If you are old enough to remember Johnny Carson’s ‘Carnac the Magnificent’, you can skip the explanation. Carson, decked out with his cape and oversized headgear as Carnac, would hold a sealed envelope to his forehead and predict the answer to the question posed on a slip of paper inside. For example, Carnac would say, “The one hundred yard dash,” to which his sidekick Ed McMahon would echo, “The one hundred yard dash” (visibly annoying Carnac). The Magnificent one would then tear off the end of the envelope, blow into it (always part of the schtick), and pull out a slip of paper with the question he has already answered. Not to leave you in suspense, but the question in this case was, “What comes after the 100 yard prune?”
For our purposes here, my Carnac like answer in the title above (rip open the envelope and blow in the end, please) is, “Have you ever heard Ronnie Montrose play the guitar?” Montrose is a musician who is often cited as an influence by other guitar players, but his name does not carry the same public recognition as some like Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page, or (insert your favorite guitarist’s name here). As the list of artists Montrose recorded and toured with attests, there is little chance you have not heard him play (unless you shut off your radio from 1970 on). Montrose is described as a guitar player’s player, a visionary, a pioneer, and one of the most important guitarists in early hard rock; he just did not become a household name like many of the players he influenced did. A decade after his death, he is still revered in guitar circles.
Sadly, Montrose took his own life on March 3, 2012 at age 64. When his death was announced, many assumed it was due to his prolonged battle with prostate cancer. It was later revealed that a combination of his bout with cancer and a series of personal losses triggered a fatal cascade of the symptoms of the “clinical depression he had been plagued with since he was a toddler” (as reported by Guitar Player magazine). We last discussed Ronnie Montrose in this space in 2017 (FTV: Montrose, 8-9-17 to be precise). When Classic Rock magazine celebrated their 300th issue in the summer of 2022, they sent along a companion Exclusive Edition called The Very Best of Classic Rock featuring thirteen past interviews. The piece about Montrose (The Search for Ronnie Montrose by Jaan Uhelszki) had appeared in issue #170 which tragically went to press just days before he died. While we already knew he had a complicated personality, it was nice to find Uhelszki’s deep profile filling in the gaps that most casual Montrose fans (like myself) may not have known.
One of the lasting impressions of Ronnie Montrose has been along the lines of, “He was difficult to work with.” Interviews with his former band members seem to dispel this notion. As one of his oldest friends, bass player Bill Church, recalled, “We got along great, are you kidding [about the ‘hard to work with’ label]? On the personal side of things, he and I were a lot alike, We became great fishing buddies. We would bring our acoustic guitars and go up to Eagle Lake, places like that to fish. But Ronnie and Mojo Collins – the so-called star of Sawbuck, their songwriter and lead singer – they hated each other. So that was friction. That was the start of that pattern.” So insight number one: from his earliest band (Sawbuck) onward, Montrose developed a lifelong habit of not getting along with singers.
Though he was born in San Francisco, his family relocated to Denver, Colorado when he was two. Montrose did not pick up a guitar until he was 17 and as a self-taught player, it took a while for him to gain skilled and confidence in his playing. The Bay area drew him back and, at the age of 20, Ronnie landed there during the Summer of Love. Call it luck, or an inborn musicological ESP, or a form of built in GPS, Montrose had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He rented an apartment in an old Victorian house called Thin Blue. Thin Blue turned out to be an epicenter of San Fran’s music scene. Not only was Ronnie’s first band Sawbuck housed there, but it was frequented by other bands. Buddy Miles brought Jimi Hendrix around to Thin Blue the night the Band Of Gypsies played the Fillmore.
If not luck, it certainly was serendipity at work when Montrose happened to be doing carpentry work for the fabled rock impresario Bill Graham to maks ends meet. He was building a partition between Graham’s and producer David Rubinson’s offices. While he was working there, Ronnie learned Van Morrison was auditioning guitar players. Montrose recalled, “I didn’t have total confidence in my guitar playing then. Not at all. But I went to audition. How could I not? This was Van Morrison. Gloria Van Morrison. Them, Van Morrison. There were probably 10 guitar players out there and they all had their little amps and their guitars and they were sitting in chairs out in front of the Lion’s Share where the audience would sit. He called us up one at a time. It was the weirdest thing but even before he called me I knew I had the job. Because I knew I belonged there, and it was like this supernatural thing. From the minute he asked me where I was from and I said ‘Denver, Colorado’, I knew I had the job.”
It might have been his playing or just his geographic background at play here. Morrison called J.Geils Band singer Peter Wolf shortly after and told him, “Wolf, I got myself a cowboy.” Turns out Van had a thing about the west and cowboys (who knew?). Montrose got the gig as soon as Morrison found out his roots were in Colorado, but it worked out okay. That is, until the ‘friction with the lead singer’ thing set in again.
Everything came to a head one night during a performance at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. Church recalled he and Montrose decided to step out to the front of the stage instead of hanging in the back and one did not do that in Morrison’s band. Van let Church off the hook as he was on painkillers due to an eye injury, but not Ronnie. Back on the bus, Morrison famously told his guitar player, “Ronnie, one of us has to get off the bus,” and he certainly wasn’t volunteering to leave his own band. There was also a rumor that Morrison’s wife, Janet Planet, had taken a shine to Ronnie, so that certainly didn’t help matters. On the plus side, Ted Templeman, the producer for Morrison’s Tupelo Honey album, told Montrose to give him a call if he wanted to do something on his own – an offer that Ronnie tucked away for the future.
Montrose landed on his feet when Bill Graham hooked him up with the Edgar Winter Group. Ronnie joined up with Winter’s band just in time to record his breakthrough LP They Only Come Out At Night. Ronnie’s guitar work on the massively successful hit singles from the same album, Frankenstein and Free Ride, helped send them bounding up the record charts. Much of the fabled ‘Montrose sound’ can be heard coming out in his work with The Edgar Winter Group: “He [Edgar] so much wanted to do that whole rock thing that he encouraged me,” Montrose confessed. “It was the most exponential jump I made [in my playing], and I had to do it. I don’t want to call it a struggle. It was a sense of need, that I needed to survive this gauntlet that had been dropped. For me it literally was sink or swim – I was in the Edgar Winter Group and I had better start delivering this heavy guitar music.” A shout out from the audience at a gig in Pittsburgh (“Play some vibrato, man!”) was another watershed moment – it had not occurred to Ronnie to employ the technique before this random comment was made. From that point on it was added to his ‘sound’ and is still noted as one of his strongest guitar tricks.
Montrose had ambitions beyond being a sideman in Winter’s jazz-funk-fusion band and soon he could see it was time to move on. As Ronnie recalled, “Edgar used to say to me: ‘Ronnie, I’m just trying to do my thing and then you always take me somewhere else.” Church remembers how the lead singer friction thing arose in the EWG: “I used to fly out to see Ronnie and [drummer] Chuck Ruff, who was my oldest friend. They were both in Edgar’s band. I didn’t know really at first what he was up to, but he was plotting leaving Edgar’s band because, of course, he and Edgar hated each other.” How could Church tell there were problems? “I’ll never forget how he pried open his gold record for They Only Come Out At Night and took a little Exacto knife and cut out the little picture of Edgar’s face – you know, they put a little album picture on the gold record – and then hung it on the wall that way.” When Montrose finally told Church he was leaving, Bill asked, “You have the biggest album in the world and you’re leaving? Are you nuts?” Montrose replied, “Yep, and if I’ve got the guts to do that, then you have the guts to leave Van” (Morrison, who Church was still playing with). Montrose left another lead singer in his wake but managed to secure Church as the bass player in his next project (although he did put Bill through the ringer before giving him the gig).
Being back on the west coast paid immediate dividends for the next project which would simply be called Montrose. Reconnecting with Templeman, Ted suggested he hook up with Sammy Hagar who was working with an R&B band at the Fillmore. The two seemed to connect in the writing department though Ronnie would not let Hagar play guitar on stage. They brought Church into the band, but oddly, Montrose made him sit through dozens of auditions of other bass players before offering him the gig. Hagar lobbied heavily for Bill as he was a ‘friend and known quantity’ but Ronnie still left him hanging before solidifying the line up along with drummer Denny Carmassi. Their debut album (Montrose – 1973) featured perennial classic rock favorites like Rock the Nation, Bad Motor Scooter, Space Station #5, Good Rockin’ Tonight, and Rock Candy. Even though he was uncerimmonally tossed from the band in 1975, Hagar continues to perform Bad Motor Scooter and Rock Candy in his live shows to this day.
Hagar bears no malice toward Montrose but he is still perplexed why they didn’t become the next Led Zeppelin. Recalling the ordeal bassist Church was put through, Hagar says, “Nobody even asked why, because Ronnie was becoming quiet. We all feared him because we knew he was wacky and we didn’t know who would be next, and nobody wanted to get fired because that was our meal ticket, number one. Number two, we all believed in the band.” Sammy looks back today and sees Montrose as being his proving ground: “The biggest lessons I learned was how to perform. I learned how to go out on tour, I learned how to make a record. I learned how to write songs, and I learned how to deal with a major producer like Ted Templeman. We had Dee Anthony, one of the biggest managers, so I learned from him. I learned everything but I really learned a lot about playing guitar from Ronnie. He was my first real guitar teacher because he didn’t allow me to play guitar in the band so I just watched him every night, And I’d go back to my room and I had my little Les Paul in there. I learned how to play heavy metal guitar from Ronnie Montrose.”
The ‘guitarist hates singer’ thing did not escape Hagar. Ronnie started to come undone at the seams when Sammy began attracting attention. At one point, their manager told Hagar, “Young man, you’re going to be a star,” in front of Montrose. Small things became big things and all of a sudden, Ronnie is telling Sammy “Don’t run around on stage so much. Don’t come to my side of the stage.” After a gig in Belgium where a local magazine had heaped praise on Sammy, they headed to the next two night stand at the Olympia Theatre in Paris. Hagar had contracted food poisoning from some bad mussels in Belgium and was in the backseat sick as a dog. Ronnie took that moment to lean over the front seat and tell him, “After tonight, I’m quitting the band. What are you gonna do?” Hagar’s response cut through the tension that surrounded Ronnie’s announcement: “After I finish puking I’m gonna go start a new band. What the (expletive deleted) you think I’m gonna do?”
Caramassi now sees the direction both musicians would end up following: “I think Sam would have loved to have stayed with that band, He talks about it to me all the time. We could have been huge, as big as Aerosmith, but it was Ronnie. Just look at his career. Look at what he has done. I mean, look how many bands he’s had. And each one ends up the same, He’s got a history of doing that. There’s a pattern there. You know something else? Ronnie is brilliant, man. I’ve played with a lot of guitar players, a lot of guys with big reputations, and Ronnie is as good as anybody I’ve ever played with. In a lot of respects, better. He’s just got it. I played with Covedale – Page and Ronnie was right up there with Page, He doesn’t take a back seat to anybody.”
According to Hagar, breaking up Montrose did him a favor: “It threw me out on my own and made me do what I’ve done. I could still be in that band. We could be Aerosmith right now. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, just that we’d be unhappy, I’d be an alcoholic, would have been in rehab with drugs over and over again, probably. And probably wouldn’t be as rich and famous as I am.” Hagar might be talking a little tongue-in-cheek here, but the others who went through various incarnations of Montrose all agree – it was Ronnie who undid it all. They still joke that, “After Ronnie fired everyone from the band – he fired himself.” Church says, “You are probably wondering why I suffered all that? Because at that time Ronnie was the best guitar player in San Francisco. And that was good enough for me. Still is.”
When Jaan Uhelszki finally tracked Montrose down for what would prove to be his last interview, she was surprised how negatively he talked about the first Montrose album. She knew it would be a difficult session when Ronnie told her, “As I was driving in I thought: ‘I have two stories; I have my life story and my music story.’ My life story is something that is so off-the-wall that I can’t share. But my music story is something I thought might be really interesting, to hear everything that happened to me and from my earliest years, which is not something I want to give up,” Hagar had warned her that Montrose would be a hard nut to crack and Ronnie summed it all up, saying, “My story is the real story. My name is Ronnie Montrose. The band is called Montrose, and all these other guys that were in this band are peripherals to the real true story.” One wonders if his middle name should have been ‘Ego’.
With Montrose the man and the band both deceased, we may never know why he always talked smack about the music on the first album or why he blew up a great band. Go back and listen to Tupelo Honey, The Only Come Out At Night, and Montrose. These albums are the template of the heavy metal rock albums that would follow. It is a shame that Ronnie couldn’t see for himself the legacy he created. RIP Ronnie, you are gone but your music lives on.
Top Piece Video: The classic Sammy Hagar fronted Montrose from 1974 with BAD MOTOR SCOOTER