Modern Rock Orchestra combines rock’s drive with classical’s soul

Modern Rock Orchestra combines rock's drive with classical's soul

Music isn’t Grant Ferguson’s full time job. And he’s okay with that.

Ferguson is a guitar maestro. He’s the leader of Modern Rock Orchestra, a band that combines a four-piece rock and roll group with a ten-piece orchestra to create something inspired by both genres but totally its own. Ferguson writes and composes each song. He wants to play rock that has the bones of classical music. 

He’s got wild spiky hair and a rocker goatee. But when Ferguson isn’t on stage, he’s pretty white collar. He’s the CEO of a company called UFS, a lender that focuses on giving entrepreneurs money to start or buy their own business.

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“Music is my full time passion and obsession,” he said. “So I’ve set it up so I can have an income that helps me fuel and fund my music and ambitions.”

He has huge respect for musicians who make creativity their full time gig, but he never wanted to do that.

“For some of these folks,” he said, thoughtfully, “music becomes something that they no longer associate with love and passion. It’s an obligation or a grind.”

He never wants to wind up in a cover band trying to pay the rent.

“I have never wanted to play ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ in a shitty bar somewhere,” he said with a smirk.

What Modern Rock Orchestra does is certainly not bar music. Their music is melodic and ornate. Ferguson’s stabbing guitar usually leads, playing over a hard charging rhythm section made up of rock band staples like bass, drums and keyboards. Plenty of bands stop there, but not Modern Rock Orchestra. There are ten members who play strings, with violins, violas and cellos all represented. The strings allow the rest of the band to soar, they take on a sort of ethereal feel.

They might sound heavenly, but Ferguson said MRO was born out of frustration.

“As an instrumental rock musician,” he said, “you play in these venues and you find out that a lot of your audience is male guitar players. And as cool as that is, it’s a very narrow niche.”

Ferguson is a gearhead. But he wants his audience to be made up of people who maybe aren’t as into the theory as he is. He’d like to play arpeggios for people who aren’t totally sure what an arpeggio is.

“I don’t want to be a guitar player’s guitar player,” he reflected. “I want to be a musician. I want to be known for my compositions. I just happen to play guitar.”

He just happens to play it quite well. But he’s had lots of practice.

Grant Ferguson’s Modern Rock Orchestra is a combination of a melodic rock band and a 10-piece orchestra section. 

Ferguson was born in Scotland. His family immigrated to America when he was young, but his musical roots stretch back across the ocean. His uncle was an accomplished guitarists, who lived on the Shetland Islands, where Ferguson’s mother was from. The Shetlands, which are the northernmost point of the United Kingdom, are known for their strong musical traditions, especially a traditional fiddle style that grew from the region’s proximity to both Scotland and Scandinavia. Ferguson had two cousins who were Shetland fiddle players.

“At a very young age,” he remembered, “we’d get together and play the fiddle and the guitar. There’d be whiskey and the smell of peat smoke and the salt spray of the ocean.”

Those experiences imprinted on him. But it was in high school in Colorado that he really fell in love with guitar.

“I was playing trumpet in the school band, and that wasn’t nearly cool enough,” he said with a chuckle. “I wasn’t ever going to get any chicks playing trumpet.”

So he switched from trumpet to guitar lessons, and got good enough to start playing in a garage band. He recruited some friends, and even got his girlfriend to be the lead singer. Even though she eventually dumped him to date the drummer. They were sort of like Fleetwood Mac, except they didn’t make it.

“We had the drama, but not the fame,” he said.

Grant Ferguson stands with members of Modern Rock Orchestra. 

Music took a backseat in college, as Ferguson focused on his business degree and burgeoning career. But a divorce around 2000 changed his mind.

“I had my priorities completely upside down,” he said. “I had back-burnered my musical interests and talents. I had a guitar that just sat on a stand as decoration in my living room.”

So he picked the axe back up and attended the Atlanta Institute of Music in 2004 to refine his chops.

“I decided to get really serious about my craft,” he described. “Learn what the hell I was doing.”

He got acquainted with melody and music theory and started to apply it.

Ferguson’s wife’s family is from Great Falls, and her mother and sister live in Billings. Charmed by the area, the couple bought some cabins outside of Red Lodge and now spend part of the year there, and part of it in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“If I started out being like Fleetwood Mac, now I’m like John Mayer,” he joked. “I’m one of those part-timers.”

Montana is now his musical epicenter. He partially recorded his most recent record, “Windswept Isle” at Paris Montana Studio, a studio in one of the outbuildings at his Red Lodge property. Ferguson and his wife call their homestead the Paris Montana Ranch, and it’s blossomed into a couple business ventures. They rent out two cabins on the land, and now have Paris Montana boutique stores in Red Lodge and Billings.

Fittingly, Modern Rock Orchestra got their start in Billings, and in 2021, they played their first show at the Nova Center for the Performing Arts. It was their innagural gig, and they sold the place out.

For Ferguson, it was validation. Proof that his dream of this group wasn’t just a vanity project. “People got the concept of modern rock orchestra without Grant Ferguson,” he said proudly. “It was taking it beyond me as a person and beyond my music.”

Mondern Rock Orchestra and Grant Ferguson are playing the Babcock Theatre on Friday, Oct. 28. 

“What I really wanted to do is expand the audience,” he said. “I wanted to find a way to take instrumental rock to a bigger stage.”

It’s working. Modern Rock Orchestra played Bozeman and Missoula, and have branched out as far as Ohio.

It’s an ornate project. But it travels well. Classical musicians are well practiced at reading music.

“You get them the score ahead of time, get together at soundcheck to run through the tricky bits and you’re good to go,” Ferguson said.

Modern Rock Orchestra contains a slew of great area musicians, some of them from the Billings Symphony. Ferguson’s compositions are all written for a full orchestra. He’d love to work with a big force like the Symphony someday.

“We’re just taking it organically,” he said. “One step at a time.”

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