Guitarist Ronnie Wood is back on the wagon, back playing with his pre-Rolling Stones band and back in the studio. He talks to Scott Kara.

Even though the Rolling Stones are not on tour and don't have an album out, they are everywhere this year. The release of concert film Ladies and Gentlemen ... The Rolling Stones next month will be the second retro-Stones film this year following Stones In Exile, a documentary about the making of 1972's Exile on Main St accompanying a reissue of that classic album which included 10 extra tracks. This month sees the release of Life, the apparently no-holds-barred autobiography of rock 'n' roll's ultimate survivor, Keith Richards.

Then there's handsome old rooster Ronnie Wood who this month releases his seventh solo album, I Feel Like Playing. The busy guitarist is also reuniting with his old band the Faces (with Simply Red's Mick Hucknall on vocals in place of Rod Stewart), he does a weekly radio show in Britain, and when he's not playing music he's painting.

And while Wood might be Mick and Keith's sidekick - and employee of 35 years - he's still the one acting most like a true Rolling Stone.

He's open about his ongoing battle with the booze, there's the drug binges, the partying, and, most scandalous of all in recent times, the 63-year-old's relationship with young Russian woman Ekaterina Ivanova - 40-or-so years his junior - which reportedly broke up his marriage of more than 20 years to Jo Wood. Wood and Ivanovna have since parted.

Well, at least he used to be the one still living up to the rock 'n' roll lifestyle that the Rolling Stones helped invent, because recently Wood has cleaned up his act.

"I'm sort of eight months clean now," he says down the line from London, sounding chuffed, and, presumably because of the number of times he's been in rehab, even a little surprised with himself.

"It's really exciting seeing life clean - and painting and playing music with focus."

This from the guy who until his new album had never really bothered too much about what key a song was played in. Incredible really how the guitar legend can be in the greatest rock 'n' roll band of all time and not be concerned with a basic fundamental of music.

"I never really concentrated that much in the past," he laughs.

"It was just the partying and the free-for-all and take it like it is, you know. But [now] I have more focus which is a very new thing for me. And I learned more about music and songwriting on this album than any other - about constructing songs and designing the key of the songs to fit my voice, and making sure the songs were in the right key for me.

"That's something I've never really been that up-to-date with before."

That's Wood for you: he's a carefree, laid-back, and very affable rock 'n' roll animal.

The other thing about Wood is that, while Mick and Keith have only ever been in one band, he's been in many of the great bands over time and is a connecting point among British rock royalty. Which means the guy's got war stories to burn - be it being chased at a party in Detroit by Janis Joplin who was brandishing a Southern Comfort bottle; hanging out with reggae greats Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley; or flatting with Jimi Hendrix in London in the late 60s.

"Jimi used to come home after gigs and be disappointed with the way he sang. I said, 'Well, don't be too disappointed about that Jimi because I think you can play guitar quite well. Don't worry about it'," he chuckles.

He loves telling these stories. But he's not prone to gushing and delivers them in a cool, deadpan way.

And then there's a song like Strange Brew by Cream - a particular favourite - which takes him back to his formative years in the early 60s when he was in his first band the Birds.

He remembers being in the office of music manager and big-wig Robert Stigwood, who managed Cream and the Bee Gees, among others, when Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton and the other members of Cream wandered in.

"They all came in and cut Robert's tie in half and then proceeded to trash the office. I'd be looking at all these successful guys - Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce - and we were like, 'Oh yeah, we want to be like them'. And he [Stigwood] already had the BeeGees and stuff like that... it was really funny to be part of that office."

From the Birds, Wood briefly joined the Creation, then hooked up with the Jeff Beck Group in 1968 before they split up in 1970. He and Jeff Beck singer Rod Stewart, along with members of the Small Faces, formed the Faces who released four albums before also calling it quits around 1974.

Following this Wood released his debut solo album, I've Got My Own Album to Do, which featured his old mate Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger, and in 1975 Richards asked him to join the Stones following the departure of Mick Taylor.

Wood is a little reticent when talking about his Stones' bandmates, whom he hadn't seen until recently following the band's A Bigger Bang Tour which finished in 2007. Not that there's any sign of the Stones calling it a day after nearly 50 years.

"The Rolling Stones have still got itchy feet," he says. "I just saw Keith last week, and it was great to see him because I hadn't seen him for a few years, and we just hit it off and started playing. I saw Mick the week before, and Charlie the week before that, so we are all itching to get back together."

One thing he is forthcoming about is the process of writing songs with Richards - not that it's rocket science.

"It boils down to one thing: you've either got something going or you haven't. I get something going with Keith and it comes from a musical angle, with maybe some words thrown in. Keith and I do it together."

It's as if the Rolling Stones is only a small - albeit very important - part of what he does. As well as his solo work and his radio show (where he plays his favourite songs and tells his war stories), he's a prolific painter and exhibits regularly. Painting and music have always gone hand in hand for him because growing up in Yiewsley, in southwest London, his two older brothers - Art and Ted who died in 2006 and 2004 respectively - were also musicians and artists. "So if they painted I would paint and if they played I would play. So it was in my blood to do both really. The art is something that's just me, and with the music it's a group effort."

Even though I Feel Like Playing is a solo album, Wood has called on many of his musical mates, including Slash, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons (he's a big fan of the band), Flea from the Chili Peppers, soul great Bobby Womack, and old Faces' bandmate Ian McLagan, to collaborate on it.

The other thing making this record unique among the many he has recorded since the early 60s is that he never intended to make it.

Steve Bing, the wealthy American developer and film producer (he backed 2008's Shine A Light, a Stones concert film directed by Martin Scorsese), called Wood up one day and said he'd booked a studio for him to record an album. "He said, 'People want to hear you play music, man. Come on'. I said, 'Well, okay'."

The result is a diverse album steeped in blues rock, with flashes of soul and reggae. And this old dog is still learning a few new tricks from singers and players like Womack and Gibbons.

"They're my musical food. I feed off of them and they feed off of me. There's just some kind of magic that surrounds you when you dig someone like Bobby Womack out of the woodwork.

And," he continues, "you learn something every time you write a song. I'm forever learning, all the time. It wouldn't be any fun if I wasn't."

LOWDOWN

Who:
Ronnie Wood, guitar legend and Rolling Stone
What: I Feel Like Playing, out now

-TimeOut