Mick Ralphs joined Mott The Hoople in an era when non-master volume amps ruled the scene and 1950s Gibsons could still be found hanging in flea market windows with double-digit prices.
With a huge talent for writing songs that just keep getting better over time like an old pair of jeans, Mick made the most of these vintage tools of the trade – also using them for searing effect in Bad Company for classic riffs like I can’t get enough.
Here he tells us about a new tour with Mott, why Fender’s misunderstood Esquire is a sound machine with few rivals, and why light guitars sing softer …
How does it feel to replay landmark tracks like All The Young Dudes four decades later?
“Well when we got back together the first time [for two reunion gigs in 2009] we hadn’t played together for almost 40 years, so we spent a lot of time chatting because we hadn’t seen each other. But when we finally started playing it was really great. There was still a lot of life in those old songs and I hear All The Young Dudes on the radio and it still sounds pretty good to me. It hasn’t really dated too much, unlike some records of this generation. So yeah, that’s a lot of fun. “
What rig did you use in the early incarnations of Mott, like The Shakedown Sound?
“At that time I was using a Les Paul ‘SG’ before they got valuable. You know, the one with the side tremolo? Les Paul’s name was still on the headstock. I think I played that on it. Either that or a Telecaster. And probably a Marshall with just one cabinet – I think it could have been a 50 watt amp. It was really good, those 50 watt Marshall heads, the ones with the black coating. and the old logo. “
How did you fit into the band in terms of guitar style?
“I remember in Mott, my role was to keep the rhythm section together, because Pete Watts was doing his bass thing and not really playing with the drummer. So me being me, I felt like I needed some help. ‘a kind of heavy and bulky rhythm to lay a foundation for the rest. One of my big inspirations was Chuck Berry and his playing was always rhythm and lyric based. So I was always like that in my playing , really. In Bad Company, it was only a trio, but I played big chords and kept it simple, just going on. “
Tell us about David Bowie’s involvement with All The Young Dudes …
“He basically saved the group. We didn’t really know him at all, and we were at the bottom. [after touring in] Switzerland and I felt we weren’t going anywhere with the Mott thing. We’ve always had good live followers, but we weren’t very good at making hits.
“And then Bowie heard that we were thinking of packing it up and he wrote a really nice letter and he sent it to Pete and said,” I really like your band and I hope you don’t break up. not: but if you ‘are you going, would you consider doing this song?’ And he sent a little tape with All The Young Dudes and Suffragette City.
“When we heard All The Young Dudes, we immediately said, ‘Well that’s a hit. So it was great: he suggested this song to us and then came along and got involved in the single first, before we made the album. Actually, the album version sounds quite different from the All The Young Dudes single, because the single was finished at Olympic Studios, and then Bowie decided he wanted to produce the whole album with us. So we did it later at Trident Studios, which has a different sound.
“It was a great experience working with him – he had fantastic ideas and was a great guy. We also learned a lot, because before that we would just go to the studio and load through the songs of the Mott The Hoople But he was good at crafting arrangements, dynamics and stuff like that. “
Mick, pictured with his 1957 Fender Esquire © Will Ireland / Future Publishing
What material did you use for these sessions?
“I was still using the old Marshalls, but probably a 100 watt head back then. And I had a very old Les Paul Goldtop, with two P-90s – the ones with the stop tail – that I had. found in the Orange Boutique in London years ago I was looking at it and it cost around £ 200 Sure they are worth a lot more now but it was a great guitar.
“So I went to see Guy Stevens who was our mentor at Island Records. I said, ‘I just saw this guitar and it’s awesome’ and he said, ‘You must have it now! “And I said, ‘Well, I haven’t got any money,’ and he said, ‘I’m going to get the money on Island, don’t worry.’ Because he was very good at recognizing that if you found a guitar you liked, you played it to the max.
“I used it early in Mott until we went to America and saw Leslie West playing a junior and I was like, ‘I have to buy one. “It was a great sound – so I played Juniors pretty much after that in Mott.”
Looking back, what do you think of glam rock?
“I think we got caught up in it all, with the Bowie connection, and when we got hit and went to Top Of The Pops we expected to wear something stupid: layered boots. and girls’ blouses and all that kind of But it wasn’t really that easy for me. We were pretty outrageous back in the Mott The Hoople days, but it was more of a punk band than a glam band rock It was just rock full blast, because I remember people like Mick Jones from The Clash used to come and see us play a lot in the past.
“So Mott was a very exciting live band, but then we became a glam-pop band, I guess, and that’s when I kind of lost interest in him because he had changed from what it was to begin with. on the one hand, you’re successful, but it’s been compromised, you know? It’s a different thing, to be in a pop band and to be in a full-fledged rock band.
Did that make you go back to basics with Bad Company in 1973?
“Yeah, I wanted to go back to something more basic and bluesy, so I teamed up with Paul Rodgers who was touring with us – he had a band called Peace at the time, after Free – and we had discussed and I had all these songs like Can’t Get Enough, Movin ‘On, Ready For Love. I had already sung Ready For Love in Mott because Ian [Hunter], bless him, said, “I like these songs but they don’t suit my voice,” which I fully understand.
“But then Paul clung to them, and when he put his talent into it, it suddenly made a lot of sense to me. It was like going back to the roots of the blues: simplicity, a lot of feeling. And yes. , it was a refreshing change to come back. “
What rig are you using with Mott for the current tour? Vintage equipment?
“No, I just got off the Bad Company tour and I just use rented Marshalls: I have a huge stack, but I hardly use any – just the bottom cabinets. I just like the look. .Last time we did Mott my technician managed to get me some hand wired JTM45 amps which is closest to the old Marshall heads. They are really really good and I used two of them.
“Guitar wise, I’ve been using a chambered Gibson Les Paul for eight years, which looks like a historic Les Paul but it’s hollow on the inside. The sound is better, I think. They’re smoother and more airy, kinda like a cross between a 335 and a Les Paul. I really like that smoothness, because I’ve had Sunbursts over the years and some have been great, others not so good. But I’ve found that the lighter ones sounded much smoother, so I’m always looking for lighter guitars. “
So what’s next for Mott The Hoople and Bad Company?
“With the Mott thing, it took four years from 2009 to 2013 for them to start over. Me and Ian wanted to do more, but at the time the other guys weren’t sure. So if we’ll do anything. after that I “I have no idea. I never had a plan – it was just trying to be with the people you like to play with, and trying to do your best. So I really have no idea what’s going to happen next year, whether there’s more Mott or more Bad Company. But I’m sure my blues band will always fill in the gaps! “
Mick Ralph’s Favorite Guitars
1957 Fender Esquire
“This is my old Esquire 57, which I have had for years and years. I love it. I found it in a store in LA for $ 75 or something, during Mott’s time. . But someone had put a humbucker in the neck position, so when I brought it home I took it out and put on a regular Fender Esquire plate to cover the hole. An Esquire 57 should have one. off white pickguard, but i have a black one because i thought it looked cooler, like jeff beck or whatever, and i have used it ever since.
“When I started working with Paul Rodgers, it was just him and I to start writing songs. I played Can’t Get Enough to him and wrote it in an open G tuning, which is pretty standard. But he said, ‘Well I like the song, but can you change the key?’ So we figured out which key was good for him and it ended up being C, and I thought, “Damn, how can I do that? I had tuned the guitar really high, so the open chord was vs.
“And, sure, I was popping strings. Even now it’s a pretty tight guitar to play, but it just had a certain sound, a certain sound. I used it on Movin ‘On and Can’t Get Enough in particular. “
Epiphone 1959 crown
“I came across these guitars a few years ago when I was on the road with Bad Company. Someone explained to me that they were made by Gibson when they bought Epiphone, around 1957. They made the flat-bodied Coronet that I got for maybe a year or two in the late 1950s. They’re basically like a Les Paul Junior, but they have the Epiphone ‘New Yorker’ pickup in the bridge and some old ones radio dials! “
Gibson Les Paul Historic Chambered
“I’m always looking for lighter guitars to give the sound that lightness, because I had one 335 years ago, a really nice one, and I loved the sound of this one – but I stumbled upon this Les Paul chambered by accident thanks to Tom Murphy of Gibson’s Custom Shop, who is a legend. “
1958 Gibson Les Paul Jr
“Back then, we used to find Juniors at pawn shops in America for $ 75. The first one I bought was like this, a double cut. I said, “How much is that red guitar in the window?” I didn’t know what it was. And the guy behind the counter said “$ 100” and I couldn’t believe my luck. But I said “$ 100? And he said, ‘Okay, $ 75’ [laughs].
“That was the time when you could get a good deal like that. This is a Junior ’58 that I bought when I was on the road with Bad Company earlier this year. a great guitar, but I paid around $ 5,000 for it! “