Mick RonsonAlthough his name is less frequently raised in discussions of classic late ’60s and early ’70s Brit-rock masters of the Les Paul, this humble artist from Hull, Yorkshire, in the north of England wielded one of the most distinctive and instantly recognizable tones in the history of cranked guitar. Drop the needle on the start of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” and you’ll see the jaws of any and every guitarist in the room drop, while most non-players break into frenzied displays of air-guitarmanship. Bowie might have lived the Ziggy Stardust persona, but Mick Ronson’s high-octane guitar tone and fluid, infectious licks drove the musical experience behind Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.

In an era of lumbering glam rock, when the platform boots and sequined suits were often more entertaining than the flashy but shallow music that they sought to dress up, David Bowie’s thoroughly wrought alter ego brought substance, depth, and dynamics to the genre. And in joining sides with Mick Ronson and the Spiders, he tapped a musical force as compelling and valid as any of the “real” bands of the time—creating a group that could stride the stage right alongside Led Zeppelin, the Who, Free, or the Rolling Stones. Despite the makeup, the outfits, and Bowie’s evocative concoction of self-hyped androgyny, these guys rocked. Between Bowie’s elaborate, masterful songcraft and Ronson’s incendiary playing, hooks, and arrangements, this wild glam fable from outer space was a musical tour de force. So much so that despite being a shortlived stance in his 40-year career—the Ziggy era began in 1971 and ended in 1973 when their leader decided to “break up the band”—the Spiders forged a sound that David Bowie himself has never quite lived up to since, in the eyes and ears of many fans at least.

Ronson drew his power from simple, but mighty, ingredients. The Gibson Les Paul reined supreme with top British rock guitarists, and Ronson’s choice followed suit. His was a 1968 Les Paul Custom, the first “real” Les Paul with humbuckers to return to the market in eight years, since the demise of the single-cutaway Standard and Custom in 1960. Although it had emerged from the factory with the traditional Black Beauty finish, Ronson had the top stripped back to natural, apparently in a bid to increase it’s high-end response (a perpetual goal of players of the day). He reported in interviews having been told by a fellow musician of the day that stripping the top of an acoustic served that purpose well, and applied the same logic to his electric, although the results aren’t likely to have been anything near as significant with a solidbody guitar. Slightly more effective, perhaps, and another trend of the day, Ronson also removed the gold-plated nickel covers from his Les Paul’s pickups, a mod long considered to help boost high-end response (don’t try this at home—it’s easy to short out your pickups if you don’t know what you’re doing, and ruin a good pair of humbuckers!).

Mick Ronson

While this really was the age of the Les Paul, it was also an era of monstrous amplifiers, and Ronson’s choice was as gargantuan as any out there. Throughout his Ziggy era, Ronson played a Marshall Major head, a model that had evolved from the Marshall 200 of late 1967, an amp introduced to satisfy the arena-rock players who weren’t getting enough volume from the 100-watt Marshall JMP100 models (yeah, imagine that!). A big amp head in a widened cabinet, which Ronson nicknamed “The Pig” for its stout dimensions, the 200-watt major employed four large KT88 output tubes to belt out ungodly levels of sound pressure. It’s the kind of amp that few players can get away with using today, but whacked up toward full tilt on a big stage with a Les Paul Custom injected—and with Mick Ronson’s considerable talents turned loose on the strings—the Marshall Major produced a maelstrom of rock fury.

As with many great tonesmiths, Ronson didn’t throw a whole lot more into the brew. He used a Vox Tone Bender pedal on occasions when fuzz was required more than pure tube-amp overdrive, and also employed a wah-wah pedal, which he occasionally used as designed, but also sometimes left at set positions to act as a tone filter to notch his midrange sound. Ronson’s acoustic of the day was a Gibson J-200 (again today known by its original name, the SJ-200), the Super Jumbo that Bowie also played at the time.

Dig into the Ronson/Bowie catalog for other examples of timeless rock power. From the early years of their association, the pre-Ziggy “The Man Who Sold the World” (from the album of the same name) offers its relentless, addictive, slightly eastern-tinged signature riff. More upbeat, in both tempo and mood, “Suffragette City,” “The Jean Genie,” and “Panic in Detroit”—all unexpected frat-rockers of a sort—display trenchant tones, playful musicianship, and surprising staying power.

Ronson also recorded with Ian Hunter and Mott The Hoople (witness his signature sound on “All The Young Dudes”), Transformer-era Lou Reed (for whom Ronson also arranged and produced many songs), John Mellencamp (whose hit “Jack & Diane” Ronson co-wrote), and labored at a fitful solo career. Mick Ronson died in April 1993, of inoperable liver cancer.

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