Learn how to sound like David Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson with some tips and tricks from the Ziggy Stardust era.
Although David Bowie played the main riff to ‘Rebel Rebel’ his staunch lieutenant through the early ’70s was guitarist Mick Ronson, who added the ol’school R&B, scuzz and fuzz to the androgynous one’s most inspired flights of fancy. Tracks such as ‘Suffragette City‘ and ‘Ziggy Stardust‘ gave birth to glam rock, Suede and millions looking to add theatrical and cosmic notions to their sound.
Mick Ronson’s chief guitar was a 1958 Black Les Paul Custom. But as they cost 150,000 or so let’s forget that. And as even a new Gibson model costs 2,000 get a decent Epiphone Les Paul Custom at around 350. But if you want it to keep its value, don’t do what Mick did to his, i.e. strip away the finish down to the wood in a bid to improve its high-end tone, as he, like many, believed that colour finishes choke the wood and hamper the guitar’s natural sound. As, for amps, get as good as Marshall head and angled 4×12″ Marshall cabinet as you can afford to emulate the vintage Marshall Major Ronson used. If you’re just recording, you can get by with a Line 6 Gearbox Gold Bundle of computer plug-ins (about 350). Pedal wise, buy a Crybaby Wah, and for fuzz purchase a Vox Tonebender.
In The Studio
Although Bowie provided the lyrics and melodies, and Tony Visconti was the producer, Ronson’s skill as an arranger contributed hugely to the finished tunes. Remember that just because you can write a good song, doesn’t mean you can automatically ‘make’ a song good. People bang on about ‘it’s all about the songs’ but if you’ve ever heard a song you love being murdered by some cowboys you’ll know that it isn’t strictly the case.
On The Stage
Donning the silver gear and make-up (not to mention allowing Bowie to famously ‘fellate’ his guitar) didn’t come naturally to Ronson. But he understood Bowie’s view that, however ordinary you are, when you’re onstage and people are looking at you, there’s nothing wrong with acting like somebody worth looking at.
Glam Rock blended rock’n’roll with raucous guitars and poppy melodies. See for yourself on ‘Hang On To Yourself‘ from ‘Ziggy Stardust’, which features semitone movement (slight shifts, e.g. A to A# (# means ‘sharp’), similar to Elvis Presley’s ‘Jailhouse Rock’. And if you check out the intro to ‘Changes‘ you’ll see Bowie’s love of jazzy, extended chords, such as Cmaj7 and Dm7. If a basic chord contains the root, the third and fifth notes after the root, the extended chord contains the seventh after the root and/or other harmonic extensions. And for the other-wordly sound try slash chords such as Fmaj7/E (‘Space Oddity intro) and Bbmaj7/E and Bb6#11/E (‘Starman). Complicated? Concentrate for now on the fact that the letter after the forward slash means you’re playing a bass (low) note that isn’t the root of the chord.
A neat Ronson-esque thing to try is to turn all the amp controls on full and use your wah pedal to change the mid-range of your sound. It’s a nifty way of providing light and shade with very little effort.