Photo credit: Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival
How old were you when you started playing guitar?
What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?
My father gave me an electric guitar and amp for Christmas when I was 8. A black Fender Squier Strat and a little amp. I do not still have it but that was a killer little setup for an 8-year-old.
Did your parents or grandparents play any instruments? If so, what did they play? Did you ever get a chance to play with them?
My father played bass and sang a bit in a touring college band and later wedding bands. My mother sang when she was a kid. My great aunt Sister Catherine was the music director at her convent in Wellesley, MA years ago before she passed. There’s music in the family kind of all over but I’m the only one that I know of who does it as a career. I have played with my Dad before and my brother. It’s kind of a rare thing for our family, we hardly ever played together but music was something that was there and available to each individual.
Ryan's dad 'slappin da bass.'
What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your favorite?
I have a Collings OM and a Bourgeois Slope D as my primary acoustic guitars. And a Godin Uptown 5th Avenue as my primary electric guitar. They’re all just a blessing, especially those two acoustics. They’ll be making sound much longer than I will.
Ryan Playing his Collings OM.
Ryan playing his Bourgeois Slope D.
Ryan playing his Godin Uptown 5th Avenue.
What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?
D’Addario phosphor bronze lights for the acoustics, and some jazz light gauge with a wound 3rd for the electric. I used to have to change acoustic strings every two gigs but I guess I’ve mellowed out with my playing or something, as now I can go a few months without changing them. I remember once in 2001 I broke three strings in a 45-minute set. Guess I had to chill out...
Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?
I do and I don’t, sometimes do a bit of both within the same song. But I use the yellow Dunlop 0.73 primarily. Also some super thick Dunlop Jazztone 207 for some things.
Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?
Do you work on your own guitars or do you bring them to a guitar tech? Are there any guitar techs that you would like to recommend?
Bob 'Yukon' Stubblebine of Stubblebine Lutherie in Somerville, MA.
Micah Plante of Plante Guitar Co.
Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?
There’s a place called Fanny’s in Nashville that I really fell in love with. Carter Vintage is of course super amazing but almost mind-warping with what they have in there. This place Fanny’s just seems to have a smaller selection of all wonderful instruments. I wanted like 10 guitars that were in there last time I went.
At what age did you start writing songs?
I remember making some up and singing them in my head in the playground in like 5th grade. Like little raps and things. But then when I went to college at 18 is pretty much when it started.
What is your songwriting process? Is it the music or the lyrics that usually come to you first? Do you write old school on paper, or electronically?
Music first, generally. Often some bit of a lyric and melody will come to me at the same time and that’s what gets the ball rolling. I write in my notebooks, on my computer, and on my phone. Voice memos on my phone too.
Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?
If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
Tough question. There are so many I’d love to see: Django Reinhardt, Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, but to jam with? Derek Trucks comes to mind.
What are your top three “desert island” albums?
Uncommon Ritual by Edgar Meyer, Béla Fleck, and Mike Marshall
Amorica by The Black Crows
Buhloone Mind State by De La Soul
Black Sheep by Martin Sexton
What was the first concert you attended? What was the last concert you attended?
My dad took us to see Chicago in maybe 1984?
The Beatles or the Stones?
Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?
Wayne Tavern in Wayne, PA when I was in college in 1997-8? I know there was money involved, I probably just did it for the beer.
What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?
I sang at Carnegie Hall on a tribute to Django Reinhardt show with Stochelo Rosenberg, Al Di Meola, Larry Keel and Stephane Wrembel while my parents watched from the sixth row. That was a good one.
Front row L to R: Ryan Montbleau, David Gastine, Stochelo Rosenberg, Stephane Wrembel, Al Di Meola, Larry Keel
Ryan's album, For Higher, with George Porter Jr. on bass.
Ryan's album, I Was Just Leaving.
What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don’t have to name names).
Small club in Lancaster, PA that was downstairs from the bigger club, a long time ago when we were touring like crazy with the old band. Drummer had lost his ID, was 28-years old but his hands were X’d out and he was told not to drink. The young promoter gave him a beer at the end of the night after we had played for three hours in the bar. The owner of the club saw him with a beer in his hand and FREAKED OUT, bounced my drummer James off a couple of walls before throwing him out into the street, throwing the rest of his beer on him and saying that he couldn’t get back in the club. Then he refused to pay me the drummer’s share and eventually after much arguing slapped down 60 one-dollar-bills on the bar and told me to get the f*ck out. I don’t mind saying who it was. Chameleon Club, the downstairs bar part. Nick Schiadus was his name, not sure how to spell it but yeah, that was the worst experience. (Editor's note: The Chameleon Club shut its doors in 2020. The owner was Nick Skiadas.)
What are some of the venues you enjoy performing at the most? What things make the venue enjoyable for the performer (location, equipment, setup, organizers)?
I really like Infinity Hall in Norfolk, CT. The Narrows in Fall River, MA. There are places I’ve only played once where I just felt so at home: The Troubadour in LA, The Fox Theatre in Boulder. I think every club has its own vibe, its own culture in there. The great venues seem to have this top-to-bottom spirit where everyone on the staff really cares about putting on a great show. The 9:30 Club in DC felt that way.
Ryan playing at the Infinity Music Hall in Norfolk, CT.
How do you work out your setlist?
Loaded question! I still have a lot of trouble writing setlists, I always have. For solo-acoustic shows I generally just put a big list of tunes in front of me and pick them as I go. For the band and for bigger solo shows I do try to have more of a plan. But honestly, I could use some help with that if anyone has any good strategies.
Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?
I remember this old hippie poet named Ken looking me in the eyes when I was on my first tour and saying very clearly and slowly: “IT’SSS OKAAAYYYEEE.” I don’t know if that’s advice, but it still stays with me and I wish I had been able to take it more to heart. So much worry over the years, so much feeling of “I don’t know what I’m doing,” wondering about the band, wondering about the songs, worrying about every little thing and over-thinking. I talked to a young singer-songwriter today on the phone actually and gave him basically that advice. “You’re going to be fine.” So much of this is just the bare effort to get to the show and put yourself out there. There is hard work, of course, but in many ways the rest takes care of itself. Relaxation, stillness, and vigilance. Enjoy the ride, you have one of the best jobs in the world.
Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?
There are so many books and resources for overcoming that sort of thing. The War of Art comes to mind although I’ve never really read it so maybe I’ve been ok! Effortless Mastery. Stephen King’s On Writing is a favorite of mine.
The tried and true way of any artist is to get in there and do the work. If you have nothing that day, get in the room and sharpen your pencils. But get in there. Just put the time in. Err on the side of doing.
If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?
I think I would be a teacher of some kind.
Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your merchandise.
All that can be found on my website RyanMontbleau.com and all the usual social media suspects.
Photo credit: Katie Settel
I’m about to release Wood, Fire, Water, and Air, which is a combined version of the four EPs I put out over the last couple years, plus some bonus tracks.
And now it’s time to start working on the next one. I need to get in that music room…