Ziggy played guitar in David Bowie’s amphetamine-fueled glam rock outerspace masterpiece, but in real life it was Mick Ronson—the classically trained, understated guitar hero behind some of the most glittering and groundbreaking rock ’n’ roll innovators of the ’70s and ’80s. Fourteen years since his passing, Ronson lives in the hearts of millions of fans and the fond memories and seminal recordings of his famous friends. On Saturday, May 26, Mick Ronson would have been 61 years old.
There’s seldom a guitar talent so unassuming as Mick Ronson. Even during his years as the flamboyant foil for David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character, Ronson’s searing solos and crunchy riffs were less about showmanship than about serving the song at hand. The quintessential sideman, Ronson used little more than his trusty Les Paul and a Crybaby Wah to garnish the songwriting efforts of such brilliant writers as Bowie, Ian Hunter, and Lou Reed. Sometimes, as on Bowie’s Pinups album, those contributions were built on incendiary power chords, but more often Ronson brought subtle elegance and exquisite economy to his six-string work.
Ronson’s approach to guitar can be traced to his childhood. Born on May 26, 1946, in the Yorkshire town of Hull in Northern England, the future axeman started out playing accordion, violin, piano, and harmonium. His initial desire to become a classical concert pianist was stunted by the rise of the Beatles and the Stones. Inspired by George Harrison, Keith Richards, and others, Ronson took up the guitar in his mid teens and discovered an immediate facility for the instrument. Still, those early classical studies impacted his guitar playing for the rest of his life.
After playing in the requisite local bands, Ronson met Bowie in early 1970. Their first major project together, the album The Man Who Sold the World, sported some of the heaviest riffage Ronson would ever commit to vinyl. By that time he had settled upon a ’68 Les Paul Custom—a “Black Beauty” stripped to its natural wood finish—as his primary instrument. Utilizing the Crybaby to control his tone, and playing through a 200-watt Marshall amp connected to a 4 x 12 cabinet, Ronson favored simplicity in achieving his distinctive sound.
“The best guitar sound is straight into the amp,” he later said. “People who have a rack full of gear have so much compression on the sound, by the time it goes through the rack it doesn’t matter what they’re playing. It all sounds the same.”
Ronson in action, with his iconic Les Paul, during
Bowie’s Ziggy incarnation.
Bowie’s next album, Hunky Dory, dispensed with guitar-based hard rock in favor of pop-oriented material. Still, on songs such as “Life on Mars” and “Changes,” Ronson unfurled a gift for string arrangements that would surface more fully in his subsequent work. Tracks such as “Andy Warhol” and “The Bewlay Brothers” also featured Ronson prominently on a Gibson acoustic. More important, however, was the album Bowie conceived during the making of Hunky Dory.
Released in June of 1972, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars stoked the burgeoning British glam movement into a full-on frenzy. Theatrics aside, however, it was Ronson’s versatility and musicianship that powered Bowie’s songs for the next two years. Tracks such as “Moonage Daydream” (from Ziggy Stardust), “Cracked Actor” (from Aladdin Sane), and “See Emily Play” (from Pinups) showcased all facets of Ronson’s talent. Characteristically, Ronson downplayed his role.
“Basically I was playing to the song,” Ronson said, looking back at those years. “That’s how I thought about music and still do. I wasn’t trying to be clever. I played a lot of simple things in the interest of being direct. If you get sort of fancy and cluttered, you’re just baffling people with science.”
By 1974, Bowie’s glam phase—and his musical alliance with Ronson—had run its course. During this fertile period, however, Ronson distinguished himself beyond his work with Bowie—co-producing, arranging, and playing on Lou Reed’s classic Transformer album, and composing string arrangements for Mott the Hoople’s seminal All the Young Dudes. The latter project planted the seeds for Ronson’s most lasting musical partnership—specifically, he and Mott frontman Ian Hunter uncovered a synergy that would soon help fuel Hunter’s solo career. But first Ronson undertook his own half-hearted attempt to go it alone.
Released in the summer of 1974, Ronson’s first solo album, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, came off in some respects like the last gasp of the glam movement. Backed by players who had appeared on Pinups, Ronson offered up fine moments with the Bowie-penned “Growing Up and I’m Fine” and the McCartney-esque “Hey Ma Get Papa,” and as always his guitar work was impeccable. But Ronson’s facility for songwriting wasn’t commensurate with his other talents, a fact underscored by the lackluster 1975 follow-up, Play Don’t Worry. In the end, Bowie’s management company, Mainman, who also managed Ronson, was forced to concede that pushing Ronson toward solo stardom had been a mistake.
“They spent a lot of money on him,” Hunter later said. “They put Mick out there, but Mick wasn't a frontman. Mick was a sideman who everybody thought should be a frontman. Frontmen are a totally different make-up, and he couldn’t do it. He got too flummoxed.”
Meanwhile, as if anticipating the futility of a solo career, Ronson was busy solidifying a relationship with Hunter. In the fall of 1974 he accepted Hunter’s invitation to join Mott the Hoople. Mott was in a downward spiral, however, and by year’s end Hunter was treated for nervous exhaustion. In the spring of 1975 Hunter left Mott, and Ronson followed. Within weeks the two recorded Hunter’s self-titled solo debut, which yielded the classic “Once Bitten Twice Shy.” Comfortable again in the role of sideman, Ronson shined.
“Mick’s approach to recording was slow and beautiful,” Hunter said, years later. “He wasn't really a rock player—he was classically trained. Sometimes he would listen to a track for about an hour without touching the guitar. He’d form the whole solo completely in his head, and then it would slowly emerge through his fingers. About the time when I’d be ready to get up and leave, he’d play this absolutely amazing line.”
Ronson’s association with Hunter comprised the most formidable and long-lasting alliance of his career. Where his work with Bowie had the shock of the new, his guitar playing with Hunter tended to be elegant, sophisticated, and richly textured. The 1979 Hunter album, You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, might well represent the pinnacle of Ronson's recorded work. Wielding his paint-stripped Les Paul once again, Ronson fleshed out some of Hunter's finest songs with a spot-on blend of power and restraint.
“I tried to come up with hook lines that people would remember,” Ronson said. “That's why I like George Harrison. His work with the Beatles has some of the best solos I've ever heard. I want people to say, 'Wow, isn't that great, and isn't it simple?' I grew up on melody, and I guess I'm really melody-conscious."
Ronson continued to lend his talents to Hunter—and to many others—for the remainder of his career. As time passed, however, his interest in music waned, and indeed in the late ’80s he donated his beloved natural-finish Les Paul to a Hard Rock Café franchise. Then, in 1990, his world was turned inside out when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the liver. Handling this devastating news with the same grace he brought to his guitar playing, Ronson threw himself into work during the time he had left in this world.
"He didn’t appear to have changed," said his friend Chrissie Hynde, who worked with him during this period. "Although he would tire easily, he seemed optimistic and chipper."
Between the time of the diagnosis and his death on April 29, 1993, Ronson produced Morrissey’s finest album (Your Arsenal), contributed guitar to Bowie's underrated Black Tie White Noise album, and joined Bowie and Hunter for two stunning performances at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in April 1992. More importantly, with the help of a team of friends, he poured himself into work on a new solo album. Titled Heaven and Hull, and released posthumously, the album featured Bowie, Hynde, Hunter, and Def Leppard's Joe Elliott. It was Elliott, in fact, who offered the most succinct assessment of Ronson’s gifts when the guitarist passed away.
“He had emotion and power in his playing,” Elliott said. “He wasn't technically the best guitarist in the world, and that made him have a style. To me, it was a sound as distinctive as Mick Jagger’s vocals. You knew it was him straightaway. His playing had personality.”
Photos used by permission of Ed Di Gangi and www.mickronson.com