‘Not only a mentor, but a friend': Former collaborators remember late guitar hero Ronnie Montrose

Ronnie Montrose would have been 65 on November 29, 2012, and former musical collaborators like Marc Bonilla say this first birthday without him is going to be particularly hard.

“With Ronnie, I owe so much to him — not only as a mentor, but as a friend,” Bonilla tells us.

Montrose, who had been battling cancer for years, took his own life at age 64 in March — not long before a planned reunion of the original lineup of his legendary self-titled band.

Whatever the circumstances of his death, Montrose is being remembered this week for the sweeping influence he had on those around him. As an elder statesman of rock, he thought younger players how to construct their careers, and how to conduct themselves, even as he remained utterly unique.

“He’d always been a mentor to me, in so many different ways,” says Bonilla, now a main collaborator with Keith Emerson and Danny Seraphine, of Chicago fame. “As a player, he was one of those guys who was so deliberate in his playing. He always started low on the guitar; he was not afraid of the bottom three strings. Most guitar players go right from the top. He started low, and he seduced you with his playing. It was deliberate, it was patient, and it was just what needed to be played.”

A high-water mark for Bonilla came in 1993, when Montrose sat in on a pressure-filled remake of the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus,” from Bonilla’s solo project American Matador.

“Of course, tackling a Beatles song is a touchy thing to begin with,” Bonilla tells us, “because people love the song. You damn well better do a good version of it, if you are going to garner any kind of respect for it. I really sat down and thought about how I wanted to proceed. It’s very Monstrose-ian in its approach, if you listen to the melodies and all of that. So I said, I have to have him playing on it. He came in, and brought in that wonderful slide that he does — just a little bit out of control. That’s what I love about his slide playing.”

Montrose, who was born in San Francisco in 1947, initially rose to fame in 1971 as sideman with Van Morrison. He also was a member of the Edgar Winter Group, before forming the band Montrose with future Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar in 1973. Montrose would issue five albums through 1987, while Ronnie Montrose released eight projects under his own name — along with four as part of the experimental rock group Gamma.

Over the years, Montrose’s albums and tours featured a well spring of talent, including the then-unknown Hagar, Aynsley Dunbar, Glenn Letsch, Mitchell Froom and the drummer Steve Smith — who gave up an early career in jazz to play rock music after touring with Montrose behind his all-instrumental 1978 album Open Fire. Members of Journey discovered Smith on that tour.

“The gig with Ronnie wasn’t a straight rock gig,” Smith told us. “It was instrumental rock in a similar direction to Jeff Beck: Instrumental, virtuosic rock. It was the perfect gig for me, and the way I see it in retrospect, the perfect bridge that prepared me for the type of drumming that I developed playing with Journey. Ronnie told me to ‘go nuts,’ meaning play my ass off and really fill up the space in the music.”

The rest, quite obviously, is history — as Smith joined Journey on the eve of that group’s rocket ride to 1980s’ multi-platinum stardom. Montrose had a similar impact on a young Bonilla, long before their “I Am the Walrus” collaboration. The pair lived within a few miles of one another in California in the 1990s, and Montrose produced Bonilla’s high school band Rock Island.

“We grew to be fast friends then,” Bonilla says. “I’ll never forget, he told me: ‘You know, I don’t ever want you to be lost by the wayside. I think you have way too much to offer — so what do we do?’ I said: ‘I’ll do anything you want me to.’ And he goes: ‘I want you to let me take you into the studio, on my nickel, and we’ll produce a guitar instrumental record.’ So I went home and wrote my ass off.”

Montrose’s deep involvement helped propel Bonilla’s resulting 1991 solo effort EE Ticket. Later, Montrose, Bonilla, Emerson and Glenn Hughes appeared in an early version of Boys Club in the late 1990s. “It was just a great time for us all,” Bonilla says. “We were really in the height of our expression at that point.”

Besides his own albums, Montrose also contributed to a number of other memorable releases over the years, including: Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, the Edgar Winter Group’s They Only Come Out at Night, the Neville Brothers’ Uptown, Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi and Gary Wright’s The Dream Weaver, as well as other dates with Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, Nicolette Larson and Boz Scaggs.

“Ronnie’s sound was huge and his time was settled and consistent,” says Smith, who has since returned to jazz after two stints with Journey through the mid-1990s. “I thought he played melodies with a lot of soul and feeling. I really learned a lot from Ronnie about constructing a strong set and presenting instrumental music in a way that communicated to a large audience. We had a ball playing together. In some songs, we played guitar and drum duets that stretched on and on. Off-stage, he was fun and relaxed — but he was also a serious guy who was into psychology and philosophy.”

The Montrose band’s self-titled ’73 debut, underrated at the time, has since become a touchstone recording in rock — serving as a reference point, for instance, in the 1970s work of Van Halen. Hagar was then part of a second edition of Van Halen, beginning in 1985.

Montrose’s original lineup last reformed in 2004-05, appearing as a special guest at a series of Hagar concerts. Ronnie Montrose’s most recent studio albums were 1999’s solo effort Bearings and Gamma’s 2000 album Gamma 4. More recently, Montrose spent five years in an attempt to fight off prostate cancer.

After a lengthy investigation, the San Mateo County coroner’s office eventually concluded that Montrose died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and that his blood-alcohol level was more than four times over the legal limit.

In some ways, the confirmation that Montrose had shot himself may not have been a complete surprise. His family’s statement, issued in the wake of his March 3, 2012, passing, actually made a veiled reference to suicide, saying: “He’d battled cancer, and staved off old age for long enough. And true to form, he chose his own exit the way he chose his own life.”

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.