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Photo by Tony Zucker
As a composer you combine elements of ska, reggae, jazz, rock, and textural music—sometimes in the same song. That’s paralleled in your playing, too. How did you arrive at that fusion of styles?
I started from traditional Jamaican folk music—mento. Then the first bands I played in were swing bands, so my interest in jazz grew. The two people who deeply influenced me after that were Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and, after them, the great Mr. Coltrane. From there I went on to play Latin American music and R&B. But jazz was my biggest music after the swing era, and I heard all the pop, soul, and rock ’n’ roll on the radio. So I have a lot of commercial styles and maybe a little bit of a semi-classical style in my writing. Today I try to get a feel for whatever is going on in popular music, and try to present music to the people that they can relate to.
Jamaica is typically thought of as a land of rhythm, but your compositions are equally strong melodically. Which is most important to you as a composer?
I like to throw in an anchor, and that’s the rhythm. Then the melody should be as simple as possible, but it should have a little “oomph” to it. I like to experiment, but still be aware of having that anchor for the listener.
“Shuffling Bug” was one of the first ska tunes. What inspired you to come up with the rhythm guitar approach that’s the heart of ska?
That first ska record was [1959’s] “Easy Snappin’” by Theophilus Beckford. But I was the composer of the arrangement for that song, too, and started that type of rhythm. And the next ska tune I did by myself. That was [1961’s] “Silky.” And then “Shuffling Bug” came a week or two after that. Many people think it’s the first ska tune, but it’s not.
To explain how this rhythm was formulated I have to take you back to the very first person who influenced me on guitar—Cecil Houdini, who I heard in Kingston when I was a boy. He played this shuffle rhythm. The rhythm I developed is that shuffle rhythm, which is based on a New Orleans shuffle beat, where the first beat [or downstroke] is actually on the second beat.
What was it like growing up and trying to play music in Robins Hall, where you were born, before you moved to Kingston?
There was not much music. It’s in the countryside of Jamaica. I lived there until I was 9 years old. The first instrument I tried to play at that time was my uncles’ ukulele. A lot of people think they taught me how to play, but they didn’t. I’m self-taught. They didn’t want me to touch it. I would grab it when they went to work and I’d try to retune it, but I couldn’t tune it to pitch. I would tune it high, and when I finished I would try to tune it back. I didn’t really try to play the guitar until I was 14, and then I would buy books and study those.
Did playing in the popular big bands of Val Bennett and Eric Deans help you step into composing?
Yes, because working with a horn section helped me learn to phrase and seeing the charts helped me learn how to notate music, because in the books I was studying there were only chords—they just taught you how to strum, not to play lines like Charlie Christian.
Besides Charlie Christian, who among jazz guitarists influenced you?
Charlie Christian was the first one I heard, but Oscar Moore with the Nat King Cole Trio was also a fine guitar player. And Django Reinhardt came next for me. But I never really was attracted to too many guitar players. Once I knew a bass player who was fascinated with another great bass player, to the point where he could only play that other man’s style. That was not for me. I figured as a young feller I didn’t want to copy other people. I wanted to have my own style, so I listened to other instruments, like trumpet, saxophone, and even piano. And from there, I tried to define myself.
This 2012 clip from a live concert at Tokyo’s Blue Note features Ernest Ranglin in a band with three other prominent Jamaican artists: the quintessential rhythm team of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and jazz pianist Monty Alexander. Ranglin’s playful sensibility shines throughout, from his beatific smile to the single-note blurts and over-the-top-of-the-neck fretting he tosses into the tune’s closing “duel” with Shakespeare.
Let’s talk about some of the guitars you’ve used on historic recordings and tours.
I had a later model Ibanez I used for part of the new album. George Benson gave it to me. I met him in France when I was playing at Montreux. I told him, “I would like to buy one of your models that you advertise,” and I knew that if he recommended me to Ibanez, I would get it a little cheaper. Instead, he gave me a guitar. I took that guitar to Senegal, where I went to do a record with Baaba Maal. Eventually, I gave it to the Jamaican Music Hall of Fame. I’ve given away many guitars. Sometimes I have as many as 20, but I end up giving away about half of them to charities or a museum. Sometimes I notice someone who can’t afford to buy an instrument, so I give them one of mine.
In the ’50s and ’60s I was using Guilds. I used to have an acoustic Guild, too. I still have a little Guild X-50 I bought from a guy in 1959—a lovely little thing. I also still have my Super 400, my Charlie Christian, my ES-175, ES-335, ES-339, and a few acoustic guitars. I have Fenders, too, but I prefer a hollowbody sound.How do you get your super-warm tone?
I prefer an Ampeg VT-120. You can get what you want from it. I don’t like a tinny, tinny sound. I can tune up the amp the way I want it. Of course, I also roll the tone pots back on my guitar. I generally use the dark side of the tone. I’m not a guitar player who bends and stuff like that. I like my guitar to sound mellow.