46 Years of David Bowie's Exquisite Guitar Textures: Art Decades: As Told by the Guitarists Who Played Them

By Molenda, Michael | Guitar Player, April 2016 | Go to article overview

46 Years of David Bowie's Exquisite Guitar Textures: Art Decades: As Told by the Guitarists Who Played Them


Molenda, Michael, Guitar Player


David Bowie's death from liver cancer on January 10, 2016--just two short days after his 69th birthday--was a shock and a blow to the world's music lovers. But perhaps missed by much of the culture at large was how epic his influence was on the guitar. Bowie worked with some of rock's most transcendent guitarists, and he gave them the space to expand their techniques, tones, and creative concepts through his music--all while maintaining their individual imprints and approaches. A stylistic chameleon of the highest order, Bowie also gave us an opportunity to hear the guitar raging unfettered in a number of musical genres, from experimental to pop, new wave to industrial, R&B to funk, and beyond.

Getting the guitar story behind all of Bowie's artistic shifts and evolutions was a rather significant undertaking, and we can't offer enough appreciation and thanks to the guitarists who shared their memories of recording sessions, live shows, signal paths and gear, production concepts, songwriting, and more--even as they were grieving over losing a friend, peer, collaborator, and/or mentor, and were already being barraged by the mass media. I was so grateful to reach so many Bowie guitarists and superstar producers Tony Visconti and Nile Rodgers, while Michael Ross was able to talk to David Torn, as well as get a little more "Bowie info" from Ben Monder, who he profiled before the music legend's passing in our March issue.

As our own small tribute to David Bowie, we'd like to treat this cover story as he typically directed his many exceptional guitarists by staying out of the way and letting the players do their thing. We hope you enjoy reading how this ever-curious, buoyant, and restless artist was aided by the players he trusted to interpret his work through six strings and ecstatic tempests of glorious noises.

"He Put No Limits on His Imagination"

BY TONY VISCONTI

MY JOB AS A PRODUCER IS TO ALWAYS interpret the ideas of my artistes. I love challenges. I work in a very unorthodox way--I start each new album as if it is my first. No presets. No assumptions. As my productions will be heard in the future, I think in the future.

David and I always had preproduction meetings to discuss new ideas, listen to records for reference, and sketch out the outcome we wanted to achieve. I was always consulted about the choices of guitarists. We would sit down and listen to a potential guitarist, but David and I were always on the same page when it came to session musicians. Some came from him, and some came from me. Because we worked with such talented guitarists, the basic process for album sessions was to let them come up with the first idea. Then we'd start bringing the player around to the way we heard things. I'm pretty good at dictating parts and calling out the notes by name. I rarely notate, because that makes the guitarist turn down (hardy, har, har). I never touched the amp settings on any of the guitarists--except for David--but I'm pretty good at describing what I want in very specific terms. We would also record lots of alternative parts that we would edit at the mixing stage--even back in the analog days.

I worked with a lot of great guitar players during my time with David. Here are some notes about each one ...

MICK RONSON

Picking the guitarist kind of set the tone for each album. It started with Mick Ronson. When his friend, drummer John Cambridge, introduced us, and we had a jam with him, The Man Who Sold the World almost wrote itself. I can't emphasize enough how much Mick was the missing link. He was a super rock-god player, and an aficionado of Jeff Beck--who was one of our gods, too. He also could read and write music--a bonus for me.

I also remember being completely free to do whatever we wanted on The Man Who Sold the World. We never saw an A&R man during the entire recording, so we let our imaginations soar--all of us. …

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