David Bowie’s Phenomenal Guitarists
By Daniel Brooks
David Bowie is a masterfully eclectic innovator unlike any other, and has earned his place in the Rock pantheon many times over. Ever the musical explorer, Bowie has influenced, and in a few cases, invented, more genres of popular music than some of his fellow greats have recorded albums. From his early folksy psychedelia, to heavy rock to glam rock, Philly soul, funk, proto punk, ambient minimalism, new wave, world music, new romantic, industrial and electronica and on and on and on, Bowie has left an extensive and lasting body of work that continues to inspire successive generations of new musicians.
Throughout his long and illustrious career, David Bowie has collaborated with many of the most distinctive and creative musicians on record. Like Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Roger Miller and other star makers, Bowie could fill his own wing in some hall of fame with collaborators whose own works are, themselves, the stuff of legend. Especially noteworthy are the guitarists whose contributions have been essential elements of Bowie’s outstanding body of work.
Mick Ronson hold a special place among all the great guitarists who have shared a creative collaboration with David Bowie. Bowie had enjoyed some modest success with a couple of charming but mostly ignored albums and his 1969 single, “Space Oddity,” but it is his work with Ronson that marks his “classic period.” Their first album together, the 1970 release titled “The Man Who Sold the World” is a hard rock masterpiece defined as much by Ronson’s riff-oriented, fuzz heavy guitar as it is by the dark, enigmatic tone of Bowie’s voice and lyrics. Never content to just do more of the same, their next album, “Hunky Dory,” rolls back the guitar-dominant rock but brilliantly expands the template with a growing sense of compositional confidence.
Given Bowie’s theatrical background, androgynous nature and creative drive to challenge musical and cultural norms, it seems almost inevitable, from our perspective, that he and Ronson would lead the music into unexplored realms with “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” An essential Rock masterpiece, this loosely defined concept album artfully balanced Bowie’s alien androgyny and Ronson’s definitively masculine guitar with a singular sense of urgent drama that elevated Glam Rock to high art. Unfortunately, Bowie’s absolute absorption into the character of Ziggy had an adverse effect on his personality. In July 1973, at the end of the tour for their follow up album, “Aladdin Sane,” Bowie’s growing doubts about his own sanity led him to announce the “retirement” of Ziggy and the breakup of the band. His collaboration with Mick Ronson had come to an end. Of course, Mick Ronson would go on to become a successful session player, touring guitarist and record producer before his all too early death in 1993.
After his escape from Ziggy, Bowie sought a complete change of identity and genre by moving the U.S. and beginning work on a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984.” Although he was denied the rights to the source material, the work was salvaged in the album “Diamond Dogs” a decidedly soulful and funky departure for which Bowie played all of the guitar parts. For the tour, however, Bowie recruited Earl Slick as his guitarist. Earl Slick’s powerful, rhythmic perfection helped drive Bowie’s sound on the following “Young Americans” and “Station to Station” albums. With a straightforward approach that could be adapted to perform in any context, Slick and Carlos Alomar would become Bowie’s go to rhythm guitarists for the next decade or so.
Bowie has stated that he often chooses guitarists who use the instrument as a sound source. As his musical evolution took a turn toward the avant garde with “Station to Station” and his collaboration with Brian Eno beginning on the 1977 album “Low,” Bowie found he needed a guitarist who could leave convention behind in search of the unpredictable creative answer. As the de facto leader throughout every incarnation of the seminal Progressive Rock band King Crimson, Robert Fripp had long been a well-respected guitarist when he began his collaboration with Bowie. Fripp’s phenomenal technical abilities have always been equal to his fearless embrace of the unprecedented idea, and his work on the 1977 album “Heroes” adds a level of instrumental grace and gravitas not heard since Bowie’s work with Mick Ronson. Fripp would continue his work with Bowie in 1980 on an equally creative set of recording sessions that led to Bowie’s “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).” Many musicians point to these two albums as a creative peak equal to anything Bowie had accomplished previously or since. May we all be so lucky to ask the question: What do you do after you’ve created music with a guitarist as good as Robert Fripp?
Well, if you’re David Bowie, you go on tour with Adrian Belew. Belew had been touring with Frank Zappa when Bowie recognized his talent and invited him to play on the “Heroes” tour in Fripp’s place. Like Fripp, Belew doesn’t just re-imagine the guitar, he often transforms it into something unrecognizable and transcendent with a surprisingly musical animal sounds, liquid atmospheric ambience and beautifully unidentifiable washes of alien tone sculptures. His work on the “Heroes” tour was preserved for the album “Stage,” and Belew would stay on to contribute to Bowie’s “Lodger” album before moving on to join Fripp, Bill Bruford and Tony Levin in a whole new incarnation of King Crimson. In 1990, Belew would return to perform as musical director, guitarist and singer on Bowie’s Sound and Vision Tour.
In 1982, David Bowie went to Switzerland to attend the Montreux Jazz Festival. He was impressed by a young Blues guitarist with a giant Stratocaster sound and a tireless improvisational gift worthy of comparison to Jimi Hendrix. Bowie invited Vaughan to contribute to his next album. “Let’s Dance” went on to become Bowie’s biggest hit, outselling even his classic records three times over. Vaughan went on to establish his own legend after plans to have him tour as Bowie’s guitarist were scuttled. Earl Slick once again proved he could play anything by stepping in for the tour.
In 1987 Bowie called upon his childhood friend Peter Frampton to contribute to his new album “Never Let Me Down.” The following tour helped revive a lagging career, inspiring Frampton to move to Los Angeles and begin creating music again for the sheer joy of it. During the 1987 tour, Bowie met a daring guitarist named Reeves Gabrels. Like Fripp and Belew, Gabrels often approaches the guitar with from an unconventional musical angle and coaxes unpredictable music out of it. His collaboration with Bowie began in 1989 the formation of Tin Machine with the brothers Hunt Sales and Tony Sales on drums and bass. The experimental nature of the project had run its course by 1992, but Bowie and Gabrels continued to work together throughout the 1990s on such albums as “Outside,” “Earthling,” and “Hours.” Gabrels proved to be as essential to the sound and substance of Bowie’s creative output as Mick Ronson had in the early 1970s. Now, as Bowie continues to create, we have to wonder who his next great guitarist will be . . . and what kind of new music will they introduce to the world?