Like many other members of British blues royalty, Ron Wood started playing guitar attempting to emulate his American idols. In Wood’s case, he has specifically cited the music of country bluesmen Blind Willie McTell and Big Bill Broonzy, as well as Chuck Berry. Later, his reference points also included the Beatles, which whom he sought to compete as a member of the Faces.
The early focus on McTell and Broonzy, musicians from two generations of country blues, is telling. Wood, who turns 65 on Friday, June 1, has an electric guitar style that is rooted in acoustic playing, evidenced by the prevalent cleanliness of his tone and his rhythm chording. And in addition to Berry and R&B, he was clearly influenced by other styles of American music. Classic country played a role in his stylistic development, too. That’s audible in the way he bends multiple strings to emulate lap and pedal steel tones on round-neck guitar in addition to his steel playing. Nonetheless, that ever-waggling pinkie finger on his barre chords indicates that Berry remains Woody’s main man.
Open tunings are also part of Wood’s game. Want to play the Faces’ “Stay With Me” with the quintessential early Woody sound? After all, that’s one of the greatest guitar tones in the annals of classic rock.
First tune to open E (E-B-E-G#-B-E), then rip down through E at the 12th fret, D at the 10th fret and A at the fifth fret to create the song’s famed descending intro. In open tuning it just takes an index finger to cover all six strings and make each chord, but there’s another, more Woody-esque was to tackle those chords on electric guitar.
Here’s something worth noting that harks back to Wood’s early acoustic orientation. When he’s playing an acoustic flattop, like a Gibson J-200, in open tuning, he tends to bar all six strings with his index finger. When he’s playing electric, he typically bars only the top four strings in open tuning, and mutes the top two strings with his thumb. This lets the electric guitar use its resonating qualities for more harmonic juice.
Then the Berry finger wag comes in. When playing the “Stay With Me” intro’s E chord at the 12th fret using the top four strings, Wood “wags’ his ring finger to depress and release the fourth string at the 14th fret as he strums, and his middle finger to depress and release the third string on the 13th fret. Listen to the original recording to suss out the patterns of up and down strokes and finger accents to get the right feel.
Wood was in the Jeff Beck Group when he became interested in slide, but, surprisingly, it wasn’t Beck who captured his attention as a slider. It was Duane Allman, who he first heard wielding a slide on Aretha Franklin’s 1969 recording of the Band’s “The Weight.” Wood gets his singing slide sound from a copper pipe and playing in standard and open tunings on round neck guitar, and open tunings, of course, for lap and pedal steel. Check out the slide instrumental “Around the Plynth” — which is collected on 2004’s definitive Faces retrospective set Five Guys Walk Into A Bar… — and the songs “That’s All You Need” and “Borstal Boy” for sterling examples of Wood’s playing in open E.
For pedal steel Wood prefers so-called Nashville and Hawaiian tunings, typically C6 (C-F-A-C-E-G-A-C-E-G) and E9 (B-D-E-F♯-G♯-B-E-G♯-D♯-F♯). The latter was historically popular with Western swing bands of the 1930s and ’40s.
Wood also credits his pre-Beck, Faces and Stones musical education with his fundamental approach to composition. Throughout his childhood and teen years he sang in church choirs — yes, Ron Wood was a choirboy! – and played Dave Brubeck and other cool jazz in a school band. His musical turning point came with the discovery of the early British blues patriarchs Cyril Davies and Alexis Corner, in whose bands his older brother Art played. From there came the discovery of the early acoustic bluesmen and Berry, whose lap steel piece “Deep Feeling” had a profound effect on his ear. He also played some skiffle with his brothers, initially on washboard.
While the clean tones Wood employs today with the Rolling Stones leave little guesswork about his amp and guitar combinations, that spanky sound he got in the Faces days — right up front in “Stay With Me” and more of their other nastiest hits — is considered by many of his fans to be the quintessential Woody tone. And there is a little mystery involved. At that point, Wood was favoring several types of humbucker equipped guitars including Gibson SGs, and his amp of choice was an Ampeg bass rig, usually the SVT, V-2 or V-4. (Note: Keith Richards also used Ampeg bass rigs while recording Exile On Main Street.)
Wood dug the Ampegs for their high output and crunching overdrive, goosed up with a distortion pedal. To get a sound similar to Wood’s “Stay With Me” tone, try rolling the tone pots on your pickups back to roughly eight (or seven or lower for single coils), plugging into a guitar amp of 35-watts or more with gain, and rolling the gain up to seven, then adding an overdrive with treble boost characteristics. A little tinkering and you’ll be on your way to one of classic rock’s greatest guitar sounds.