Who is David Bowie's Most Essential Guitarist?
The world lost a monumental artist this week, with the passing of David Bowie. Among Bowie’s extraordinary talents, his knack for recruiting exceptional guitarists is sometimes overlooked. From Mick Ronson to Robert Fripp and beyond, the players with whom he surrounded himself often did their best work under his guidance. Below, we profile nine guitarists who helped give shape to Bowie’s timeless legacy.
Mick Ronson made a couple of cameo appearances on Bowie’s Man of Words, Man of Music album (later re-titled Space Oddity), but it was on Bowie’s glam-metal opus, The Man Who Sold the World, that Ronson truly came into his own. Using little more than his trusty Les Paul and a wah pedal, Ronson went on to become the propulsive force behind all of Bowie’s Ziggy-era recordings. Pinups, Bowie’s underrated 1973 covers disc, remains one of rock’s greatest guitar albums, thanks to Ronson.
Earl Slick was just 22 years old when Bowie recruited him to replace Ronson in the wake of the breakup of The Spiders from Mars. An integral part of the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour, Slick went on to play on Bowie’s 1975 album, Young Americans. It was Slick’s searing six-string work on Station To Station, however, that caused guitar fans to stand and take notice. Slick later occupied what would have been Stevie Ray Vaughan’s role on Bowie’s 1983 “Serious Moonlight” tour, and went on to play with Bowie during the early 2000s and on 2013’s The Next Day.
Without Robert Fripp’s angular riffs and unique tone, Bowie’s 1977 album, “Heroes”, might have had an altogether different sound. “Joe the Lion,” a high point, finds Fripp unleashing whip-like riffage the likes of which have rarely been duplicated. For the title track, Fripp placed strips of tape on the studio floor to indicate where he should stand to sustain certain notes. Fripp reconnected with Bowie for the 1980 album, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), and once again put jagged bite into such songs as “Fashion” and “It’s No Game.”
Carlos Alomar’s resume included tenures with James Brown, the soul band The Main Ingredient, and a stint with the Apollo Theater House Band before he teamed with Bowie in 1974. His long-running role as Bowie’s rhythm guitarist and sometimes-musical-director resulted in some of the most momentous recordings of Bowie’s career. Alomar co-wrote “Fame” (along with Bowie and John Lennon), developed the riffs for “Golden Years” and “Stay,” and introduced Bowie to singer Luther Vandross, who was essential in the making of the Young Americans album. Alomar’s stellar work is also a prime component of Bowie’s pioneering “Berlin trilogy” – Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger.
Peter Frampton’s career was in the doldrums when he got a call from Bowie in 1986, asking him to play on his next album. Following the making of that LP, Never Let Me Down, Frampton went on to occupy the lead-guitar spot on Bowie’s 1987 “Glass Spider World Tour.” The working relationship between the two men was short-lived, but Frampton’s tenure with Bowie helped fuel a career resurgence. “Until then, I hadn’t realized just how much [Bowie] had championed my career, or how much he respected me,” Frampton recalled, in a 2001 interview. “It really meant a lot.”
Reeves Gabrels first met Bowie in 1987 after the guitarist’s then-wife, Sara Terry, gave Bowie a demo tape featuring her husband’s work. Duly impressed, Bowie asked Gabrels to be the guitarist in Tin Machine, a hard rock quartet that also included brothers Hunt Sales on drums and Tony Sales on bass. Gabrels’ extravagant playing style has sometimes been maligned, but there’s no denying the virtuosity involved in his technique. To hear him at his most subtle and expressive, check out his work on Bowie’s 1999 VH1 Storytellers set.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Having seen Vaughan play at the 1982 Montreaux Jazz Festival, Bowie recruited the then little-known blues guitarist for his Let’s Dance album. The choice proved inspired, as Vaughan unleashed warm, bluesy solos that helped fuel the title track, “China Girl,” and other high points. On a personal level, Bowie and Vaughan clashed, an unfortunate circumstance that resulted in Vaughan being dismissed just prior to the start of Bowie’s “Serious Moonlight” tour. As the world knows, however, Vaughan went on to carve out a magnificent solo career, cut all too short by his death in 1990.
It’s hardly surprising that Bowie would be drawn to Adrian Belew’s eclectic, adventurous style. In 1978, Bowie pilfered Belew from Frank Zappa’s band, and the gifted six-stringer went on to play on Lodger, the first studio album on which he had ever worked. Belew subsequently left to join forces with Talking Heads and King Crimson, but he returned as Bowie’s musical director for the 1990 “Sound + Vision” tour. “[That’s when] I felt I became a close friend,” he recalls. “We were together all the time.”
Bowie himself was no slouch on guitar. His wonderful 12-string work is all over Man of Words, Man of Music, and his rhythm acoustic playing was absolutely essential to both The Man Who Sold the World and the Ziggy Stardust album. Furthermore, for 1974’s Diamond Dogs, Bowie assumed nearly all the electric guitar duties, giving the music a raw, sludgy, Stones-y sound that makes it one of the most sonically distinctive albums of his career.