Heroes: A History of David Bowie’s Amazing Guitarists
Among his many gifts, David Bowie’s knack for recruiting spectacularly talented guitarists ranks near the top. From Mick Ronson to Robert Fripp to Stevie Ray Vaughan and beyond, Bowie’s six-string sidemen have done some of their best playing while recording and performing on the glam-rock pioneer’s albums. Not surprisingly, Les Pauls have figured prominently in the bulk of those recordings. Below are profiles of seven players who’ve helped shape Bowie’s extraordinary body of work.
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 Bowie’s glam-metal opus, The Man Who Sold the World, that saw Ronson truly came into his own. Using little more than his trusty Les Paul and a wah pedal, the late guitar great went on to become the propulsive force behind all of Bowie’s Ziggy-era recordings. Though it’s unduly neglected, Pinups, Bowie’s 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. Coming on-board for the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour, Slick went on to play on Bowie’s 1975 “plastic soul” 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. Slick has characterized his playing as “very blues-based, but also very Brit-like” – an apt description.
Without Robert Fripp’s angular style and unique tone, Bowie’s 1977 album, “Heroes”, might have had an altogether different sound. On “Joe the Lion,” from that album, Fripp unleashes 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. “He would stand on the letter ‘G,’ for instance, if he wanted the ‘G’ note to sustain,” says producer Tony Visconti. Fripp reconnected with Bowie for the 1980 album, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), and once again put a 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 hooked up with Bowie in 1974. His long-running role as Bowie’s rhythm guitarist and sometimes-musical-director has 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 integral to the making of the Young Americans album. Alomar’s guitar-playing is also a prime component of Bowie’s pioneering “Berlin trilogy” – Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger.
Peter Frampton’s career was in the doldrums when Bowie phoned him in 1986 and asked him to play on his next album. Following the making of that album, Never Let Me Down, Frampton went on to occupy the lead-guitar spot on Bowie’s 1987 Glass Spider World Tour. Although the working relationship between the two men was short-lived, the episode helped fuel a career resurgence for Frampton. “Until then, I hadn’t realized just how much [Bowie] had championed my career, or how much he respected me” Frampton said, 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 that featured her husband’s work. Dazzled, 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 expressive (and subtle), check out his work on Bowie’s 1999 VH1 Storytellers set.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Having been impressed by Vaughan after seeing him 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 define the title track, “China Girl,” and other album high points. As personalities, Bowie and Vaughan clashed, an unfortunate circumstance that resulted in Vaughan being dismissed just prior to the start of Bowie’s “Serious Moonlight” tour. Needless to say, Vaughan went on to carve out an extraordinary career of his own, until his death in 1990.