Mojo Man: Ron Blair with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

IT’S A TYPICALLY PERFECT DAY IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, SUNSHINE WITH A 100 percent chance of more sunshine.
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IT’S A TYPICALLY PERFECT DAY IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, SUNSHINE WITH A 100 percent chance of more sunshine. With the summer sun beating down on the hot concrete, inside a nondescript warehouse building tucked away in a gritty industrial section of the San Fernando Valley lies the rehearsal studio for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Entering the massive structure, you’re immediately drawn to the extraordinary collection of vintage instruments assembled throughout the clubhouse. While this is definitely music-instrument nirvana for players of all ages, these instruments hanging on the walls aren’t serving as mere decoration. They’re working tools for the trade.

As an original Heartbreakers member, Ron Blair supplied distinctive bass lines for the band’s classic first four albums—Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, You’re Gonna Get It!, Damn the Torpedoes, and Hard Promises. During Blair’s Heartbreakers tenure from the mid ’70s to the early ’80s, the group earned its stripes on the rock & roll battlefield, garnering praise from critics and a bounty of gold and platinum records in the process. But achieving global success came at a heavy cost: Blair learned quickly that rock-star life was anything but glamorous, being earmarked by a mind-numbing succession of onenight stands, and exhaustive recording and touring commitments. Burnt out from the grind of an unrelenting schedule and disillusioned by the record business, Blair split from the group in 1982 and was replaced by Howie Epstein. Two decades later, Ron came full circle and rejoined his old comrades, as Epstein’s long battles with substance abuse tragically claimed his life.

Th rough the years, Blair powered such quintessential Petty tracks as “Breakdown,” “American Girl,” “I Need to Know,” “Listen to Her Heart,” “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Even the Losers,” and many others. Like the other Heartbreakers, Blair is comfortable and secure with his place in the band. Ditching the weight of giant egos, overplaying, or showy grandstanding, he skillfully serves as the bedrock foundation behind the Heartbreakers’ musical mountain.

How would you define your approach to playing?

I’ve always loved melody. In the early days of the band, I was consumed with jumping out with those melodies whenever I could. On one of our anthologies, there’s a live version of “The Best of Everything,” and every time it’s going to a transition I’m playing way up high, and then I come back down. You really need to be prudent with that kind of stuff . A jazz guy once told me, “It took me 30 years to learn what notes to play,” and [Heartbreakers drummer] Steve Ferrone once said, “It’s taken me 30 years to learn when not to play!” You need to learn when to have the sparseness and the space.

A song of ours that conveys that sparseness is “Fooled Again,” from our first album. It’s got a pretty neat groove. Same goes for “Mystery Man,” which has this slow Bo Diddley beat that we hit before we even knew it. “Nightwatchman” [from 1981’s Hard Promises] is a funky one. When we started headlining and doing shows on our own, we had to be reminded: “Everybody’s paid their money to see you, so just slow down and give them what they want. Don’t overplay.” A lot of bass players have a certain sound that’s great by itself, but that doesn’t mean much. How it blends with the song, how it’s sitting against the rhythm guitar, is more important.

What is your musical background?

I was a military brat; my dad worked for the Navy. I lived in Jacksonville, Florida, and surf music was the big thing—this was pre-Beatles. Then sometime in 1964, my dad got stationed overseas. Next thing I knew, we were on a boat headed for Japan. When I got there it was like going back in time; it took a long time for music to get over to Japan, so they were somewhat behind. Around 1968, my dad got stationed in Hong Kong, but I stayed and lived with the family of one of my band members, a group called the Mojos. Then I needed to go to university, so I chose the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. Th ere was such a good music scene there.

Were you familiar at that time with Tom Petty’s band, Mudcrutch?

No, not then. A couple years later, I got into a band that did gigs at places where Mudcrutch would play. Around that time I met a great girl who turned out to be Tom’s wife’s best friend. We used to go over to his little apartment above a laundromat, so I became acquainted with Tom then. I liked him as a friend before we ever started playing together.

You started out playing guitar.

Yeah. When I was in high school in Jacksonville, my dad went on a tour of Japan with the Navy, and because I wanted to be a drummer, he was going to bring me back a set of drums. But he ran out of money buying everything from lamps to rosewood furniture, so he came back with a Guyatone guitar and a little amp. I figured I was going to be a guitar player, and learned all the surf music. In Japan in the 11th grade, I bought a red Gibson SG with a whammy bar. We had a little blues band and would play all the military bases. After I got back to Gainesville, I started jamming with a few bands. I had some friends in a band, two brothers who didn’t get along, and one of the brothers’ had to go. So my friend asked me, “Would you be into playing bass?” I went down to Lipham’s Music Store—where we used to hang out—and I borrowed a bass. Th en I got a hold of a little psychedelic substance and tripped out all night playing bass [laughs]. By morning, I went, “I’m a bass player!” Back in those days the bass wasn’t a romantic instrument. You really had to talk someone into playing bass.

Was it a natural transition moving to bass?

I took to the bass right away. Before long I was playing in a thunderous band with four Acoustic 360 stacks behind me; John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin only played through one of them!

How did you reconnect with Tom Petty?

I was in a bunch of bands; one of them was doing sessions trying to get an album deal, one was playing frats, and one was playing bars. Sometime in 1974, [future Heartbreakers drummer] Stan Lynch called me and said, “I’ve got a session with the remnants of the Mudcrutch guys, but it’s for a [future Heartbreakers keyboardist] Benmont Tench songwriting demo.” I said, “Sure I’ll come.” It was going really well, and at some point Tom showed up in the control room and never left. Shortly after, we were asked to do some sessions for Tom. At A&M Studio we were cutting the song “Mystery Man,” which appears on our first album. We ran through it, and [producer] Denny Cordell went, “Fucking ace!”—we had cut a track before we even knew what we were doing. Even to this day, somebody had better be rolling tape at our sessions. I felt really home at home playing with the band. It must have something to do with our Florida roots. Maybe it’s the lifestyle, but if you grew up playing there with so many good bands, you were soulful whether you tried or not.

When did you realize the band had broken through?

Going out doing that first tour in England was great; we went over really well. So we had our breakthrough first in England, and then America came a little later. Before we were in the position of being a headliner, we opened up for a lot of groups back then, everyone from the J. Geils Band to Kiss. “Breakdown” did well in the U.S., but it was our second album, You’re Gonna Get It!, that pushed us over the top initially in America. It’s the first album of ours that went gold. When that happened, I was like, “Holy crap, I’m in a real band!” And I still am. There’s still such good energy to be in a working band. It’s all about the music for us, but I have to say it’s also taken on a life of its own, where we represent not just the band, but a genre. I can’t believe we’re still doing it, but we’re actually getting groovier and more savvy.

Groove has always been an important fabric of the band’s sound.

Groove is so important. Picking the right key is important, and picking a good tempo is a fine art. You try to pick a tempo that might be a hair down from where you would have gone. You need to let a recording breathe a little. It’s important in terms of bass, because it gives you time to let notes develop. It’s all about the feel, too. Is it going to be a half-time feel, or is it going to be a quarter-note feel? You listen to Beatles records and it might be a rock song, but the bass is playing a half-time feel, and then there might be a slow song and there’s a lot of bass movement. But somehow it works. With this band I can play a basic part and just lock in with Ferrone, our drummer. It’s my number one rule: Just go with that guy, establish the groove, and I’ll look good!

You’ve worked with two amazing drummers in the Heartbreakers, Stan Lynch and Steve Ferrone.

Stan was pretty incredible. He was a classic volatile rock drummer. You’d be playing and he might just pull the tempo ahead a little, and then it drops back and it moves around. But that’s what rock should do. Stan was just beautifully all over the place, but he wasn’t tough to play bass with at all. It was really valuable in the early days—when people go out to see a band, they don’t want to see a recital. They want to see you crash the wall and Tom blow his voice out every night. They want to see you going for it. Now, Steve Ferrone plays a groove and the whole band could just stop playing except for the drums, and you still hear the song because he’s doing just the right inflection on the high-hat. It’s way easy to lock into him. It was a little spooky at first figuring out how to do it, when it’s that deep of a pocket. He’s the first drummer I’ve played with who had that deep of a groove. There’s a real power when you can do that for three or four minutes. It can create a real hypnotic groove if you can hold on to that and not let your excitement pull it out of the pocket.

When you play live, do you stick to the parts on the records, or do you mix it up?

You can definitely do things different, because after playing these songs you come up with different ways to approach it. All of us bring a fresh approach to it. We have a really interesting groove thing going on now; the band is playing better than ever. We’re a little more focused on musicality this tour, and we’re putting more new songs into the set every night. That said, there are certain parts I won’t change, like the high slides in “Breakdown.”

Those slides are crucial parts of that song’s structure.

These two crazy guys engineered and co-produced that first album, Noah Shark and Max, and I think they said, “Th at song needs a little something, maybe a bass slide.” They talked me into it, and it’s a key part of the record. It just goes to show that it pays to take suggestions from people. “Hey, do you have any ideas?” If it’s good I’ll use it.

Another signature bass line of yours is the melodic figure introducing “American Girl.”

I don’t remember exactly how I came up with that part, but it’s a good one. Maybe one of the engineers suggested, “Can you do something high up the neck?” I think it was a collaborative effort. It’s a cool part. Every time I pick up a bass and start noodling around, I always go to some kind of an open A string with a high 3rd or an open D string. I’m proud of that bass figure—it’s super cool. We started off our halftime show at Super Bowl XLII with that, and it was like, “Yeah!”

Your main instrument is a Fender Jazz Bass.

I’ve tried some non-vintage basses, but the one I mainly use is a black 1964 Fender Jazz. The pickups are microphonic, so at the end of a song I have to turn it off real fast. Th at bass is similar to the one I used in the early days, which unfortunately got stolen. My friend Norm from Norm’s Rare Guitars asked me, “Whatever happened to that bass?” and I told him it was stolen. He told me he was going to find one for me, which went on for 15 years until he finally found the right one. It’s the perfect bass for me. It’s easy to get around on, and I like the playability. It’s got a great tone. You need both pickups’ volume full up or it hums, so if you want less treble, you have to adjust the pickup down. If I play with a pick I need to back it off a little, and if I play with my fingers I need to turn that up. But at those big gigs, you’ve got to be careful when you play with your fingers because you may lose definition in those big halls. But when you’re playing with a pick you don’t really hear the pick; it just becomes part of the general band attack.

What other instruments are in your arsenal?

I have some mid-’60s Fender Precision Basses that are great for working out bass parts. I also have some of these great cheap basses, like the Silvertone bass. It sounds really good, really orchestral. Also, these old Harmony basses that Ronnie Lane used to use in the Faces sound great and have that upright, acoustic quality to them.

What’s your studio bass setup?

For the most part, we go in direct with the bass, and then they also put a Neumann mic on my Ampeg B-15 with the amp cranked up, so it’s got a bit of grit to it. I’ve never used effect pedals because they make me nervous. I look at Mike Campbell sometimes and go, “Holy moly, how do you work all of those?” So I basically use the Fender Jazz Bass and an Ampeg SVT. Th e beauty of that is, even in the dark I can set it. I turn up all the knobs on my bass, and reach over in the dark on the Ampeg and make sure everything’s at 12 o’clock, and I’ve got my sound.

Live, I’m using an Ampeg SVT Heritage from 2010, and on my Jazz Bass, D’Addario XL Pro Steels strings gauged from .045 to .105. I use medium Fender picks.

Can you offer any guidance in terms of sounding better as a player?

A lot of the gadgets you see on amps, the graphic EQs and strange boosts that sound really good when you push them in or crank them up—just ditch all of that stuff . Make sure it’s not on, and just dial up your sound. You’ve got three ways to dial it up: bass, mid, and treble. Keep it way simple. Try, with all the power you can muster up, to blend with all your bandmates and not get in the way of the frequencies.

How do you approach bass parts so you don’t step on the guitars’ frequencies?

A lot of times as a bass player, you overplay a riff and execute the attack with more intensity than you need. If you’re playing high up the neck, you’ve already got it going on, so play a little easier and lay back, and those notes will ring a little better.

Is there a Petty song that was particularly challenging for you to nail?

On Mojo, “I Should Have Known It” was really trippy. Mike had made a demo for the song, and the demo had a bunch of stops in it and wasn’t to an exact meter. I knew I was in trouble when I saw Ferrone busting out the paper and trying to decipher this thing. I was like, “Shit, I’m gonna have to take some notes, too.” Somehow we deciphered that tune, but it was tricky just to make it through and nail one good take. Tom walked by and went, “Wow, impressive.”

Who do you key on during a live show?

I watch Tom’s thumb on the neck of the guitar for a lot of clues. I can tell a lot from that thumb— whether we’re going to hold a part a little longer, or whether we’re going into something different. I’m also clued into what Ferrone’s doing. A guitar player/ singer is physically out there and the groove might be very specifically here, and so a lot of times I find myself dancing in that space in between and tying the thing together, as opposed to locking into the drums no matter what. You need to lock it all together.

Do you still practice?

Yeah, I still work on my playing. On the road, every few nights I’ll go back and listen to something that to make sure I’m playing the nuances and keeping all the subtleties alive. A few months on the road will beat it out of you, so you need to keep reminding yourself to really play.

What’s the most useful tip you ever received as a bass player?

There’s a great Phil Lesh quote that goes, “You’ve gotta have a damn good reason to play an open string on a bass.” That’s good advice. I have one of my own: Remain in contact with the bass at all times. Do not drop your left arm down to your side or point or do anything—remain in contact with the neck at all times. Don’t showboat. Keep hands on bass at all times. [Laughs.]

Blair’s Heartbreakers Bandmates Give Props

PETTY PRAISETOM PETTY
“Ron is a very important part of our sound. His bass always has a stellar tone, and he creates a great pocket with the drums. He stands next to me onstage, and I rely on him to carry the bottom end. He can go through six months of recording and rehearsal and never hit a wrong note—unlike me.”

BENMONT TENCH
“With many great musicians, you can’t separate who they are personally and who they are as a musician. Ron is such a sweet, relaxed, and giving person in how he relates to the people around him. His bass playing is just another integral part of that. As a musician, he’s thoughtful and he listens. This is a band, and we all have to listen to. When we first started playing together, I listened mainly to Tom and Ron; I would play off the vocal melody and whatever Ron was doing. There are great bass players who are less subtle, and then there are [players like] ‘Duck’ Dunn and Berry Oakley. I’ve always associated Ron with them, particularly Berry Oakley.

“In terms of the special nature of Ron as a player, you can go all the way back to ‘Breakdown.’ It’s a very basic bass part, and you have to play it like that if you want that swing. Howie Epstein played it a little different, so it had a different swing. But when Ron came into the band it suddenly locked into place again, in spite of the fact that we changed drummers. Howie was a good match with Stan Lynch, but Howie wasn’t as good a match for Steve Ferrone as Ron is. Ron’s a good match with everybody. On our last album there’s a song called ‘Something Good Coming’ where he plays essentially the root of the chord, and in just the right place he does a walk-down instead of just going to the root. It’ll be the subtlest thing that goes against that point of the melody and that emotional point of the song, to where you don’t even know why the lyric is hitting you harder. But it has a lot to do with something as simple and subtle as what Ron is up to.”

STEPHEN FERRONE
“Ron is one of my favorite bass players. He locks up with me really well, and he becomes an integral part of the rhythm section holding down the bottom end. I barely notice he is there, except when he does something beautifully melodic. His taste in doing this is impeccable on one of my favorite tracks on The Last DJ, ‘Can’t Stop the Sun.’ He plays so beautifully, and he did that in one take, moving from high notes to low just at the right time, and spurring the band along without losing the bottom-end drive for the band. Now, if he can just stop trying to climb on my drum riser to showboat, he will be perfect!”

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