A Close Shave With Mick Ronson
by Tony Horkins
When Mick Ronson was at school he had a casual interest in guitar and piano playing. He was given lessons on the piano but kept on having to change teachers as he was moving house a lot. Because of this his interest in music was very on and off. He also liked to play the recorder and the violin too.
'I hated playing the violin. I didn't really want to play it. I wanted to play cello. But to do that I was told I'd have to play the violin for three years first, so I packed it in and started playing guitar.'
The guitar in question was a 'Rosetti '57' and, to quote, impossible to learn on. But with a gap wide enough between strings and fretboard to put in another neck, Mick first learnt his stuff.
'In those days if I broke a string, that was it! I remember I used to have this one pick which I had for about five years and I lost it and nearly went out of my mind.'
I wondered what Mick actually did when he was first faced with a guitar. How did he go about trying to play it.
'The first think I ever played on the guitar was a Duane Eddy number 'Shazam.' I was playing around with melodies, single notes. I kind of developed from there. I never used books because I was too lazy.'
Although he can read piano music, he still can't read guitar music and maintains that it was easy to adapt from playing the piano to playing the guitar.
'I can pick up a lot of instruments and learn how to play them. I can't play any of them very well, but I can usually play something on anything.'
As for trying to copy other people's styles, he says he was too lazy to try it, and still is.
'I tried it at first because I was really impressed by people who could sit down and copy other people's styles. I thought I'd try so I'd get home, sit down with my guitar and try to do it. I tried it about twice then said 'forget it!''
His laziness stretches to the fact that he doesn't even practice at all. In fact, he never did.
'I don't see any reason for practicing. I can only play if I'm playing with somebody else. I can't sit at home and just play for myself. I can't see the point, but I can see the point of playing with someone else and making music.'
Through his career Mick has played with a wide and varied amount of people, including David Bowie and Bob Dylan. How did he find adapting to each band he's been in?
'Pretty easy really. It takes a little while though. When I first went back on the road with Ian it took a little while to get into the swing of it: The whole Rock 'n' Roll thing and playing solos. I'd been playing about on acoustics for a while and it took a little while to get into it. The first time I played Country music took a while too, because I didn't know what I was doing. I never even liked Country music but I love it now. Basically it's just understanding what's going down.'
Through his early years he was influenced by Jeff Beck, and more unusually, by George Harrison.
'He's great. He's probably the best guitar player around.'
Other influences lie with Pete Townsend, Roy Harper and Keith Richards. Nowadays he still likes Jeff Beck, though he doesn't listen to his records. When asked if impressed with any 'new' guitarists he answered, 'Yes, but I can't think who they are.' When prompted he says he shares Ian's interest in The Cars and The Clash but somehow doesn't say it with much conviction.
As for guitars, Mick uses mainly Strats, Telecasters and Les Pauls.
'When we first went on tour I was using the Strat on stage but I felt uncomfortable with it. Then I picked up the Les Paul and it felt really easy to play. So I use the Les Paul now. I like it because it sustains.'
As for amplification Mick uses a Music Man.
'What I like about it is it's relatively small, it's got volume, treble and bass and it's simple. I can't be bothered with all these equalizers and graphics and all that sort of stuff. I can't deal with them. To me they sound all funny. When I have to fiddle around with things I get real impatient.'
As for Mick's involvement with production work he says he first got into it when working with Bowie.
'When I was working with David, Tony Visconti used to be down at the studio, and I'd say to him, 'Can I come and watch what you're doing,' and he'd say 'Sure.' I was really impressed with what Tony did, I thought he was great. I still think he is. He's got a really good ear for sound. I thought to myself 'I could do that as well.'
'I like to do a lot of different things in music. I don't think I could just be a guitar player. I think I'd just get fed up and pack it all in. I very rarely pick up a guitar unless there's someone in the room playing. I can't just sit and play the guitar, because I get really bored with it.'
Getting back to production Mick says that if the music doesn't feel right, if that groove isn't going that makes music work, it won't sound right anyway. It doesn't matter what sort of sound's coming through.
'What's a good sound anyway? What determines what a good sound is? All that a sound is is the way that person is playing. All the rest is unimportant. I'd like somebody to say something musically first. Once the rhythm's going and everyone's tapping their feet it sounds great. It can be a shitty sound, but somehow it sounds great.'
Mick is similarly unconcerned about other aspects of his production. For example, when asked what strings he uses on his guitars, he replies with 'I don't know, I don't put them on.'
'Music isn't supposed to be hard and involved. It's supposed to be real pleasurable. You're supposed to tap your foot to it and get off to it and that's it.'
'Neither of us knew that for a long time. We used to think we had to spend three hours working on a guitar sound and a few more posing like hell. It's nice to get out of all that and get back to just playing. There's no hard work involved anymore. We're just playing for the fun of it again.'
Ronson gives an example.
'When Max (the drummer on the Schizo album) set his drums up in the studio he was comfortable with his own drums, they sounded OK and the sound was just there, so we just started playing.'
Hunter's favorite studio is the Power Station in New York, because it's not claustrophobic, the engineer's good, and it generally has an easy, relaxing atmosphere.
'The engineer is exceptional - it's a guy named Bob Clearmount. The whole studio leaves us free whether we're playing or producing.
'One important thing there is that maintenance is 24 hours. You' don't get stopped because some guy's gone fishing for the weekend. That happens a lot in England.'
Ronson hasn't really got a favourite studio, though he likes The Power Station a lot. The both say, however you can't really stick to one studio all the time.
Having played with many influential musos in his past, I wondered if Ronson had any ambitions yet to fill.
'When you're younger you go to bed dreaming of this and that, playing with this person or that person. But now it just seems to happen because we know a lot of people. We hang around and play with a lot of people anyway. Not just on records. We play in houses and hotel rooms. People stop by and bring their guitars around.'
It is this attitude that explains the ever-present camaraderie between musicians. No so much a snobbery, more just sticking around with people that you can share and appreciate something with.
Mick Ronson is a fine guitar player who has substituted technique for feel, and who hits the right notes every time. His lazy attitude towards the business explains his lazy, yet soulful, technique on the guitar. And his continual quest to try different things will surely make him not only a jack of all trades, but a master of many.