Originally published in Guitar World, Holiday 2010
Newly clean and sober, Rolling Stone Ron Wood teams up with Slash, Billy Gibbons and an all-star cast of old and new friends for I Feel Like Playing, his hot new solo album.
For 35 years now, Ronnie Wood’s schedule—and much of his existence, really—has been set, changed and rearranged by two people far more famous and powerful than he. So it came as little surprise on a recent autumn morning in New York City when Wood’s publicist called to inform Guitar World that his interview to discuss his new album, I Feel Like Playing, would have to be postponed after two gentlemen had requested his presence at lunch during our appointed hour.
What was surprising, however, was the identity of the dynamic duo—not his bandmates Mick Jagger and Keith Richards but rather President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton. The two world shakers were in town for the annual U.N. General Assembly meetings, and somehow they ended up hanging out with one of the bad boys of rock and roll.
“We had a lovely time,” Wood says a few days afterward, when our interview takes place. His voice is gruff—chalk it up to lack of sleep and 40 years of cigarettes—but he’s chipper and still pinching himself over the experience of rubbing shoulders with past and present leaders of the free world. “You know, Bill Clinton is a big fan of mine, it turns out,” Wood says. “He told me, ‘Ronnie, I’ve got your paintings in my office and my home.’ And I told him, ‘Well, now you’ve got a copy of my new record. Even better!’”
As one might expect, I Feel Like Playing is a loose, ragged but altogether engaging affair, filled with swaggering rockers (“Thing About You,” “I Don’t Think So”), reflective ballads (“I Gotta See,” “Why You Wanna Go and Do a Thing Like That For”), and the kind of slippery, greasy, tubey-sounding guitar playing that has been his calling card since his halcyon days in the Small Faces (and subsequently the Faces) back in the Sixties.
And it should come as no great shocker that the album is also an all-star assemblage of Wood’s pals. Among them are veteran players such as drummer Jim Keltner and L.A. session guitarist Waddy Wachtel. ZZ Topster Billy Gibbons appears on a couple of cuts, as does Wood’s Faces bandmate keyboardist Ian McLagan. Other friends on the album include Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and Kris Kristofferson.
But it’s Slash and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea who make their presence indelibly felt on the bulk of the album. “I had such a great time with those two guys,” Wood says. “Mind you, I loved playing with everybody—get me in a room with a friend, hand us some instruments, and something good is bound to come out of it. But it was a real treat to get down and work with Slash and Flea. They put a lot into this record, and I’m thankful to count them as mates.”
Wood’s private life has been anything but during the past year. In December 2009, he was arrested on assault charges against his former girlfriend Ekaterina Ivanova. He has also been back in rehab to kick booze once and for all. From all appearances, he seems to be sticking to the program.
But his public life has been rollicking as well. Last summer, Wood turned in a dazzling performance alongside Buddy Guy and Johnny Lang in Eric Clapton’s Crossroads fest. Over the past year, he’s also participated in a Faces reunion with McLagan and drummer Kenney Jones (with Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall taking Rod Stewart’s place at the mic). He says he would also love to do a proper tour behind his new album. “But that all depends on the Stones and what they’re planning,” he says. “As you know, whenever the Stones machine cranks up, it’s the biggest thing in the world for two years. Hey, not that I’m complaining one bit!”
GUITAR WORLD What is the status of the Rolling Stones? Will you be touring in 2011?
RON WOOD Well, that’s a little difficult to answer. We have a meeting coming up in December, so we’ll see where everybody’s at. I saw Mick the other day—we’re getting along great—and I’m supposed to have dinner with Keith in London next week.
GW Has there been talk that this tour will be the last Stones tour? And would you be recording an album?
WOOD As far as the “the last tour,” they’ve been saying that for 30 years now! [laughs] No idea when that’ll happen. As far as a record, it’s in the cards, I think, but we really haven’t spoken about that.
GW Your personal life has been in the news lately. Your stints in rehab have been no secret. Are you currently sober?
WOOD Yes, I am. I’m going on seven months now. I’m really feeling comfortable with it. It feels really good. In the early days I went to the meetings, AA and all that. I did that very intensely. I haven’t been to one for a while now because I’ve been so busy. But I’m due. I think I’ll go to one tomorrow.
GW Last year, stories were floating around that you might be kicked out of the Stones because of your drinking. That’s a little bizarre, given that Keith certainly likes his spirits. But was there any truth to it all?
WOOD Well, they’ve seen it and done it, of course, the guys in the band. They were just trying to help, really. Mick’s been very helpful and supportive. It’s been hard to come through this whole period unscathed, but I’ve managed to do it, more or less. Thanks to the band’s support, we’ll be back to business as usual.
GW How do you feel your work with the Jeff Beck Group, the Small Faces, the Faces and Rod Stewart prepared you for your career with the Rolling Stones?
WOOD It was all good groundwork, those years. Playing bass guitar in the Jeff Beck Group gave me a melodic sense that most guitarists don’t get a chance to develop. And then when I was the only guitar player in the Faces, I had to play both lead and rhythm, which came in very useful with the weaving I do with the Stones.
GW It’s interesting you use the word “weaving,” because Keith always described that as a secret to the Stones’ guitar sound, even back in the early days with Brian Jones. “Guitar weaving,” he called it.
WOOD Well, that’s exactly what it is—the two guitars going in and out and back and forth. It’s like we have an interchange, or a conversation, with each other, but we don’t have to say a word. One guitar talks to the other, and the other answers it. It’s a very magical thing, really. I’ve had that kind of rapport whenever I’ve played with people like Keith and Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, and I have the same sort of thing with Slash and Billy Gibbons on my new record.
GW You participated in something of a Faces reunion last year. Was there any point at which Rod Stewart was going to be involved?
WOOD Truthfully, probably not. We did have one rehearsal with him, which went great. But because of all the red tape with all of Rod’s activities, it was just too much to get it on with him. He’s still a great friend, and we had his blessing to go out there as the Faces, so it was very wonderful, indeed.
GW So let’s talk about the new record. The first thing that comes to mind is, Wow, too bad you couldn’t get any famous names to help you out!
WOOD [laughs] Yeah, it’s too bad. I need to get out more, don’t I? What’s funny was, all these people and friends were floating around in studies nearby where I was working, and they all contacted me and said, “Hey, Ronnie, can I come by and play on your album?” And invariably, I’d tell them, “Funny you should ask. I’ve got a part that’s just perfect for you. Come on down!” The whole record was a lot of old pals coming together. Old pals and new pals, really, with people like Flea, who I bonded with right away. That’s what I like about the album: it’s a bunch of friends playing, rather than me and some hired band.
GW Slash is on a lot of the record. How did your collaboration come about?
WOOD Well, we go back as friends for years, way before Guns N’ Roses. As guitarists, he and I speak the same language. It’s like the relationship I have with Keith. Slash and I finish each other’s sentences, but we do it with guitars. That makes it nice, because we don’t have to waste a lot of time figuring out who’s gonna do what. We already know.
GW Slash’s sound on your album is very different from what we’ve come to expect from him. In fact, the two of you sound quite similar a lot of the time.
WOOD Yeah! See, I love all that confusion and craziness. It’s kind of a mutual complement to each other to share a sound, really. It all goes back to the guitar-weaving thing, you know. Slash is a very adaptable player, very melodic. I wanted to tap into that whole side of him. He can go bluesy, reggae-ish, the hard stuff—he can play anything. But people tend to only know him for the hard stuff he does. He’s a very well-rounded and multi-dimensional guitarist.
GW I read something earlier this year about Slash spying on you when he was a child and learning guitar licks from watching you. Is that correct?
WOOD Yeah, he remembers that time probably more than I do. [laughs] But that’s true. He was just a kid, and he’d sort of spy on me and watch me play.
GW But where was this? And how did he come to be around you?
WOOD I think it was in L.A. He was just around, you know? [Slash’s mother was a costume designer for musicians, and his father designed album covers, making them active participants within the popular music scene.] There was so much going on, it’s hard to remember all the details. But I do remember this littlekid being around, and I’d be like, “Hey, come over here, lad. I’ll teach you some things on the guitar.” It was all very harmless. He was a sweet little guy, as I recall. I had no idea he’d go on to become the world-famous Slash!
GW Billy Gibbons is also on a couple of cuts on the new album. On one of them, “I Gotta See,” like Slash, he doesn’t sound like himself—he has a very clean Strat tone. But on “Thing About You,” he most definitely sounds like the Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top that we all know and love. In fact, it’s like you dialed up “Billy Gibbons” on an amp setting.
WOOD Yeah, it’s incredible, isn’t it? Another chameleon. On “I Gotta See,” he played very straight, very subtle, and it was all his idea. He said, “I know what this song needs. It needs a real simple, sweet, percussive guitar line.” And I said, “Perfect!” I think he played a Gibson Firebird on that, and I played a ’55 Strat.
But yeah, when it came time to do “Thing About You,” he really took on the Billy Gibbons sound. What’s interesting is, he gets very bossy when he becomes that Billly Gibbons. He’s like, “No, you play this! Now, this is how this part should go.” He’s a very principled player. He knows what he wants; he knows what a song needs. We kind of clash musically, but I love that. It really gets the juices flowing.”
GW What kind of guitar did he use for “Thing About You”? I would imagine it was a Les Paul.
WOOD Yeah, I think it was. You know, he was just kind of passing through when he came in and cut that, so he might have used one of the guitars I had on hand. I had a whole selection: Gibsons, Fenders, Zemaitises…anything you could want, really.
GW Your guitar collection is undoubtedly quite massive. But did you have a core unit of working guitars for the album?
WOOD I gravitated toward various old Stratocasters, mainly. There were some Gibson and Martin acoustics, of course. I did play a Coral Sitar on the song “100%”—that was a lot of fun. That was about it, really. You can go crazy trying to figure out ways to use all of your guitars on every song. That’s not my style. I just like to get in and capture the essence.
GW I hope you take this as a compliment, but as you age, your singing voice is becoming a combination of Randy Newman and Bob Dylan. Do you hear that?
WOOD Oh, well, thank you! That’s a total compliment. My range isn’t that broad, I realize that, but I think I’ve really figured out how to find the expression in it. I’ve learned how to make my voice work. You know, you do this long enough, you’re bound to figure out a thing or two—hopefully! [laughs]