David Bowie’s Phenomenal Guitarists

October 18, 2012
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?


  1. Malc says:

    Nice article. For his next guitarist I think Bowie should hook up with Andy!

    posted on October 18, 2012 at 10:48 pm
  2. mr. perez says:

    Alomar is barely mentioned. I think that his contributions to Bowie’s music were bigger.

    posted on October 18, 2012 at 10:51 pm
  3. Matt says:

    Earl Slick is one of my todays favorite guitarist! :)

    posted on October 18, 2012 at 10:52 pm
  4. David Gennaro says:

    Good article, good writing.

    posted on October 18, 2012 at 10:59 pm
  5. Yoko Mono says:

    Can’t believe Carlos Alomar is constantly overlooked…he has contributed so much more than most of the guitarists mentioned and continues to be ignored.

    posted on October 18, 2012 at 11:18 pm
  6. Jet Age Eric says:

    Good piece, but I agree with Mr.Perez re: Alomar.

    posted on October 18, 2012 at 11:20 pm
  7. DC says:

    What about Reeves… When he came out with that wall of Mesa’s WOW. Such a innovative and overlooked player!

    posted on October 18, 2012 at 11:42 pm
  8. Stephen Caratzas says:

    Alan Parker played guitar on “1984” on the Diamond Dogs album.

    posted on October 18, 2012 at 11:42 pm
  9. DC says:

    Great article also!

    posted on October 18, 2012 at 11:43 pm
  10. Marcelo Kalef says:

    Great Article!!
    But I have a question.
    Why SRV did not appears on Let’s Dance videoclip?

    posted on October 18, 2012 at 11:49 pm
  11. Art says:

    FINALLY!  Somebody recognized Adrian Belew!!!

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 12:00 am
  12. Peter Mickelson says:

    Pete Townsend played on Scary Monsters too. That guy is a good guitar player.

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 12:14 am
  13. Ian says:

    Eleven Bowie albums, Yes, ELEVEN that Carlos Alomar played on !.
    Get a grip Mr Brooks.

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 12:43 am
  14. Matthew Spousta says:

    Why no mention of the incredibly talented Gerry Leonard? It’s kind of a glaring omission to leave him out of the article.

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 12:46 am
  15. Spider from Mars says:

    Few people know but Stevie Ray Vaughn got paid union scale and few if no royalties for his sessions with Bowie. Bowie being a brilliant musician was also a brilliant businessman…. After all Its not called the music BUSINESS for nothing…

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 12:46 am
  16. Gregory Tyson says:

    These are list of great guitarists…. But,  Carlos Alomar is/was a great musician!!!!!

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 1:12 am
  17. Stu Mannix says:

    Although all of Bowie’s guitarists we’re total masters at their art, I would have to say that Reeves Gabrels was my overall favourite. He was so inventive! Straight out of left field! Fab!

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 1:28 am
  18. Todd Husken says:

    What, no David Torn???!!!!!!!

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 1:54 am
  19. Kaveeks says:

    Interesting article

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 2:07 am
  20. Brandi Suzanne Fjeld says:

    I agree that I too am a little disappointed that GERRY LEONARD was not mentioned in the article.I love David Bowie so much and I think Bowie should team up with either Slash or Mark Ronson.

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 2:38 am
  21. Chazz Hamilton says:

    You’re forgetting the 2 or 3 records Mr. Bowie just did with David Torn… ouch! Torn’s an amazing player, and should recieve much more recognition!

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 2:56 am
  22. Jan Bellemans says:

    Glaring omission: Nile Rodgers’ outstanding production,compositorial as well as arranging skills AND fantastic guitar work on Let’s dance.

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 3:01 am
  23. Simon Milliman says:

    Bowie’s last album and tour featured Gerry Leonard and the return of Earl Slick. Check out the live DVD from Bowie’s Reality tour if you don’t believe me, but I think those two are simply two of the best players on the planet and the perfect compliment for Bowie. The album Reality is actually one of the first albums I turn to when I need to be inspired. It’s one of Bowie’s best and hasn’t yet received the “classic” status that it probably deserves. When David makes his next album I hope he continues with Leonard and Slick.

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 3:09 am
  24. Aszk says:

    Bowie did not played all the guitar parts on Diamond Dogs. Alan Parker, who played on Serge Gainsbourg’s Melody Nelson, helped Bowie on 1984. Earl Slick played Rock ‘n’ roll with me

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 3:37 am
  25. keith says:

    I’m fortunately or unfortunately old enough to have see every iteration of guitarist that toured with DB live. Mick Ronson was arguably the most influential in defining DB as an true rock icon. I do ho wever agree absolutely with DB’s desire to find players that use the guitar as something more than just a 6 stringed singular instrument. I’m a Rock player primarily but when I do play jazz or blues I introduce effects and playing techniques that are totally foreign to Blues especially. Jeff Beck does it too. I get a lot of “Purist” flack for doing it and it just shows the lack of vision and Genera arrogance that makes me laugh and feel absolutely happy I play like I believe.

    Thankfully the Zappa’s the DB’s felt the same. PS - You still have to be an MF of a player to pull it off with credibility.

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 3:54 am
  26. Steve Schibuola says:

    Best collaboration-that-almost-was . . . Bowie and Michael Rother of Neu! for the Krautrock-inspired Heroes . . .

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 5:25 am
  27. C. Bradley Jacobs says:

    Pete Townshend and Dave Grohl played on ‘Heathen’ in 2002. The list goes on…

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 6:28 am
  28. zerf says:

    Bowies albums are indeed wonderful, but the power his bands produce and his presence make for one othe best live acts period.

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 7:00 am
  29. Gonzo Watts says:

    Very cool article. I have been a Bowie fan since I was 11, thanks to my older brother, but I have barely scratched the surface on listening to all of his material. By the way, you missed the word “to”. Bowie did not move New York. He is good, but no that good.

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 8:46 am
  30. Brian Turshman says:

    You left out the ever so Funky Nile Rodgers, who played the other part of Let’s Dance with Stevie Ray.

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 9:23 am
  31. B3N says:

    no mention of Reeves Gabrels? He really helped to modernise Bowie’s sound in the 90’s from the Outside & Earthling albums

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 9:58 am
  32. J says:

    Indeed, Alomar is worth more than a simple line, such a good guitarist, and he played a lot for Bowie.

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 4:58 pm
  33. M13 says:

    What about ‘Wild T (Tony Springer)’, that did a great tour with Bowie in 94 after playing on the Black Tie White Noise album?  Tony is simply a fantastic player.  Constantly overlooked but he is a powerhouse on stage.

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 9:48 pm
  34. David Thomas says:

    David Bowie has been very fortunate to have had some sublime players in his band over the years.I really rate Carlos Alomar who was in his band when i saw them live in the uk on the ‘serious moonlight’ tour. Adrian Belew is the man though….

    posted on October 19, 2012 at 11:02 pm
  35. Virginia says:

    Mick Ronson will always be the greatest… the cream always rises to the top and he’ll never be forgotten.

    posted on October 20, 2012 at 10:58 am
  36. Abbacus says:

    Fame, fame,fame,fame,fame.

    posted on October 20, 2012 at 1:39 pm
  37. CC says:

    Bowie should turn to Bill Nelson of Be Bop Deluxe.  It would be a great pairing. I often wondered why it did not happen sooner.

    posted on October 21, 2012 at 9:40 pm
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