “The Moon Upstairs,” and failed to chart in America and U.K. None were successful until All The Young Dudes (’72) – owing to longtime fan David Bowie’s title song, their first and biggest hit. However, Ralphs became disenchanted with Mott’s glam direction and departed in ’73 to write songs with Free singer/guitarist Paul Rodgers, eventually forming Bad Company with Free drummer Simon Kirke and King Crimson bassist Boz Burrell.

Bad Company had supergroup status, its members being well-known by fans. Managed by Led Zeppelin’s Peter Grant, it was the first act signed to Zep’s Swan Song label, and produced its own music. Bad Co (’74) was a heavier, more-focused descendant of the Beatles’ “white album” in its diversity of moods, timbres, and instrumentation with the brooding, piano-driven “Bad Company,” shuffling guitar boogie “Can’t Get Enough,” bluesy riff rocker “Rock Steady,” pop-metal strutter “Ready for Love” and gentle acoustic folkie “Seagull.” It boasted Ralphs’ hits “Can’t Get Enough” and “Movin’ On” and future classic “Ready for Love,” reached #1 in Billboard and #3 in U.K., was certified five times platinum, and remains one of the best-selling albums of the ’70s.

With a strong international following and breakthrough success in America (second only to Led Zep), Bad Company continued its ascent on Straight Shooter – a more-polished, harder record with Ralphs’ anthem “Good Lovin’ Gone Bad” and co-written “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” while Run With the Pack flaunted a string arrangement and piano on Rodgers’ metallic title tune offset by a CSNY-tinged acoustic number “Do Right by Your Woman.” Both cracked the Top 5. Burnin’ Sky cracked the Top 20, then Desolation Angels redeemed the band, reaching #3 in U.S. and #10 in U.K.

The aggressive blues-rock side of Mick’s lead style is captured in this example from “Good Lovin’ Gone Bad.” The solo phrase begins with a double-stop bend with blues-meets-country implications in bars 1-4 and progresses to a driving riff-based A minor-pentatonic line in 4-6. Note the inclusion of the tasty C-B-A pull-off that colors the otherwise straightforward blues chestnut. The closing bars exploit high string bends and a phrase ending that reveals his Albert King influences. Check out the slow, wide string bend in 9 and the snappy hiccuping closure notes in 10. Both are melodic/rhythmic gestures typical of the blues icon.

Increasing use of synthesizers and strings indicated greater sophistication and anticipated the growing independence of Rodgers, who played the catchy synth-guitar solo on “Rock ’n Roll Fantasy.” After a three-year absence, Rough Diamonds (’82) met a lukewarm reception before the group disbanded, ending its classic period with Rodgers.

Ralphs joined David Gilmour on his About Face tour in ’84 and the next year released his first solo album, Take This. Bad Company persevered into the ensuing decades with stylistic changes and other vocalists, most prominently employing Brian Howe from ’86 through ’94. Under Keith Olsen’s supervision, they dabbled with a glossy keyboard-laden sound on Fame and Fortune (dismissed by Ralphs as “obscurity and poverty”), reverted to a guitar-driven but studio-slick format with producer Terry Thomas on Dangerous Age, and reclaimed commercial success with Holy Water.

After a 1999 reunion tour with the original lineup, Ralphs withdrew from touring. In 2001, he released the instrumental It’s All Good (with Kirke and Burrell), performed with Ian Hunter in’04/’05, rejoined Bad Company for a Florida date in ’08, appeared with Mott the Hoople at London’s Hammersmith Apollo in ’09, formed Mick Ralphs Blues Band in ’11, recorded Should Know Better and If It Ain’t Broke, and played a final few concerts with Rodgers and a reconstituted Bad Company from ’12 through ’16; that year, he suffered a debilitating stroke and has not returned to performing. Guitarist Howard Leese joined on second/lead guitar, and recently shared with VG that Ralphs is in a nursing facility in England.

Bad Company exemplified a no-frills pop-metal style popularized by Free and likened to the British “working-class” school of rock. They reworked guitar-driven riffs and R&B melodic elements of late-’60s blues-rock and made dramatic use of space, emphatic syncopation, heavy accented rhythm figures, layered electric/acoustic/keyboard textures, and theatrics of Zep-influenced metal while adhering to a minimalist ethos, simple pop-song formulas, and craftsmanlike lead work. Ralphs embodied those traits as composer in “Can’t Get Enough,” “Rock Steady,” “Movin’ On,” “Ready for Love,” “Good Lovin’ Gone Bad,” “Live for the Music,” and co-written (with Rodgers) tunes “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and “Deal With the Preacher.”

“Shooting Star” boasts a melodious, metal-inflected outro solo that exemplifies Mick’s sweeter side. At the forefront is the wide variety of phrasing and rhythmic options given this simple-but-effective passage. The mix of sustained notes with flowing 16th-note lines is decorated with singing vibrato, slurs, slides, bends and legato pull-offs and hammer-ons. He builds from a diatonic (major) scale source in A, but selects notes that emphasize and enhance the E-D-A chord progression and particular chord of the moment, as would a singer. These choices result in the major-pentatonic (A-B-C#-E-F#) feeling of bars 1-5 and the more-emphatic leaning on the major scale with D and G# notes and explicit half-step melodies (C#-D and G#-A) in 6-8 over the same changes.

As a lead player, Ralphs favored feel and melody over technical excess and was the quintessential team player, supplying memorable riffs, solid rhythm grooves, and tight solos that complemented songs and stressed thematic unity. He drew on traditions cultivated by Clapton, Beck, and Page, and purveyed an economic style of largely pentatonic content, exploiting its bluesy minor-pentatonic side for hard rock and contrasting major-pentatonic quality for quasi-country melodies captured tellingly on “Shooting Star” with its tough blues-based main solo and contrasting melodic approach in the outro. He occasionally exploited diatonic scalar sounds, especially on acoustic guitar (“Crazy Circles”) or in more-colorful electric moments such as the coda entrance of “Bad Company.” His licks were enlivened with soulful string bends, slow/wide vibrato, with varied attacks and dynamics occasionally colored with choppy phrasing and pinch harmonics (“Oh, Atlanta”). Ralphs regularly harmonized guitar melodies to create orchestrations, sometimes recorded live in the studio with Rodgers as in “Can’t Get Enough.” “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “Run With the Pack,” “Silver, Blue & Gold” and “Rhythm Machine” also conveyed this sound, furthering British antecedents begun with the Beatles (“And Your Bird Can Sing,” “Come Together”) and continued by Wishbone Ash, et al. Like Keith Richards, he had a penchant for open tunings and the chordal simplicity they afforded, and often conceived parts in alternate tunings; he devised a unique high-strung Open C tuning (low to high C-C-G-C-E-C with “bass strings in unison”) for “Can’t Get Enough” and “Movin’ On,” which he also employed for slide in addition to standard Open G. His style also included slide soloing in a metal context (“Gone, Gone, Gone”) and pedal-steel country mannerisms as in the Open A-tuned “Take the Time.” As rhythm guitarist, he provided metallic power chords, mutated boogie comping (“Movin’ On”), simple dyad and triad figures (“Can’t Get Enough”), single-note theme riffs (“Deal With the Preacher,” “Live for the Music”), folk-flavored acoustic (“Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “Shooting Star,” “Seagull”) and lighter arpeggiated textures (“Bad Company,” “Deal With the Preacher,” “Silver, Blue & Gold”), the latter often delivered with a clean, processed tone.

Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy is a serviceable introduction to Bad Company music. Also recommended are The Swan Song Years compilation and Holy Water.

The classic Bad Company lineup is captured in several songs from a ’74 TV show and “Best Songs in Two Concerts.” Worth the search are a performance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and several video interviews with Ralphs.

Ralphs’ first pro guitar was a Burns with Tri-Sonic pickups, soon upgraded to a ’66 Telecaster. While working with Jimmy Cliff in ’69 he acquired a ’61 Gibson SG/Les Paul with sideways vibrola. He played it on Mott’s debut album before replacing it with a modified ’54 Les Paul with stop tailpiece and P-90 pickups on Mad Shadows. Inspired by Leslie West, he also played a ’57 Les Paul Junior, then later favored Fenders including a refinished ’58 Strat and white ’52 Esquire modded with a Gibson humbucker and heard in “Take the Time” and for C-tuned songs in mid-’70s concerts. He used the Junior and Esquire for lead and rhythm respectively on Bad Company. In ’74, he began favoring a Les Paul Standard, Strats by the late ’70s, eventually using five onstage – two in C tuning, two in standard tuning, and one in open G. All had removed whammy bars, blocked bridges, and selector switches that accessed in-between positions. By ’79, his collection included ’58 and ’59 Les Paul Standards, a ’58 Flying V, blond ’59 ES-335, a Firebird I, and a humbucker-equipped L-5S.

Two riffs are better than one – an adage evident in the intro of “Deal With the Preacher.” This Bad Company excerpt alludes to two key traditions in rock – the catchy Stones/Who pedal-point riff and the late-’60s blues-rock single-note line that became a fixture after the appearance of Cream and Hendrix. The first is depicted with simple D7-G dyads, an open-string affair with characteristic drone quality in bars 1-4. Note the Richards-inspired bent double-stop in 4. The second is exemplified by the contrasting tight riff in 5-8 that combines a John Lee Hooker boogie move on a D5 chord with a funky R&B theme over C5 and G5, appropriately palm-muted and laced with chromaticism.

He also had a Jazzmaster, Telecaster bass, Tele with maple board, Tele with Strat neck (once owned by Clapton), Travis Bean, Greco doubleneck, Ibanez Artist, Danaelectro electric sitar, Silvertone amp-in-case, and red National with aluminum neck. His main acoustics were a Martin D-76 Bicentennial and a ’30s Gibson parlor, and played Kirke’s Ramirez classical for the “Crazy Circles” solo.

He later preferred Custom Shop Les Pauls including a chambered Tom Murphy. He used a .010-.052 Ernie Ball set on most guitars and .009-.042 on open-tuned guitars. He preferred a Herco gold medium pick and attacked with the round end. For slide, he wore a 3″ glass bottleneck on the ring finger.

In the mid ’60s, Ralphs relied on a pair of Vox AC30 amps, but by ’69 upgraded to Marshall 100-watt stacks with Mott. In Bad Company, he used two Marshall stacks driving two 4×12 straight cabs but sometimes alternated with an Ampeg V4 stack in concert (’74). He set the amp’s controls to emphasize bass frequencies.

In the studio, he experimented with a Mesa/Boogie for high-gain solos on Desolation Angels and plugged his Les Paul into a Fender Bassman feeding a Marshall cabinet on “Holy Water.”

Ralphs’ classic sound onstage typically came from a Strat plugged into a Roland Boss Chorus (or earlier, an MXR Phase 90 or 100 set a slow speed) and Echoplex with only an occasional use of a wah (“Movin’ On”). In the studio, he harnessed a Morley for the Leslie heard effect on “Bad Company.”

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

This article originally appeared in VG’s September 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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