A Brief History Of David Bowie’s Guitarists
Star men for the Starman
2016 marks the return of one of music’s best known and most celebrated individuals. By the time you read this article David Robert Jones (David Bowie to you and I) will have released his 25th studio album, Blackstar. You may have seen it mentioned on the news. There’s a video of the title track on YouTube which leaves nobody in any doubt that he is still, at the tender age of 69, one of the most brilliant/bonkers artists this (or any other) country has ever produced.
Over the years he’s dabbled in pretty much every genre of music you can think of – from jazz to funk, glam to ambient, he’s consistently pushed the boundaries of what a pop star can offer. One constant along his journey has been a steady stream of collaborations with some of the best, most influential and creatively unique guitarists around, providing the backbone onto which Bowie could add the decoration. With the new album incoming, we felt it was a good time to look at some of David Bowie’s guitarists from over the past 40+ years.
Quite brilliantly, Mick Ronson was recruited into Bowie’s band in 1970 but in order to do so had to leave his prestigious role as Hull City Council’s chief rugby pitch white-line-painter. No, really. Must have been a tough decision to make for poor Mick. Two days after agreeing, he was performing with David on Radio 1, marking the start of a short but hugely successful period in both men’s lives.
It was often said that Mick provided the masculinity and gruff northernness which balanced well against Bowie’s slightly more effeminate demeanour. This kind of relationship has been seen in many of rock’s biggest acts over the years, and Bowie recognised it when quoting that he and Mick were as good as double-act as Mick and Keef or Axl and Slash. Mick’s guitar style was initially geared around fuzz laden heavy rock riffs, as evidenced on The Man Who Sold The World, yet he was able to progress his sound with each new album until the group disbanded in 1973.
In terms of gear, Mick showed slavish dedication to his Gibson Les Paul Custom, of which he stripped the original black finish (leaving it more like a Gibson Les Paul Custom in Alpine White) and removed the humbucker covers in an effort to boost the instrument’s top end response. Amp-wise, he was of an era of rock excess so it figures that a standard 100w Marshall wasn’t enough. Instead, he tended to use a newer (at the time) 200w Marshall with four KT88 valves installed for unprecedented levels of volume and power. There was little in the way of effects, save a wah pedal which sometimes acted as little more than a mid-range destroyer when the occasion called. Straight and simple, just the way he liked it.
Slick & Alomar
With a renewed desire to make music again, Bowie moved to the States and began producing songs on his own. The resulting album saw his style move into more soulful territory and, when it came to touring, the wonderfully-named Earl Slick was drafted in, along with the Puerto-Rican player Carlos Alomar. The pair would form the backbone of Bowie’s rhythm section for years to come. Style-wise the pair come from slightly different angles; Slick was essentially a blues player with some British hooks, while Alomar was more steeped in soul and funk. The mixture of styles worked; indeed Alomar ended up playing on more Bowie albums than any other guitarist.
The pair used a variety of gear over their time with Bowie. While Earl kept the Les Paul theme running, he also dabbled in Strats and Teles, often through Ampeg amps although he now favours Orange gear, in particular the AD30 combo. Alomar, on the other hand, used a range of more esoteric gear, including a headless Steinberger (pure 80s) and a unique looking guitar by the high end American brand Alembic.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Legend has it that in 1982 Bowie attended the famous Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, where he was suitably impressed by a young blues guitarist called Stevie Ray Vaughan. You may have heard of him. Bowie was so enamoured that SRV was drafted in to play on the recording for Let’s Dance, adding in those famous warm, bluesy lines that punctuate the track.
At the time, SRV was trying desperately to launch his own band, which ultimately caused the premature end of the relationship between him and Bowie. Double Trouble, Stevie Ray’s ‘other’ band, had allegedly been told they could open for Bowie on the latter’s world tour however, at the last minute and for reasons unknown, this offer was apparently removed which caused Stevie to pull the plug on his involvement. He committed himself to his own band and, well, you could say he went on to make his own mark on music.
There’s little to say about Stevie Ray’s rig which hasn’t already been said. Safe to say if you’re playing a decent American Strat like this one then you’re in the right ballpark, although emulating the man’s phenomenal blues technique and musical dexterity might take a bit more work. He also varied his amp line-up, most notably using a variety of Fender amps like the Super Reverb, Vibroverb and Bassman, while the quasi-mythical Dumble Steel String Singer also got a run out when the occasion called for it.
It has been said that Bowie chooses his guitarists based not on their technical prowess or superior music theory grounding, but on whether or not they use their instrument as a ‘sound source’. Plenty of guitarists can play better technically, or faster, than the guys he chose but few can match what they offered in terms of maverick talent. No-one on the list better personifies this concept than Robert Fripp. Formerly of prog giants King Crimson, Fripp was brought in to add colour and creativity to the more experimental albums along the way, including Heroes and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps.)
Fripp’s talents expanded far beyond ‘normal’ musical boundaries; if you’ve ever used a Windows computer, chances are you’ve heard the familiar four-note motif when you boot up? Or perhaps the short series of sounds when you load MS Mail? Both were the result of Robert’s work with the software giant, and have subsequently made him arguably the most listened-to musician in history.
Gear-wise, Fripp was a confirmed Gibson Les Paul man, although his playing techniques were rather less obvious. He claims to have been tone deaf from an early age, and nurtured his own unique picking style called cross-picking in an effort to stand out. He also, unusually, doesn’t have a musical grounding in the blues, instead taking his cues from jazz and classical music.
For the final entry in our whistle-stop tour, we introduce perhaps a new name to many of you; Ben Monder. Ben is a jazz guitarist, based out in New York, who was brought in with a series of other talented jazz players to add something different to the mix. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s longtime producer, said the idea of having jazz guys playing a rock sound appealed to them a lot more than having their usual rock guys playing a jazz sound.
As well as the above list of regulars, Bowie also had the fortune to play with a number of high profile guitar legends. Nile Rodgers, for example, worked with him around the time of the Let’s Dance album, helping produce it and providing the famous choppy riff which makes up the song’s backbone. You can find an article we produced on how to sound like Nile Rodgers here, by the way. You’ll also find examples of players like Jimmy Page, Peter Frampton and Jeff Beck littered throughout Bowie’s career, making him out as something of a star’s star.