10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Mick Ronson

December 1, 2008

SUZI RONSON HAS BEEN WORKING on a documentary about the life and times of her late husband, as she tells GuitarPlayer.com. She recalls that, “While on the road, Mick would often call a fan to thank them for a letter. Sometimes he was treated with disbelief and hung up on. It is so unbelievable that Mick at the height of his stardom would take the time to do that!”

These random acts of kindness epitomize the spirit of guitar legend Mick Ronson (1946-1993), a prime contender for rock’s MVP, often called the First Real ’70s Guitarist, and a heroic inspiration to all those whose lives he touched. Ronson began his musical studies early on, learning to play piano, violin, and recorder as a youngster in his hometown of Hull, Yorkshire. At 17, he bought his first guitar and soon after began playing with local bands.
Ronson’s enthusiasm was evident from the start: “I think that was the best time ever,” he told GP in 1976. “Just learning how to play. It was a real thrill simply to switch on an amplifier and listen to it work.”
A quick study, Ronson spent from 1963 to1965 playing with local Hull acts such as the Mariners and the Crestas before making his first move to London in 1966. Unable to get things happening, Ronson returned to Hull in 1967, joined the Rats, then Treacle, and supplemented his musical income with gardening work, all the while soaking up the work of his heroes, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and George Harrison.
February 1969 brought an important turning point when former Rats drummer John Cambridge brought Ronson back to London to join a new band called Hype, which was fronted by an up-and-coming singer-songwriter named David Bowie. Bowie and Ronson hit it off from the start, and Ronson became Bowie’s right-hand guitar man and fiery stage foil, adding production and arranging touches to the singer’s first two albums, The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie dropped the Hype moniker upon the album’s release in 1970) and Hunky Dory (1971). Following the first album’s lukewarm reception, Ronson contributed to an early version of Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water,” then returned to Hull once again to form Ronno—coined from his nickname—with bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Woody Woodmansey, both former Rats (and future Spiders).
It was this lineup, with the addition of keyboardist Mike Garson, that Bowie tapped to craft the definitive ’70s Brit-rock album, 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Recorded in less than three months, Ziggy took the world by storm as both Bowie and Ronson were elevated to stardom virtually overnight. As word of his contributions to the Bowie catalog spread, Ronson became an in-demand producer (he co-produced Lou Reed’s Transformer with Bowie in 1972), arranger, and session player, attributes that would serve him well long after the Spiders played their last gig at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on May 3, 1973.
Post-Ziggy, Ronson gigged on and recorded two more albums with Bowie (Aladdin Sane and Pinups) and, in 1974, formed a relationship with Ian Hunter during a brief flirtation with Mott the Hoople—one that would result in various incarnations of the Hunter-Ronson Band a few years later. After splitting with Bowie, Ronson shifted his focus to a pair of solo albums for RCA (Slaughter on 10th Avenue and Play Don’t Worry) that emphasized his lead vocals over his guitar work. Unfortunately, both titles were only moderately received. This, coupled with a 1974 U.K. tour scathed by British critics, may have led to Ronson’s next change-of-life, one that defied all expectations from the glam-rock god.
In the fall of 1975, Ronson was invited to New York to join T-Bone Burnett and a killer rhythm section as the backing band for Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Kinky Friedman on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. In 1976, Ronson formed the Mick Ronson Band and, in the fall of that year, moved upstate to Woodstock, New York, where he began a lasting love affair with the small hamlet known as the Colony of the Arts. Here, Ronson would set up a home base for his family and band, one that allowed him to concentrate on the dozens of sessions and productions that would come his way throughout the remainder of the ’70s and ’80s. (For a complete list of these, plus a full discography, go to mickronson.com.)
Riding a steady wave of work during the ’80s into the ’90s, an enthusiastic Ronson made a trip to London in 1991 to plan his first solo UK tour since 1974, only to be diagnosed with liver cancer. Instead of relenting to his illness, Ronson threw himself into his work, performing with Graham Parker, producing Morrissey’s mega-hit Your Arsenal, participating in a Freddie Mercury tribute concert, and ultimately recording Heaven and Hull, Ronno’s last solo album, which featured appearances by Bowie, Hunter, John Mellencamp, Chrissie Hynde, Joe Elliott, and Sham Morris, and was completed and mixed after Mick’s death on April 30, 1993. Authorized posthumous Ronson releases include Just Like Us, Showtime, Mainman, and Indian Summer, a shelved soundtrack project filled with stellar fretwork.
So how does one go about assimilating three decades of such vast experience and fierce dedication? Not surprisingly, there are a few prerequisites. Before you even touch that guitar, you’ve gotta...
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