The Most Important Guitarists in David Bowie’s Career

By Sergio Ariza

Now that 2 years have passed since David Bowie passed away, we at Guitars Exchange would like to pay homage to this rock god through some of the most important guitarists in his career, from fundamental Mick Ronson, to experimental Robert Fripp, and on to the blues flavour of Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Mick Ronson

Mick Ronson is not only the most important guitarist in his career but also the person who most influenced his music in a career full of brilliant collaborators such as Tony Visconti,
Brian Eno, and Carlos Alomar. Ronson electrified and transformed him into a rock star, becoming his right-hand-man during the heady years in the Ziggy Stardust run. His contribution goes beyond being his lead guitarist, he was in charge of  many of the band’s arrangements, as in the marvelous strings on Life on Mars?, and his Les Paul is one of the legendary elements of ‘Bowie universe’ with top form moments like The Width of a Circle, Life on Mars?, Moonage Daydream (which became a big live song), Suffragette City, Ziggy Stardust and The Jean Genie. When Bowie wanted to leave Ziggy behind, he didn’t hesitate to break up his band, the Spiders from Mars, captained by Ronson like his alter ego. However, before his death, they managed a much awaited reunion in the Freddie Mercury's tribute show, Mick Ronson and David Bowie were back playing together.  By that time Ronson had cancer, but that didn’t stop him from playing on Bowie’s Black Tie White Noise album in a version of I Feel Free.  


Earl Slick

In 1974 Bowie released Diamond Dogs, his first post-Ronson record, instead of replacing him, he decided to record almost all the guitars himself (including the riff on Rebel Rebel) but he also knew he needed a lead guitarist and that’s how Earl Slick appeared, who played small bits of the record and stayed on as lead guitarist for the promotional tour that wound up as his first live album, David Live. But the best came on Station to Station, put out in ‘76 where Bowie would push him to new heights and Slick would respond with incredible guitar work that can be heard on the title cut, one of the best solos of his artistic career. His impeccable work on Stay, complimented perfectly by Carlos Alomar, another strong point on the album where he used his Les Paul and a Stratocaster through several Marshall amps with the volume to the max. Despite not participating in the Berlin trilogy, Bowie would go back to him in the 21st century on records like Heathen, Reality, and on tour, and his come-back record in 2013 The Next Day on which we could hear Slick on tracks such as Dirty Boys or Valentine’s Day.

Carlos Alomar

If anyone took up the torch of Mick Ronson it was Puerto Rican guitarist Carlos Alomar who was the guitarist who play on most Bowie albums, totalling 12. His beginning couldn’t have been more promising with Young Americans, broadening the time known as ‘plastic soul’ in the singer’s career. His experience playing R&B with people like James Brown or going on tour with the Ohio Players was perfect for the new sound Bowie sought. His work puts him up there as one of the best rhythm guitarists of all times, and his fingerprint is obvious on many of the star’s music, such as the riff on Fame, the song that gave him his first #1 in the USA, and he took part in the composition of pieces like The Secret Life of Arabia and DJ from the Berlin trilogy. His funky style is priceless on records such as Station to Station, Low (pay attention to things like Breaking Glass and Speed of Life), Heroes and Scary Monsters.

Robert Fripp

When they were recording Heroes, Brian Eno asked his mate Robert fripp to drop by the Hansa Studios in Berlin, so he did, resulting in one the biggest moments in Bowie’s career. The King Crimson leader, already 3 years in retirement, gave the opening song a distinct sound , the threatening The Beauty and the Beast, and the brilliant Joe the Lion, but the best was yet to come. On what is possibly his most famous recording, the title song, Fripp managed to get a unique and masterful sound, jumping 10 years ahead of the My Bloody Valentine experiments with ‘feedback’. After listening to it once, he plugged his Les Paul into his Hiwatt, with a fuzz pedal and moved around the room, raising the volume to sustain the note with ‘feedback’. After 3 takes,  producer Tony Visconti, saw this was ideal and decided to use the first two and put them 3 at once. As always, Bowie was able to usurp the best out of many people to get the best out of himself, and on this song he got the best song of the Berlin Trilogy, (and alongwith Life on Mars? of his whole career). The collaboration was so successful that three years later, in 1980, Fripp was back with awesome results on the best songs of Scary Monsters, like the title number, Fashion, It’s No Game, Kingdom Come, Up the Hill Backwards and Teenage Wildlife.

Adrian Belew

Fripp’s contribution on Heroes was so remarkable that Bowie saw himself needing someone who could do his parts onstage when he returned to the road in 1978. The chosen one was found in the most unlikely place, Frank Zappa’s band. Adrian Belew didn’t waste a minute in jumping to Bowie’s bunch, and his career got a boost from that tour. The result was so good that Bowie put out another live album called Stage, and chose to count on the 29-year-old player for the finale record of the Berlin trilogy, Lodger, where you can enjoy Belew’s work on songs like Boys Keep Swinging or his splendid solo on DJ. He would return as Bowie’s musical director 11 years later, and also as guitarist, for the 1990 Sound +Vision tour. By then he had been 9 years in the new formation of King Crimson, together with the man Bowie had originally signed him on for, Robert Fripp.

Pete Townshend

David Bowie started his career as David Jones (his real name) in various mod bands, like The King Bees in the mid-60s. As part of the mod scene, Bowie was a great fan of The Who from whom he would cover two songs, (I Can’t Explain and Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere) on his record of covers from 1973 called Pin Ups. It’s not surprising that Pete Townsend appears on a couple of occasions as lead guitarist, the first on Because You’re So Young from Scary Monsters and the 2nd, 22 years later on Slow Burn from Heathen.


Nile Rodgers

Nile Rodgers was one of the best rhythm guitarists in the world, but also an amazing producer and composer of numerous hits when David Bowie showed him the structure to Let’s Dance and told him “I think I have a hit”. When Rodgers put some funk to it with his one-of-a-kind 1960 Fender Stratocaster, which he called ‘The Hitmaker’ for obvious reasons, you could say that Bowie was right. Rodgers was put in charge of producing the entire record and to put his touch on songs such as the aforementioned, Modern Love and China Girl that turned this album into the best selling effort of his career. They would repeat 10 years later with Black Tie White Noise, though with different results.

Stevie Ray Vaughan

On July 17, 1982, David Bowie was among those who witnessed the legendary performance of Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band Double Trouble at the Montreux Festival. In his own words, he hadn’t seen a guitarists like that since he saw Jeff Beck for the first time before he joined the Yardbirds. He didn’t hesitate to introduce himself to the Texan in a cowboy hat to tell him he would hear from him. In December of the same year the legendary guitarist was in New York adding his amazing blues/rock solos with an Albert King flavour, to songs designed to break the dancefloor that Rodgers and Bowie had cast. At the time, Vaughan still hadn’t released a solo album and was practically unknown. His Stratocaster, however, had already reached the mastery for which he would be remembered as seen in songs like Let’s Dance, Modern Love, China Girl, Criminal World, or, especially in his incredible solos on Cat People (Putting Out Fire)

Reeves Gabrels

The two records Tonight from 1984 and Never Let me Down (1987) that followed the success of Let’s Dance are considered, almost unanimously, among the worst of Bowie’s career. The man who had opened new roads had become a commercial creature wanting to repeat the danceable success of Let’s Dance. However, they didn’t call him the chameleon for no reason so, at the end of the 80s, he chose to say to hell with success and follow his own instincts. By then Bowie had discovered the Pixies and alternative rock brought back his love for electric guitars. All of this had a lot to do with the firebrand guitarist Reeves Gabrels with whom he formed Tin Machine in the late 80s. The band included the Sales brothers in the rhythm section and resulted in a remarkable first album which many saw as a mix between Sonic Youth and Station to Station, Gabrels and his guitar, a Steinburger plugged into a Mesa Boogie Quad Preamp and a Boogie Simul-Class Stereo 295, gave it the special sound. The 2nd album was released in 1991 but wasn’t the same as the first and Bowie would resume his solo career, but the sound of Gabrel’s guitar would remain a fundamental part of the 90s sound on records like Outside (‘95), Earthing (‘97), and Hours (‘99). Nowadays he’s the guitarist with Robert Smiths The Cure.

Gerry Leonard

The experimental mood music from Gerry Leonard’s guitar has been a basic part of Bowie in the 21st century, appearing on Heathen, Reality, and The Next Day, as well as on their respective tours. Among his contributions are his ghostly guitar on The Loneliest Guy, the nod to Fripp on The Next Day or the arrangement for the acoustic version of Loving The Alien on the Reality tour in 2003.

(Images: ©CordonPress)