Ernest Ranglin – the guitar godfather of reggae and ska

He was an unheard-of 32-year-old guitarist from Jamaica. They were one of the best jazz house bands in the world. The shyly smiling West Indian stepping on to the stage for his first ever British appearance had been warmly recommended by Chris Blackwell – the founder of Island Records.

Ernest Ranglin was the man who had arranged a worldwide hit record that year… but Millie’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’ was an unlikely qualification to jam with the serious jazz stars at Ronnie Scott’s. The band took one look at this nervous West Indian, a few winks were exchanged and they launched into the opening number – a mindboggling mix of time signatures and fiddly chords. Someone must have thought it would be funny when this hick guitarist blew his big chance on his first gig in Britain….

“Maybe they thought I was a guy from the West Indies who could only play ‘Yellow Bird’,” says Ernest, now able to smile about that night. “They called a difficult tune that they thought I wouldn’t be able to handle.” But the Scott band had picked on the wrong guy. He may have been unknown over here but even back then, Ernest was the Caribbean’s greatest-ever guitar player.

He’d made his first instrument for himself when he was only four and had been playing professionally in hotel big bands since he was 16. Listen to some of his marvellously manic chromatic runs on his albums ‘Below the Bassline’ and ‘Memories of Barber Mack’ and hear how sizzlingly fast this man’s plectrum is, at the ripe old age of 64.

Much younger and even faster, on stage at Ronnie Scott’s that night 30 years ago, he must have almost shocked the comfortably bearded and polo-necked British jazz world to death. Ernest simply sat back and listened carefully to the structure of the house band’s tune, bided his time, took the last turn to solo… and then promptly blew the rest of them off stage.

Talking to me for Guitarist magazine in London Earnest remembered what happened with a mischievous chuckle: “I noticed everybody started to get excited. They realised they had me all wrong. “It was okay after that first tune. For the next tune Ronnie Scott brought a pillow to rest his head on the bandstand as though he was going to bed!”

“Okay” is a typical understatement from the self-effacing guitarist. For after that triumphant night Ernest was the featured act at Scott’s – for nine months. And at the end of the year he came top of the annual Melody Maker jazz poll. Nowadays Ernest is an acclaimed jazzer, his fans include guitarists like Charlie Byrd, Stanley Jordan, Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow.

Since the sixties he has spent 30 years jamming, accompanying, playing sessions for and touring with some of the top jazz acts. And Ernest isn’t just another old jazzer. There’s another interesting side to his playing: reggae – not an area of music renowned for demonstrations of guitar expertise. Ernest is the man who invented reggae… and ska, too. That was back in the mid-fifties, when he was playing in recording sessions of up to 30 songs a day in Kingston, Jamaica. The Louis Jordan shuffle rhythm was the vogue at the time. Ernest gave it a more calypso feel… and found he had invented ska.

“I formulated a thing where we placed the emphasis on the second beat,” he explains. “That gave it an identity. It felt awkward but eventually everyone got into it.” Then it was time to invent reggae. “I would say I’m the first guy who started the reggae music,” he says. “It was just a little faster and more bouncy. With Scratch Perry and Monty Morris we made the first reggae tune. The word just came from a dance in America. The beat was like ‘a-reggae, a-reggae, a-reggae, you know?” Until recently the jazz and reggae strands of Ernest’s playing career were pretty separate. Then Island Jamaica Jazz arrived on the scene and seem to have been the first people to say to him: ‘Play whatever you want’. In response, Ernest has come up with a strange musical mix: reggae jazz.

The first manifestation of this strange musical form was last year’s album ‘Below the Bassline’. One track, ‘Surfin’, was the unlikely soundtrack of a Halifax Building Society’s TV ad. The next album ‘Memories of Barber Mack’ is due in April. Like the last release, it features some heavy dub beats (Sly Dunbar plays drums), simple chord sequences and fretloads of great jazz lead from the old fellow himself, including cleverly interjected snatches of classic reggae and ska melodies.

“I been doing this for a long time,” he says. “But until now I never had a good record company that is interested in what I want to play. Now they’re giving me a chance to do what I want. You see I’m a jazz man AND I’m a reggae man.” The chords are simple, the lead lines are fast and interesting. “I don’t want the chords too far out. It goes over people’s heads. Anyway that’s the skill – you can get so much out of one ordinary chord,” he says. Barber Mack, incidentally, was a sax player that Ernest saw as a boy.

He was famed for making his sax ‘smoke’ during particularly energetic solos. His secret was that he’d nip off-stage just before to blow cigarette inside the sax with the keys closed. Ernest spoke to Guitarist in the Hyde Park Plaza Hotel at the end of a brief British tour that had earned rave reviews. The Times had cooed: “The best Jamaican grooves you ever heard at the highest level of musicianship.” Ernest hadn’t read the Times’ piece. I read it to him and he chuckled wheezily.

“We-e-ll, ” he began again, sounding as laid-back as a man in a hammock. “I’m always hoping to learn more you know?,” says Ernest, who qualifies for his free bus-pass this year. “The guy who thinks he has got there won’t learn anything new.” Ernest would be any guitarist’s perfect grandad. It would be so good to be able to tell your mates: “This is my grandad, he invented reggae.”

He would certainly win any Nelson-Mandela lookalike competition and has a voice that is so like Lenny Henry’s stock venerable West Indian accent that you think he’s putting it on. “We-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-ll… ” he slowly begins his answers in a voice wavering between gravelly low and sing-song high. At one point in the interview Ernest is talking so slowly I think he’s falling asleep. I apologise for keeping him.

“Hey it’s no problem man because you’re interested in me,” he says. “Listen, it’s all part of the business. I’m not worried. I’m happy.” Ernest is so modest and low-key it’s almost difficult to converse. He shrugs off inventing two major musical forms as if it was a funny little thing he did in his youth. And he’s so unassuming about his playing he could hardly remember what guitar he plays when I asked. “It’s a nice guitar, it’s not plywood you know – it’s made from proper wood,” he tells me, perhaps recalling that he made his first guitar as boy from a big sardine can.

After much scratching of his short frizzy grey hair, he managed to recall that his main concert guitar is a Guild. “N-o-w-w-w, I think it is called X175. Anyway I bought it in Florida in 1990. It’s one of the newer models.” Ernest is compelling evidence for the theory that your guitar matters a lot less than what you do with it. “I have a lot of guitars but I just never seem to find a guitar I like,” he says. “I always have to take them back. Maybe I haven’t enough money to buy the really expensive ones,” he laughs. “One day I ought to sit down with someone who knows what they’re talking about and find the right guitar.”

Well it’s no good looking at me Ernest. Who knows which guitar is best for a form of jazz reggae only played in the world by one 64-year-old? “Anyway, when I find the right guitar I’ll know and I’ll stick with it,” he says. “I have about one dozen guitars. I have a Travis Bean and a Roland guitar Synthesizer but I prefer to play a plain guitar. I think Guild and Gibson are good,” he says. “Are Martin still making guitars?” he asks me. “Perhaps I’ll try one of them. I have a Guild acoustic. I’ve had it reconditioned many times. “I have a lot of little effects and things that I got years ago and I ought to get them out to check they haven’t got dry rot in them because I’ve never used them,” he chuckles again. “I just prefer that natural sound.”

Ernest’s ‘natural sound’ comes via a right-hand mix of plectrum alone and plectrum and fingers together. “Sometimes I even put the plectrum in my mouth,” he adds coyly as if confessing to a serious crime. “When I try to play like Wes Montgomery (octave lead lines) I just use fingers to get a rounder sound. You can do it with a plectrum but I don’t like to sound too tinny. That’s for those rock and roll players.” What about those super-fast, note-perfect, machine-gun runs? “I practise chromatic runs in my head,” he says, slightly mysteriously.

“It’s all about harmony, if you have a good sense you can hear it in your mind. And then you make lines that go somewhere. That’s just the experience of the years.” There’s a lounge-bar smoothness to his playing that is reminiscent of George Benson. Journalists have obviously made the observation before. During a gig at the Jazz Cafe in London this month Ernest introduced his band, ending with: “…and on guitar, George Benson.”

I dared to ask about the American jazz guitarist-balladeer. “I like Benson a lot. But don’t say I sound like him. He sounds like me! I was around first.”

So how did Ernest Ranglin, pre-war Jamaican schoolboy become Ernie the fastest musicman in the West Indies? (Apologies to Benny Hill… and actually Ernest lives in Florida now). Impressed by their son’s efforts on the sardine can and twine, his parents gave Ernest a ukelele. “My family weren’t encouraging, you know. They wanted me to do school work not guitar playing. But I guess the music was in me. In the end they realised that.” Ernest proceeds to raves about the most influential guitarist of his life. It’s a bloke I’ve never heard of called Cecil Houdini (I wanted to ask if he ever tied himself up in chains and hid in his speaker cabinet but chickened out). Anyway, back in Kingston before the war, this chap was the young Ranglin’s prime inspiration. “He was the first really good player I heard,” he says. “Until then I was pretty self-taught. Then I heard Houdini play ‘Sophisticated Lady’ and thought ‘wow – I didn’t know you could play right down the neck like that!’ “I used to listen to the Jamaican radio and I had tutor books by Ivor Maurant. Eventually I decided I didn’t want to copy other guitarists so I just got good at reading other instruments’ music, like saxophone, violin or piano.

“When I joined a band I had to play the baritone sax part. I had to get good at tranposing pretty fast because baritone means that means if the band is in C major you play in A major.” Around this time he bought his first proper guitar, a Gibson ES175DN for the then hefty price of $250. Ernest talks fondly of the big band days back in the West Indies. “I’ve had some good times, man,” he says slowly. “After the hotels everyone would go to this bar called the Conch Shell in the Bahamas for a jam. I had a lot of good friends there and played every night. One time Les Paul came by and saw me. He admired me so much that he tracked me down in Jamaica and flew there to see me. He stayed for a while and we had a great time, you know. He offered me a guitar but I never got round to taking it.”

Ernest laughs when I ask him about singing. He used to sing when he was younger but now no-one would want to hear it, he says. “If I’d been able to sing I may have been a big star. The people are looking at people who sing. It’s a big plus.”

One Jamaican who could sing a bit but couldn’t touch Ernest for guitar playing was Bob Marley. “He used to live in front of my house and I used to watch him play cricket on the sidewalk when he was a boy,” says Ernest. “I knew him well, we were good with each other you know. “One day he came to the studio with a tune and I tried to fix it up a bit. I saw a good future in him. He was strict with the other fellows. He was very serious and trying his best to be proper. I thought he will become a great guy.” After helping them get going, Ernest played guitar on several Wailers’ recordings in the mid-sixties. Later when Marley was a worldwide star he called on his old friend again. “He offered me a lifetime job to teach him. I would go on tour with him and show him how to compose, the right and proper way about harmony and all about the instrument. We didn’t speak of money but I know it would have been a good money.”

Ernest had to turn the offer down, he was too busy recording with people like Johnny Nash and Jimmy Cliff. He chuckles: “It might have been interesting, you know. Bob Marley may have ended up playing jazz!”

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