March 3, 2012 – Ronnie Montrose. There are credible sources that claim he was born November 29, 1947 in Denver, Colorado, and others say he was born in San Francisco, California. No confusion is there about his early childhood in Colorado.
In his own words Montrose was born in San Francisco, California. When he was a toddler, his parents moved back to his mother’s home state of Colorado (his father was from Bertrand, Nebraska, and his mother was from Golden, Colorado). He spent most of his younger years in Denver, Colorado until he ran away at about 16 years old to pursue a musical career. He ultimately spent most of his life in the San Francisco Bay area, where he became an influential, highly-rated player whose crunchy riffs, fluid licks and mesmerising solos lit up FM radio during the 1970s.
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.”
He clearly acknowledged the influence 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 the guitar, he attempted to emulate players 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. Only 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. Montrose’s work with Edgar Winter however gave him the freedom to express himself both musically and on stage. Soon, Montrose had gained some notoriety for being a wild rock guitarist. In the summer of 1973, he decided it was time for him to move on to his own career as a bandleader and left Edgar Winter. He recruited a young, unknown singer named Sammy Hagar, along with drummer Denny Carmassi and bassist Bill Church. The foursome formed the band Montrose and signed a record deal with Warner Bros.
Montrose became a hard-rocking quartet recording 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.)
Ostensibly modeled on the high-energy rock of Led Zeppelin, Montrose looked set for superstardom. In May 1974 the group appeared on The 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 the Doobie 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.”
Vocalist Bob James replaced Hagar, and Montrose released two more albums – Warner Bros. Presents Montrose and Jump On It. The band had also added keyboardist Jim Alcivar to the line-up. However, the latter two albums never matched the success of the first two. Rolling Stone reviewer Andy McKaie described Warner Bros. Presents Montrose as “slick and spiritless” and “utterly pedestrian.” He wrote, “For a band that started with so much promise, this is a sad situation.”
Ronnie Montrose dissolved the Montrose band in 1976 and began experimenting with his own music. In 1978, he emerged with his first solo album, Open Fire, produced by Edgar Winter. The album included a reworking of Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity,” which would later change the guitarist’s direction once again. According to Jon Sievert in Guitar Player, “The all-instrumental album disappointed, even angered, hardcore Montrose metal fans.”
In response to criticism about Open Fire’s lack of marketability, Montrose formed another hard rock band called Gamma in the fall of 1979. This time, he recruited singer Davey Pattison, bassist Alan Fitzgerald, drummer Skip Gillette, and keyboardist Jim Alcivar. The group signed a record contract with Elektra records. They released three albums–Gamma 1, Gamma 2, and Gamma 3–over the next three years.
By 1981, Gamma had replaced Jim Alcivar with Mitchell Froom on keyboards. At the Bay Area Music Awards, Montrose and Froom played a critically acclaimed version of “Town Without Pity.” The performance laid the groundwork for Montrose’s next project as a duo with Froom. Gamma disbanded the following year, when Montrose felt the group was falling into the same rut as the Montrose band had.
In 1983, Montrose and Froom played a club tour showcasing their new music, an all-instrumental hard rock style combined with jazz and progressive rock. He also performed a piece written for electric guitar and orchestra with the Berkeley Symphony. The orchestra had previously performed one of Ronnie Montrose’s own songs called “My Little Mystery.” During the same year, he contributed to Paul Kantner’s solo album Planet Earth Rock & Roll Orchestra.
In 1985 he joined Seattle’s Rail (winners of MTV’s first Basement Tapes video competition) for several months. He was looking for a new band and one of Rail’s guitarists, Rick Knotts, had recently left. Billed as ‘Rail featuring Montrose’ or ‘Ronnie & Rail’, they played a set of half Rail favorites and half Montrose songs (“Rock Candy”, “Rock the Nation”, “Matriarch”, and Gamma’s remake of Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”). At the end of the tour, there was an amicable split.
Montrose continued to combine different styles of music on his next solo album Territory, released in 1986. One reviewer wrote in Down Beat, “Ronnie Montrose offers a varied menu on Territory. From pop to disco to grinding rock and fusion to New Age, it’s an ambitious undertaking.”
A year later, Ronnie Montrose resurrected the Montrose band name with singer Johnny Edwards, bassis Glenn Letsch, and drummer James Kottak. The new group only released one album on Enigma Records called Mean. By 1988, Ronnie Montrose had returned to his solo career with the album The Speed of Sound. “This all-instrumental effort tends to focus more on his crunching, power side coupled with ethereal lyricism,” wrote Jon Sievert in Guitar Player.
Two years later, Montrose rejoined with singer Davey Pattison for a few songs on his The Diva Station album. Then after another two-year break, Montrose released Mutatis Mutandis on I.R.S. Records. “Ronnie Montrose is back as the thinking blue-collar man’s guitar hero,” Robin Tolleson wrote in his Down Beat review, “playing with authority and – on tracks like “Heavy Agenda” and “Velox” – with a lot of soul.” During the same year, Montrose contributed to guitarist Marc Bonilla’s album EE Ticket.
In 1994, Montrose released Music From Here on Fearless Urge Records. The album featured his future wife, Michele Graybeal, on drums and percussion. He also continued to play on recordings for other artists. In 1995, he performed on four songs for Anti-M’s Positively Negative album.
The following year, Montrose entered another world of music endeavors with a soundtrack for the Sega Genesis video game Mr. Bones. The game featured a wandering blues guitarist, and Montrose contributed all of the background music for the game. “It’s the first time a soundtrack CD is selling one-for-one with the game itself,” Montrose told Gregory Isola in Guitar Player. “Last summer was the first in years that I didn’t have to spend pounding the pavement and playing clubs to pay the rent.”
After recording Mr. Bones, Montrose moved to Southern California. His fiancee, Michele Graybeal (whom he married in November of 1997), had a job working for Warner Bros. Animation, and Montrose decided it was time for a change of location. In early 1997, Montrose regrouped with the original members of the Montrose band–Sammy Hagar, Denny Carmassi, and Bill Church–for the song “Leaving the Warmth of the Womb” on Hagar’s Marching to Mars album.
Montrose recalled his experience with his former bandmates in an interview with John “Wedge” Wardlaw. “It was only after getting together with the four of us in the studio, hanging out and jamming with each other for the first time in about 20 years, that I rediscovered and realized how awesome a trio that was,” said Montrose.
“Obviously, if I had cared about making a tremendous amount of money, I would have stuck with the first Montrose album,” Montrose told Jon Sievert in Guitar Player. After decades of staying true to his musical muse, Montrose planned to spend the rest of his career pursuing work on soundtracks, contributing to the work of other artists, and following his own solo style of music in whatever direction it would take him.
The original Montrose lineup also reformed to play as a special guest at several Sammy Hagar concerts in summer 2004 and 2005 and Montrose also performed regularly from 2001 until 2011 with a Montrose lineup featuring Keith St. John on lead vocals and a rotating cast of veteran hard rock players on bass and drums. In 2011, Montrose formed the ‘Ronnie Montrose Band’ with Randy Scoles on vocals, Dan McNay on bass, and Steve Brown on drums, playing music from his entire career, including both Montrose and Gamma songs. This lineup was captured in his final released work, the concert DVD Ronnie Montrose: Live at the Uptown.
During his 2009 tour, Montrose revealed that he had fought prostate cancer for the previous two years but was healthy once again; he continued to tour until his death.
On 3 March 2012, Ronnie Montrose died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His death was originally assumed to be the result of his prostate cancer returning. However, the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office released a report which confirmed the guitarist had taken his own life.
The toxicology reported a blood alcohol content of 0.31 percent at the time of death. In early 2012, the deaths of his uncle and of Lola (his beloved bulldog, whose companionship helped him cope with his cancer recovery) apparently worsened what Guitar Player magazine described as “the clinical depression that plagued him since he was a toddler.”
He did session work with a variety of musicians, including Van Morrison (1971–72), Herbie Hancock (1971), Beaver & Krause (1971), Boz Scaggs (1971), Edgar Winter (1972 & 1996), Gary Wright (1975), The Beau Brummels (1975), Dan Hartman (1976), Tony Williams (1978), The Neville Brothers (1987), Marc Bonilla (1991 & 1993), Sammy Hagar (1997), Paul Kantner (1983) and Johnny Winter. The first Montrose album was often cited as “America’s answer to Led Zeppelin” and Ronnie Montrose was often referred to as one of the most influential guitarists in American hard rock.