Ronnie Montrose: Hard-rocking and influential guitarist


Pierre Perrone
Tuesday 13 March 2012 01:00

The American rock guitarist Ronnie Montrose was an influential, highly-rated player whose crunchy riffs, fluid licks and mesmerising solos lit up FM radio during the 1970s. Briefly a member of the Edgar Winter Group, he appeared on They Only Come Out At Night, the 1972 album which contained the barnstorming, chart-topping instrumental "Frankenstein" and the equally infectious "Free Ride", two tracks that have become staples of classic rock stations and the video game Rock Band 3.

The following year, the guitarist formed Montrose, a hard-rocking quartet who signed to Warner Brothers and recorded two albums that have cast a long shadow over the heavy metal genre. Their self-titled debut in particular inspired Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe and Guns N' Roses, and provided repertoire for Iron Maiden, who covered "Space Station #5", and Van Halen, who used to play "Rock Candy" and "Make It Last" before they were discovered in 1977.

Heavy metal cognoscenti often argue that Montrose served as the template for the worldwide success of Van Halen, whose first six Warner Brothers albums were overseen by Ted Templeman, the producer of Montrose and its 1974 follow-up Paper Money. When David Lee Roth left Van Halen in 1985 he was replaced by Sammy Hagar, the former Montrose lead singer.

Born in San Francisco in 1947, Montrose grew up in Denver, Colorado. His father had been a jazz drummer and expected one of his three sons to follow in his footsteps, but the young Ronnie had other ideas. "I picked up a friend's guitar when I was 17," he said. "I didn't find it. It found me ... I could see on the fretboard where these notes were and what I was doing with them and how things went together."

The guitarist acknowledged theinfluence his hi-fi buff father had on his musical tastes. "He always had big band music around, the great singers, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. I was also exposed to Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan and Thelonious Monk. I had melody thrown at me from an early age, and I didn't realise until later how deeply it had really instilled itself in me. It gave me a sensibility for melody," he explained when asked about his distinctive tone and lyrical style.

In thrall to the British Invasion which coincided with his discovery of theguitar, he attempted to emulateplayers like Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix and joined a beat group called the Grim Reapers. In 1968 hereturned to San Francisco, the then counter-cultural world capital. He was introduced to the concert promoter Bill Graham when he helped redecorate his office in 1970; Graham and the producer David Rubinson signed Sawbuck, the band Montrose had started with the bassist Bill Church, but such was his prowess on the guitar that they recommended him for session work with Herbie Hancock.

The next year Montrose auditioned for Van Morrison, who had relocated to the Bay Area. He played acoustic and electric guitar as well as mandolin on the seminal Tupelo Honey, setting the album's mood beautifully with his contribution to "Wild Night", the opener. Montrose also featured on "Listen To The Lion", the lengthiest track on the next Morrison album, Saint Dominic's Preview, but by the time of its release in summer 1972 he had toured with Boz Scaggs for three months and joined the Edgar Winter Group.

In 1973, he and Church formed Montrose, with the drummer DennyCarmassi and the ambitious Hagar as vocalist. Ostensibly modelled on the high-energy rock of Led Zeppelin,Montrose looked set for superstardom. In May 1974 the group appeared onThe Old Grey Whistle Test and delivered a scorching performance of "Bad Motor Scooter".

The following January they returned to Europe on the Warner Bros Music Show package tour alongside theDoobie Brothers, Little Feat, Graham Central Station, Tower Of Power and Bonaroo. This included a memorable show at the Rainbow Theatre in London, but they felt their label wasn't totally supportive.

"We were like the Warner Brothers token, house, heavy rock band. We'd get to places and play, and people would go nuts, but we didn't have any indication that that was happening through the record company," remarked the guitarist, who was also frustrated by what he perceived as Hagar's limitations as a vocalist. "I did fire him from the Montrose band for some of the same reasons that I left the Edgar Winter Group. He was on to his own thing."

The guitarist assembled a newline-up that lasted a couple more years and albums. In 1979, he moved on to Gamma, an AOR quintet whose most creatively successful incarnation – the one that recorded the US Top 40 single "Right The First Time" in 1981 – included the keyboard-player and producer Mitchell Froom, another talent discovered by Montrose. "I wanted tohave guitar and synth playing together," he said.

In 1997, the original line-up of Montrose reunited to contribute "Leaving The Warmth Of The Womb" to Hagar's album Marching to Mars. They also guested on Hagar's 2004 and 2005 solo tours. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007, the guitarist stopped performing but returned to live work a couple of years later, his playing as fiery as ever.

Ronnie Montrose, guitarist, songwriter, producer: born San Francisco, 29 November 1947; twice married (one daughter, one son); died Millbrae, California 3 March 2012.

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