Mick Ronson’s 10 best solos

By Sergio Ariza

Mick Ronson is remembered as David Bowie’s right hand man in his period of 'Glam' splendor, which is understandable if we consider that his guitar can be heard on masterpieces of the caliber of Hunky Dory or The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars; but Ronson is much more than that. He is, quite simply, one of the most important guitarists of the 70s and an incredible musician, always willing to contribute the best for the song, without caring if his own brilliance shines or not. Here are 10 of his brightest moments as a guitarist, either with Bowie, with others or by himself.  

Michael Chapman - Stranger In The Room (February 1970)

Mick Ronson’s fame is usually linked to his time with Bowie, and rightly so, but we must not forget that Ronson is, after the White Duke himself, the most important man in Bowie’s career. Just listen to this song by Michael Chapman, in which Ronson's guitar shines brightly, to hear the similarities of his sound with the wonderful Hunky Dory, recorded almost a year after this marvel. And the fact is that Ronson's collaboration with his countryman Michael Chapman left a wonderful album, Fully Qualified Survivor, in which the singer-songwriter benefited from the incredible work of the guitarist. Legend has it that the record company offered Chapman several of the best session guitarists in England but unimpressed he replied: "The gardener in my village plays better than these." Ronson, who at that time combined his membership in the group The Rats with gardening in Hull, appeared with his ’68 Les Paul Custom "Black Beauty" (to which he had returned the natural finish, removing the paint, to increase the response of the high frequencies), plugged into an amplifier, and everyone present could check after hearing things like this Stranger In The Room that Chapman was not lying...

Elton John - Madman Across The Water (March 1970)

His work with Chapman did not go unnoticed and Elton John requested his services while recording Tumbleweed Connection. Together they recorded the first version of one of the best songs by the pianist, Madman Across The Water. In the final result, Ronson's work shone so much that several people in Elton's record company told him that it eclipsed him. The fact is that John released it and re-recorded it with other musicians, and the song provided the album title to his next work. The version with Ronson would not see the light until a 1992 reissue, in which it was clear that it was the superior version.

David Bowie - Memory Of A Free Festival (Between March and April 1970)

A little bit before all this Ronson had had a successful audition to become David Bowie's guitarist. The chameleon was looking for a bigger rock sound and Ronson fitted like a glove in his new vision. The first thing they recorded together was Memory of a Free Festival, a song that had already appeared on the album David Bowie, released in 1969. From the first moment Ronson's guitar becomes the protagonist with an extensive solo that supports what Bowie said after hearing him for the first time: "I just found my
Jeff Beck." 'Glam Rock' had found its perfect match, its own Mick and Keith.

David Bowie - Moonage Daydream (12 November 1971)

But if there is a song that serves to show how much Ronson contributed to Bowie's career it is Moonage Daydream. Just listen to the version that Bowie recorded with Arnold Corns (a fictional band) in February 1971 and then compare it with the one he recorded with Ronson and released on his masterpiece, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars , to understand the fundamental role Ronson played in Bowie’s 'Glam' period. It's not just that the riff sounds totally bigger and different, it's that the final high tension solo seems to come from another galaxy, like Ziggy himself. When they played it live, it expanded to allow Bowie to change and for people to take delight in the other stars of the show, Ronson, his Les Paul and his 200-watt Marshall Major.

Lou Reed - Vicious (August 1972)

In the midst of the Ziggy Stardust and 'Glam' explosion, David Bowie saw one of his dreams fulfilled when he was put in charge of producing an album for one of his idols, Lou Reed. But Bowie did not sit alone behind the mixer, but brought his right hand with him, a Mick Ronson who wrote string arrangements and put his Les Paul at the service of Reed in Transformer. The album opened with Vicious, a song in which over the chords of Reed's Epiphone Riviera, Ronson runs several lines as dirty and perverted as the protagonist of the lyrics, a vicious guy who hits you every hour with a flower.


David Bowie - Time (January 1973)

Aladdin Sane
was the fourth album that Bowie and Ronson made together, as at that moment their communication was almost telepathic, as on stage. Despite being an album in which Mike Garson's piano gained a lot of weight, the protagonist was still Ronson's Les Paul. Even in this cabaret number, he shines brightly in two totally different moments. The first is when he comes in after Bowie's heavy breathing; it's brief, aggressive and deranged. Then comes the second, sometimes in the foreground, and sometimes behind the voice of Bowie, singing "We should be on by now", which is pure Bach. This solo has a classical and melodic construction, and shows ‘two faces’ of Ronson in the same song; a versatility that very few guitarists have.

Ian Hunter - Once Bitten, Twice Shy (January/March 1975)

The second major collaboration of his career came when Ian Hunter asked him to join Mott The Hoople. Bowie had decided to cut Ziggy and 'Glam' to the bone and that meant abandoning Ronson too. Although the record company sought to promote him as a solo artist, Ronson was not comfortable with the spotlight and took refuge with Hunter. He only had time to record Saturday Gigs (in which his Les Paul Custom made his mark) with the Hoople before he and Hunter left to form a duo. So they recorded Hunter’s first solo album, one of the works where Ronson's guitar shines the most. The song chosen to present it was Once Bitten Twice Shy, a success in the United Kingdom where near the mark of three minutes you can hear the 'feedback' of Ronson's guitar coming up, before he launches himself up the guitar neck like a madman. Then, after 15 seconds using a wah pedal, Ronson decides to stay with just one note. Do you want to know what it is to have a great tone? A great vibrato? Listen to the result; but the best definition had already been provided by the Stones, it's only rock'n'roll but I like it.

Ian Hunter - The Truth, The Truth, Nothing But The Truth (January/March 1975)

As we said Hunter’s first album contains some of Ronson’s best moments on guitar, and one that shines especially is The Truth, The Truth, Nothing But The Truth. Probably it is one of his longest studio solos of his career. It is a song that goes up in temperature as Ronson gradually adds his riffs. But the best comes with the solo, one for which Hunter prepared by reading a bad review of his second solo album, Play Don’t Worry. The anger and outrage are reflected in one of the best solos of the decade. As an aside I can only add that the collaboration between Hunter and Ronson did not end with this album and that it gave great results, such as on the excellent You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic or Welcome to the Club.


Mick Ronson - I'd Give Anything to See You  (November/December 1976)

Some people think that with a Les Paul and a Marshall it is very easy to tear the roof off a house, but that it is harder to make the Les Paul cry. Well, Mick Ronson is one of those who could do both, as an example I'd Give Anything to See You was going to be part of his third solo album but, after the disappointing sales of the first two, was archived and did not see the light until 1999, six years after his death. A shame because the two minutes of this solo are two of the most emotional that have been recorded with a guitar.
  The Wildhearts - My Baby Is A Headfuck (End 1992/Start 1993) At the end of 1991 Mick Ronson was diagnosed with cancer but he continued working. In 1992, he produced Your Arsenal for Morrissey and reunited with Bowie for the concert tribute to Freddy Mercury, and the recording of Black Tie White Noise. At the end of ‘92 he was contacted by the Wildhearts, a new group that was going to record their first album, as they wanted him to produce it. But the company learned of his illness and rejected the idea. In spite of everything the band called him and asked if he would be interested in recording a solo for one of their songs. Ronson accepted and appeared in the studio with a ramshackle Telecaster. The band was a little disappointed that he had not brought his Les Paul, but they taught him the song and told him that at the end there would be three solos and that he would play the second. After the first take they were so impressed that they asked him to repeat it even though it had been perfect, as they just wanted to see him play a little more. It was a normal reaction, the solo that goes before him is a good solo in Chuck Berry's style, but then Ronson enters and you know he is playing at another level. With his ramshackle Telecaster and a slide on one of his fingers, Ronson gives a 'guitar hero' lesson and says goodbye to the world reminding us that there have been few rock guitarists brighter than him, by taking a song to infinity and beyond. From the mark of three minutes and twenty-one seconds Ronson gives these (then) rookies 25 seconds of guitar ecstasy that remain a testimony to his mastery of the six strings, as it was the last recorded thing he did before he died, defeated by cancer, on April 29, 1993.