Marc Bonilla inspired by the intensity and melodies of Ronnie Montrose




Kids wanna rock for all kinds of reasons. Seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show is a common driving force; hearing Hendrix for the first time another. Then there are the old adages about getting into music “to get chicks” or because sports make you look bad.

For guitar wizard Marc Bonilla—who shares a Music West Festival bill with headliner Sass Jordan and local acts the Criston/Harvey Project, Young Gun, and Age of Electric at 86 Street on Saturday (May 2)—the impetus to boogie came from a blind friend who lived across the street from him in the small town of Walnut Creek, California.

“Jim was—and still is—an amazing trumpet player, and his room was nothing but tape recorders and phonograph records,” says Bonilla. “His whole world was sound, and we would tape everything. I mean, our whole lives are on seven-inch reel-to-reel tape, you know, somewhere in his bedroom.”

After first picking up the guitar at the age of five, the young Bonilla spent most of his time copping licks from ’70s artists like Johnny Winter, Rick Derringer, Mike Bloomfield, and Ronnie Montrose. Through a connection with the late rock manager Bill Graham, Montrose produced demos for Bonilla’s high school band, Rock Island, which used to open for acts like Quarterflash, Starship, and Sammy Hagar.

Over the years, the guitarists remained friends, and Montrose came in to lay down some hot slide guitar on “Razorback”, a tune from Bonilla’s instrumental debut, EE Ticket (a reference to the vouchers you need for the best rides at Disneyland).

“Ronnie’s been one of my favourite guitar players for years,” says Bonilla. “He’s just one of those players that never had to play fast to be good, you know. He just played intently and believed in what he did and had classic melodies, and that really has been an inspiration for me over the years.”

Another of Bonilla’s heroes from his woodshedding days, Keith Emerson, was handed a demo tape of his by a mutual friend and was immediately struck by the tune “White Noise”. After Bonilla’s performance at a Bay Area club, Emerson approached him and asked if he could play piano on the tune—if and when he took it into the studio.

An awestruck Bonilla didn’t turn him down.

The recent raves for Bonilla’s fancy fretwork in mags like Guitar and Downbeat make the 31-year-old guitarist out to be another Joe Satriani, and one listen to EE Ticket reveals why. But the most intriguing piece on the album doesn’t involve Bonilla in full shred. It’s a tape recording of him when he was 10 years old, telling his no-nonsense guitar teacher—who wants him to forget the lesson and play something that he “knows how to play good”—not to sweat it. “I can play this!”, spouts the little smart alec.

“It’s funny,” says Bonilla, “I have friends who hear that and go, ‘Boy, you haven’t changed at all—you’re still as cocky as you ever were.’ ”

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