Guitar World APRIL 2016 - by Joshua Rothkopf


As the world mourns a pop genius, we remember David Bowie's ten most essential tracks - from glitter rock to the experimental fringe.

Everyone has their own favorite David Bowie: the strutting cock of the glam era, the Warholian "plastic soul" crooner, the sad spaceman, the MTV idol. Maybe that was his final gift to us - he wore so many masks that he doesn't really seem dead now, only in transition. Even while Bowie's musical legacy rests on such piano-driven classics as Changes, Young Americans and Under Pressure, his place in the six-string firmament is unquestioned. The riff-heavy 1972 concept album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars sits among rock's handful of visionary statements, forging a path into drama, artifice and creative freedom. And throughout his career, Bowie surrounded himself with adventurous sidemen: guitarists who sharpened his hooks and elevated songs to dizzying heights. In ten steps, we trace a revolution.

THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD The Man Who Sold The World - Here's where Bowie becomes Bowie. Buried on an album of fun but unremarkable Sabbath-style crunch, this mysterious fantasy is anchored by the mighty Mick Ronson, whose fuzzed-out ostinato riff would define a key compositional element of Bowie's songcraft (also utilized on Starman and Ashes To Ashes). Ronson's insistent motif, swaying in its stubborn weirdness, powers Bowie's enigmatic lyrics, resulting in a theme song for the private spy movie in your head. When Kurt Cobain re-introduced the number to a new generation, he gave his fans a window into his own fear of selling out.

MOONAGE DAYDREAM The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars - Pure glam swagger. Ronson's deafening bar-chord intro ("I'm an alligator...") announces the introduction of Bowie's most iconic creation. Musically, the guitarist serves as the trigger, and the tune allows Ronson to stretch out with chiming verse harmonics and percussive pick scrapes. The coda, Bowie's exhilarating "freak out," is supplied by an echo-drenched mass of Ronson's keening, overlaid bends, thick with bizarritude. This outro solo was actually orchestrated by Bowie himself, more hands-on in the studio than you might think: He drew figurative shapes on paper, which Ronson then interpreted into a sonic frenzy.

ZIGGY STARDUST The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars - When young guitarists get this simple yet euphoric riff under their hands, something magical happens. Clearly written on an acoustic - yet cleverly transposed to an electric's higher bar position - Ronson's open chords make for an essential piece of Ziggy's strut. The riff itself, perched between a rhythm player's support and a lead guitarist's showboating, embodies the elegance of the album as a whole. Let's again bow to Ronson, Bowie's strongest foil: He dots the verses with flouncy flourishes, adding a signature piece of glam syntax: the dirty doubled bass line. As a goodbye, he pulls off a major triad into the fade.

REBEL REBEL Diamond Dogs - Exploding off a discordant, ugly album (let us know if you get past the sophomoric George Orwell stuff), this jaunty, instantly fun riff justifies the whole affair. Don't count out Bowie as a guitarist: With his beloved Spiders disbanded and glam rock in the rearview mirror, the singer attempted the lion's share of Diamond Dogs' ax work himself - with an uncredited assist from Hurdy Gurdy Man (Donovan) session player Alan Parker, who peeled off this repeated figure on a Les Paul into a single ratty speaker. Outdoing The Stones for bluesy attitude, Rebel Rebel is the rock riff elevated to high art. It doesn't need a solo. It doesn't even need a bass line.

FAME Young Americans - Bowie begins his transition into skeletal funk - and U.S. Number 1 hits - as ex-James Brown band member Carlos Alomar becomes a close collaborator in guitar heroics. Driven by a slinky, stuttering Alomar riff taken from an aborted track called Footstompin' and supplanted with high, jangly strums and Bowie's own distorted E-string punctuation, Fame is the aural equivalent of peering inside an expertly calibrated wristwatch. The inner workings mesh together beautifully. If John Lennon's whiny backup vocal adds to the overall cynicism, it's Alomar's plunking guitar line that best captures the idea of dollars and cents on the barrelhead.

STAY Station To Station - A sweaty, coked-up workout from Bowie's darkest period of drug abuse, this supercharged cut - a perennial live favorite - takes the Thin White Duke straight to the end of the line. Alomar's concentrated riff is a '70s cop-car chase scene in musical form. But it's six-string-daredevil Earl Slick who dominates the song with his cascade of overdriven pinched harmonics and whammy-abused chordal slashing. You basically have a full minute and a half of duelling guitar stunt work before Bowie sweeps in with one of his coolest, most detached vocals: "Maybe I'll take something to help me - hope someone takes after me..."

"HEROES" "Heroes" - A song and album title set in distancing quotation marks, Bowie's West Berlin-recorded anthem has since shed its intended irony to stand as his most stirring piece of music. Enter King Crimson godhead Robert Fripp, whose soaring, pitched feedback wails (achieved by marking sweet spots on the studio floor with tape and taking a little stroll) were unlike anything in rock. It's Ground Zero for all alternative guitar, inspiring everyone from Sonic Youth and U2, to Radiohead and Tom Morello. Fripp's triumphant cloud of noise, shaped by Brian Eno and co-producer Tony Visconti, turns the instrument into a tool of cinematic expression.

BOYS KEEP SWINGING Lodger - Lured away from Frank Zappa's dauntingly accomplished touring band, Adrian Belew became Bowie's new hotshot guitarist - an utterly unpredictable player capable of wild noises and faithful studio reproductions alike. But even Belew was thrown by Eno's creative directives for Lodger: He'd be isolated in a room with a one-way camera, where he'd have to jam to a percussion track with no idea of the song's key. The result is this sick-sounding solo, voluptuous and off-balanced at the same time. According to Belew, Bowie encouraged him during the session by saying he was the boy of the title: a "world-is-your-oyster kind of guy."

FASHION Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) - Could this be the scariest guitar playing ever released on a hit single? Near-experimental in its Godzilla-like shrieks and dissonant warbling, Fripp's masterpiece of art-rock atonality serves as a perfect counterpoint to Bowie's robotic commentary on the culture of cool. Building the track just as he did with Fame is the returning Carlos Alomar, plucking away at a pair of funky interlocking pulses. But it's Fripp - with his dive-bomb wails and raging fretboard skids - who convinces many guitarists to prize this album above all others as the most forward-thinking of Bowie's career. It's beautifully damaged stuff.

CHINA GIRL Let's Dance - After glam, funk and futurism, Bowie turned to the blues for a shot of authenticity - and a player to adorn what would become the biggest album of his career. That guitarist was Stevie Ray Vaughan, still virtually unknown (this was before Texas Flood) yet game enough to give it a try. The album's title track became a monster smash, but this song is tastier. It's got SRV's bruised, romantic solo, crescendoing in an almost Eddie-esque flurry of ascending passion. Locking down the track rhythmically and behind the boards is producer Nile Rodgers, who adds a menacing twin-guitar strut to the interlude, his own winking "oriental" riff up top and jazzy comping throughout.