Straight outta Queens like rock’n’roll attack dogs, the Ramones made a debut LP that sparked off the punk revolution. Douglas Noble gets up on the downstroke
The Ramones’ 14-song self-titled debut from 1976 proved a huge influence on punk and metal bands alike, with fast tempos, short songs and pulverising guitar parts based on almost constant downstroked eighth notes. ‘We play eighths better than everyone,’ claimed bassist Dee Dee Ramone.
The Ramones cut every single ounce of fat from their music. The longest song, I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement, clocks in at 2:35; the shortest song, Judy Is A Punk, lasts a mere 1:32. BPMs range from the relatively sedate 132 for I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend to 184 for Chain Saw, but the bulk of songs were in the upper range – nine of the 14 songs have tempos in the 170s and upwards. Asked about this relentless pace, Dee Dee commented, ‘I don’t know how that came up. We just were such nervous people, and that’s how we played.’ Songwriting credits were often split four ways, but bassist Dee Dee Ramone was the main creative force.
Live, the Ramones started songs with a ‘1, 2, 3, 4 count-in from Dee Dee – both Listen To My Heart and Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World from Ramones use a count-in at the start. ‘We couldn’t learn how to do the silent count,’ claimed Dee Dee.
Guitarist Johnny Ramone’s distinctive guitar sound and technique was an integral part of the band’s sound. ‘I always wanted the guitar to sound like energy coming out of the amplifier. Not even like music or chords; I just wanted that energy coming out,’ he said. Johnny was not keen on guitar practice. ‘There’s no point in practicing. You’ve either got it up there or you haven’t.’
Given his determinedly anti-technique philosophy and the desire to create a continuous wall of sound, it’s not surprising that Johnny was unimpressed by guitar solos. Indeed, on Ramones there’s only one song, I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You, that contains anything approaching a guitar solo; see Exercise 10. Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue (Exercise 11) contains an instrumental section at 0:34, but it’s a unison riff between guitar and bass rather than a guitar solo.
Curiously, Judy Is A Punk is in the key of E flat, confirmed by live footage (see Exercises 5 and 6); all the other songs on Ramones are in conventional guitar keys, with I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend being played in the ‘fretboard key’ of D with a capo at the second fret, so it sounds in the key of E (see Exercise 9).
Arrangements on Ramones are kept very simple – usually two rhythm guitar tracks, playing the same part, and double tracked vocals. Handclaps can be heard on Judy Is A Punk and Listen To My Heart; Chain Saw opens with the sound of a, erm, chainsaw, and in the background of Beat On The Brat there’s the sound of, presumably, a baseball bat hitting something…
1: I, IV and V Chords
One might expect the Ramones to use solely power chords with no third interval, but live photos and footage often show Johnny Ramone fingering the basic open E chord barred up the fretboard – for example, the A chord shown here – and the basic open A chord barred up the fretboard, as used in these D and E shapes. So, he’s fingering major chord shapes rather than power chord shapes; listen closely and you can hear the major third in much of the chording, albeit partly disguised by the overdriven tone and Johnny’s emphasis on the lower three strings of these shapes, which give a root/fifth/octave power chord for each of these shapes.
2: I, IV and V Progression
Many Ramones songs are based on progressions using the root, fourth and fifth chords – Blitzkreig Bop, Beat On The Brat, Judy Is A Punk and I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend. Here’s a I, IV, V progression using the voicings from Ex 1. Play at the indicated tempo of 177 and use all downstrokes to get a consistent, strong tone – alternate down and up strumming has a different feel and sound.
3: Early Changes
Many Ramones songs derive their hurtling momentum from changing chords immediately before the beat. Here’s the same progression as Exercise 2 but with the chord changes in bars 2 and 3 half a beat earlier instead of on the beat, and the first chord of the change held over the beat for a full beat. Notice how this significantly changes the feel, adding a real sense of forward propulsion.
4: I, IV and V Variation
Loudmouth starts with the same chords as in Exercises 1, 2 and 3 but in a different order, similar to the exercise below. The niceties of music theory were not important to the Ramones, and some of their songs include chromatic chords (ie chords that don’t normally belong in that key) or temporary modulations to other keys, such as Loudmouth and I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement. Essentially, they were simply stringing together a bunch of progressions that sounded cool… and it worked brilliantly.
5: Live Chord Shapes
Live photos show Johnny fingering this second inversion major chord shape – shown here at the sixth fret, producing an Eb/Bb chord. Photos appear to show the second finger on the third string, seventh fret, as shown in the chord chart in brackets; although this has no effect on the sound of the chord, it makes the change to the Bb voicing shown here easier, since the second finger stays on the same note. Photos also show Johnny’s pinky hovering very close to the second string, ninth fret when fingering the Eb/Bb shape, but it’s safe to say he wasn’t actually fretting with this finger since it would create a sus4 chord… not part of the Ramones’ harmonic vocabulary!
6: I-V Progression
Here’s a I-V progression in the key of Eb using the chord shapes from Exercise 5. This progression can be heard in chorus of Judy Is A Punk, starting at 0:14. The progression is written here as a I-V progression in the key of E flat, but it could equally be thought of as a IV-I progression in the key of B flat… it all depends on how you look at it.
Remember to place the second finger on the third string, seventh fret for the Eb/Bb chord (even although it doesn’t affect the sound of the chord), then leave it in place when changing to the Bb chord. The first finger similarly stays in place, so the only fingers that need to be moved are the third and fourth fingers. This progression is integral to the Ramones’ music, almost always played at a very fast pace, so it’s important that this change is made as efficient and accurate as possible. In the third bar, when fingering the Eb/Bb chord, strike only strings five, four, three and two, producing an Eb chord, but with the advantage that the first finger is already in place for the Bb chord.
7: Pattern of I-V Moved Down The Fretboard
Much mileage can be obtained from the two chord progressions illustrated in Exercise 6. As suggested in the second half of Ex 6, finger the Eb/Bb shape from Exercise 5, and when striking with downstrokes omit the bottom string, thus creating an Eb chord, but enabling a nice smooth change to Bb.
Play the first line of this exercise, then move down a tone (two frets’ worth) for the repeat, then move down a further two frets on the third repeat. This is similar to the intro of I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement. Though written here in the key of E major, this progression could be thought of as I V bVII IV bVI bIII, that is E B D A C G. The Ramones use it ’cos it sounds cool…
The second line of the exercise uses the same two chords, but in a different rhythm. Move down two frets on the repeat. This is similar to the verse of I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement.
8: Rock ‘N’ Roll Semitone Riff
Dee Dee reveals his rock’n’roll influences in I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement with a bass line using semitones similar to that in the exercise, arranged here for guitar. The exercise shows this technique arrangement for guitar, similar to the bass riff at 0:08.
I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend is played in the ‘fretboard key’ of D but with a capo at the second fret, so it sounds in the key of E. The intro is a rare example of Johnny Ramone playing two separate guitar parts: one guitar is playing the I, IV, V chords of D, G, A, while the other plays an arpeggiated part based on open string voicings (In live performances these arpeggios were ditched). Footage shows Johnny swapping guitars at the start of this song, changing to a guitar with a capo at the second fret. Incidentally, I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend is the only song on Ramones to contain a minor chord – a Bm chord, sounding two frets higher as C#m, first heard at 0:22.
10: Lead Licks
There’s only one, very minimalist guitar ‘solo’ on Ramones: it can be heard at 1:12 on I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You. It’s based on a so-called ‘unison bend’. Finger the second string, 12th fret with the first finger, then place the third finger on the third string at the 14th fret, with the second finger immediately behind it. Strike third and second strings at the same time, then bend the third string up two frets’ worth so it reaches the same pitch as the note on the second string. This creates a clashing, jarring, dissonant effect. In the exercise the unison is held for three beats, then the bend is released and the phrase tails off with a pull-off to the third string, 12th fret, fretted with the first finger. Live, Johnny played a similar but busier fill an octave lower, to help keep the sound filled out.
11: Unison Break
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Instead of a conventional guitar solo, Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue contains a unison break played an octave apart by the guitar and the bass, heard at the 0:35 point in the song. This break only uses four notes – D, E, G and A, all from the E pentatonic minor scale (E G A B D E). This break is similar to the two bar riff shown in the exercise below. Simple, but as always very effective.