• Learn the value of a good downstroke.
• Discover how to imply harmony in riffs.
• Build your picking-hand stamina. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
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.
The first thing you’ll notice when observing Johnny Ramone is his incessant use of downstrokes. Nearly all of the Ramones’ signature guitar sound stems from this technique. During my audition with Marky Ramone, one of our first interactions went something like this:
“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.
Ex. 1 is a basic eighth-note exercise for developing speed using downstrokes at different tempos. Focus less on the accuracy of the notes as the tempo ramps up, and more on the evenness and the fullness of each stroke, then move on to a faster tempo. If it’s perfectly in time, it will sound wrong.
In Ex. 2, we combine a simple rhythm pattern with a I-IV-V progression. Each measure starts with a quarter-note followed by a string of eighth-notes. The quarter-note gives your wrist a quick rest and a springboard from which to attack the rest of the measure.
Ex. 3 is a variation, where the quarter-note happens on the 4th beat of the measure.
Let’s bring some diversity to the tone and technique with Ex. 4. The wrist switches between a wide whip on the downbeats and a smaller precise attack on the offbeats. The fretting hand helps the rhythmic bounce by muting those offbeats. The strumming is intricate and you’ll need some practice to get it right.
Odd time! You will sometimes find a section in a Ramones song with an extra beat or two, to accommodate lyrics or a transition. Ex. 5 is a two-measure phrase in 5/4, where the first beat is a quarter-note and the remaining beats are eighth-notes.
In Ex. 6, we have an alternating riff in 6/4, where the first three beats are quarter-notes and the next three beats consist of eighth-notes.
Ex. 7 is a variation of the 6/4 pattern: It starts with four beats of blasting eighth-notes and ends with two beats of quarter-notes.
Another staple of the Ramones’ sound is the use of predominantly major harmony. Their songs are heavily influenced by ’50s and ’60s pop, as well as blues chord changes. Generally, the harmony will stay very diatonic while the chord types rarely stray away from major or minor. Dominant or chromatic passing chords occasionally appear, perfectly suited for barre chords. Musically speaking, many of their songs sound uplifting and light, with the trademark aggressiveness conveyed through the delivery.
Ex. 8 is a traditional harmonic movement, sped up punk-rock style. As I mentioned before, make sure to attack all strings (even the muted ones) to ensure the fullest sound.
Ex. 9 is a common 12-bar blues progression. Note the sliding I chord, another signature element of the Johnny Ramone’s driving sound. It gives you a quick break before the onslaught of eighth-notes resume on beat 2, and this provides a quick break for your wrist that we discussed before.
There are some exceptions to the “rules” we’ve examined so far. Ex. 10 is a riff based on chunky power chords, rather than the full 6-string strum. Make it crowd-ready with a big loud shout on beat 4.
Ex. 11 explores a minor harmonic progression.
Based on palm-muted power chords, Ex. 12 also includes some passing chords that are purposely kept small to maintain the chunkiness of the sound. The Eb/G going to Ab5 is very practical, and the G7 chord is limited to its two guide tones (3 and b7) to ensure a smooth and easy transition to C5. Smart and economical voicing.
Johnny Ramone isn’t known for his single-note work, but some of the band’s songs feature guitar leads, often executed by record producers or guest guitarists such as Daniel Rey, Walter Lure from the Heartbreakers, and Vernon Reid from Living Colour, to name a few. Minimalist techniques like unison bends and octave melodies are effective ways to sound full while cutting through in a higher register. They remain go-to solutions for melodic playing in punk rock.
Ex. 13 is essentially a simple melody using unison bends and toying with the dissonance of the long bends. Much like the rhythm playing, it’s important to use wide movements and mute the unwanted strings with your fretting hand to get a big sound and attack.
Ex. 14 is a similar idea using octaves. Remember to hit them with big downstrokes!
Ex. 15 combines low single notes borrowed from the bass line and full chords.
Ex. 16 offers some new colors by arpeggiating and voice-leading the chord changes. In every arpeggiated chord, be sure to let each note ring out into the next one. I recommend using alternate picking for single-string accuracy. I won’t tell, if you won’t.Performing punk rock with the right intensity is both very demanding and a lot of fun. It’s a big field to explore. It will reward your playing with a new perspective, as every past experience and every past playing opportunity informs the current one. Even in situations outside of punk rock, I always favor playing downstrokes in phrases that allow for some hardness and wide-sounding movements. And I also embrace the fact that the many imperfections of a moment are what make a moment perfect ... in guitar playing, in music, and in life. Find the elements you like and make it a facet of your own musical personality.