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Music

How Ron Asheton invented punk guitar

@TylerGolsen

The first time most people heard Ron Asheton play the guitar, they could have confused him for a hippie. That was on ‘1969’, the opening track to The Stooges’ 1969 self-titled debut. Asheton utilizes a wah-wah pedal that is clearly indebted to Jimi Hendrix. That intro would be the first, last, and only time that Asheton would ever play or sound like anyone else.

Although his recorded guitar legacy is mostly confined to just the first two Stooges albums, Ron Asheton’s effect on guitar playing was seismic. Favouring volume and uncomplicated riffing above all else, Asheton’s guitar work went against any kind of elaborate histrionics that were becoming commonplace in rock music at the time. The stripped-back, highly distorted style was the first embers of punk rock, a full decade before the term became known worldwide.

Asheton was originally a bass player, and his dedication to simplicity and root notes became an essential part of his minimalist playing style. When the Stooges regrouped for the recording of Raw Power, Asheton was relegated to bass duties, something that he was unhappy about even though it was his first instrument. Perhaps because he had established a unique sound within the band, Asheton was reluctant to give it up.

Asheton’s power was to pair the basic with the unhinged. The rip-roaring solo that leads off ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ quickly descends into a beyond-minimalist descending three-chord riff. Although he restarts his solo towards the end of the track, Asheton’s refusal to play anything that would get in the way of the monster riff illustrated his approach to music. Complications would never get in the way of The Stooges’ gruff impact.

Distortion had blasted into rock and roll by the time that Asheton and The Stooges hit the scene, but nobody’s distortion sounded as dirty or as ugly as Asheton’s. It harkened back to the earliest days of the band when drones and vacuum cleaners were employed to create a tornado of noise. Asheton recognized that he didn’t need a ton of bells and whistles to recreate the effect – he just needed maximum volume and maximum gain to achieve the same goal.

Asheton’s sound wasn’t just based on ugliness, however. ‘We Will Fall’ features beautiful improvisation over an Indian-like drone, while ‘Dirt’ from 1970’s Fun House contains some twinkling rhythm lines. But by the time the band reached Fun House, things had somehow gotten even rawer, with Asheton’s guitar practically spitting grit and flames on songs like ‘L.A. Blues’, ‘T.V. Eye’, and ‘Loose’. Looking to match Iggy Pop’s screams in terms of unrestrained energy, Asheton got even further away from calmness and good taste.

Unfortunately for them, The Stooges began to fracture under the weight of drug abuse and the commercial failures of their albums. Asheton was the only member who managed to avoid falling into heroin addiction, and the recruitment of guitarist James Williamson threatened Asheton’s creative contributions. Asheton had reason to be suspicious, as Williamson’s style was more closely aligned with glam rock and flashy guitar theatrics, as would be heard on Raw Power.

Even though The Stooges were a failure in their time, their music became an essential building block that other musicians would use to create their own sound in the 1970s on. Some of Asheton’s most notable disciples include Johnny Ramone, Thurston Moore, and Kurt Cobain. None of the three iconic players would likely have ever picked up the guitar had Asheton’s aggressive yet accessible style not inspired them. Asheton set the stage for punk with his playing, and some of the most important leaders of the genre listened.