Aurelien Budynek December 08, 2018
The influence of the Ramones on the global music landscape over the past 40 years is immense. For many fans, the Ramones are a religion, and for even more, it’s a lifestyle. I had the opportunity to experience the depth of this firsthand by performing the songbook alongside Marky Ramone, the drummer of the classic Ramones lineup. I had to learn a lot about Johnny Ramone’s incendiary, raw guitar style, as well as how to create a rhythmically relentless wall-of-sound.
For many guitarists, playing Ramones tunes appears incredibly easy. How hard could it be to play four-chord songs? Nearly every guitar player thinks they can play any song from the repertoire, until they have to do it. But like many specialized areas, first impressions can be deceiving: It requires precision to get Johnny’s parts exactly right.
It’s definitely anti-punk to analyze, theorize, and reverse-engineer such a figure of punk-rock culture, but I don’t care. Let’s look at key characteristics of Johnny’ style and technique through the lens of rhythm, harmony, and lead.
“Can you play downstrokes?”
“Can you play downstrokes for 90 minutes?”
In short, if you’re not playing downstrokes all the time, you’re doing it wrong. You need the crunch, the attack, and the fullness that alternate strumming and upstrokes just can’t provide. And the songs are fast. Very fast. They are much faster than the studio recordings. (Listen to Loco Live—the tempos are insane!) Playing downstrokes that fast, that long, and that hard can be very taxing for your wrist and arm, so proper technique and posture is essential to develop speed without cramping up.
The key to playing fast downstrokes is to keep your arm relaxed and strum with the least amount of tension possible. Let your arm fall down naturally along your body. Play standing up and wear your guitar very, very low. From there, the wrist will do the work. Not only does it look cool (and that’s highly important), it’s also the most ideal and natural position to achieve optimal speed and endurance.
The second most noticeable element of Johnny Ramone’s guitar style is the use of full barre chords. A common misconception about Ramones songs is that they’re almost exclusively made of power chords, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear full chords played across all the strings. Sometimes, the fretting hand will mute the low or high string depending on the chord position being used. Attack all six strings as much as possible to give fullness to the sound. Use big movements, rather than smaller and more economical motion. Forget about finesse: The secret ingredient to the guitar sound is a physical, full-body approach to playing, fueled by passion, intensity, and attitude. Sling your guitar low, play hard, play fast, and play wide. Because the parts are so repetitive, make sure to stretch your wrist and arms before and after playing, and to warm up into the high speeds.