Stringing Along

W hen Rohn (“Ron”) Lawrence isn’t playing in Lilly’s Pad at Toad’s Place, he’s hopping on planes to Texas, California, Florida and virtually anywhere his guitar is demanded. Shredding for over 50 years—closer to 60 if you count the plastic Mickey Mouse guitar he picked up at age two—Lawrence has made a name for himself as a trusted mercenary, an axeman competent across R&B, jazz, rock, pop and even metal.

A master mimic, Lawrence says he gets called by TV commercial producers who say, “Come in and sound like Eddie Van Halen or Larry Carlton or Carlos Santana.” He’s worked on jingles for large brands like Ford, McDonald’s and the US Army, blending like a chameleon within each context.

How’d he get his polymorphic powers? “By playing a lot,” he says. His parents also had a lot to do with it.

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Lawrence grew up in West Haven in the ’60s and ’70s, when the area was still sparsely developed. His house was surrounded by woods, horses and dairy farms. “People from New Haven used to call us ‘country,’” he recalls. His parents didn’t play any music, but Lawrence says they listened to everything. In kind, Lawrence became a musical omnivore. “A B-flat-minor-seventh chord is the same in jazz, classical or blues,” he notes.

Despite decades of professional work on stages and in studios, Lawrence can’t read a lick of music. He wasn’t classically trained. That puts him in the company of legends like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton and others who learned by pattern and feel instead of clef and key.

Besides playing as a background musician for other artists’ albums and tours, Lawrence has released two buttery R&B albums under his own name: Hangin’ On a String (1994) and See Ya Around (1998). Live work gives him his highest visibility, though. He says he plays a minimum of three gigs a week, which he says occasionally jumps up to seven or more. He’s played in almost all fifty states—only Hawaii, Maine, Montana and the Dakotas still elude him—and far outside the US, in places like Japan, Europe and the Virgin Islands, where Lawrence lived for a time.

It took years to stake out his current space within the industry, and when asked if he’d struggled, the answer came back fast and forceful: “Oh hell yeah!” After moving to Boston at the age of 31, there were times when Lawrence was, as he puts it, “broke as hell.” His girlfriend back in New Haven had lost her job and he was paying both rents. With amp and all, he’d take the public bus to gigs, and when he got paid at the end of the night, he could afford a cab back home. Often, after returning from multi-month tours, Lawrence would find his previous recurring local gigs had dried up. The venues had filled in his empty slots with other acts, who weren’t about to be pushed out.

Through tough times, it was Lawrence’s musical flexibility that came to the rescue. “If I had to play a polka to keep the lights on for another two weeks, damn right I’m gonna play a polka!” he says.

Today, Lawrence doesn’t have to play many polkas. He’s got a constant string of gigs and a reputation that gets him more. He settled in New Haven some 23 years ago, about the time his son was born, and now that his son is out of college, Lawrence says it’s time to refocus on himself, which means producing a new album.

I asked what genre he thinks it’ll be. Blues? Rock? Smooth jazz?

“I hate that term,” Lawrence grumbles. “Smooth jazz has brought more hacks out of the woodwork than any other genre.” (He thinks rock and roll runs a close second.)

Like his first two records, Lawrence says he expects the next one will be thoroughly R&B. It’s the style that he thinks most lets his guitar sing, like a human voice.

Just don’t call it smooth jazz with yours.

“A Night of Smooth Jazz with Rohn Lawrence and Friends”
Lilly’s Pad (Toad’s Place) – 300 York St, New Haven (map)
Mondays, 9:30pm-12:30am | $5
(203) 624-8623

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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