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10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Mick Ronson

December 1, 2008
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SUZI RONSON NEEDS YOUR HELP. She’s working on a documentary about the life and times of her late husband, and 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. Does anyone remember doing that to a ‘supposed’ Mick Ronson?” If you do, Suzi wants to hear from you at mickronson.com. She also hopes to track down some of the letters Ronson sent back to fans who had written to him. “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 reflected to 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 upand-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 UK 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...

1 BE A GENTLEMAN Though his edgy and often furious guitar playing might seem to contradict this, Mick Ronson was by all accounts, including my own, a gentleman’s gentleman. You’d be hard pressed to find any negative criticism from any of Ronson’s family or friends, and those who worked with Ronson have always expressed nothing but the highest praises for his musicality, professionalism, work ethic, and overall kindheartedness. Many claim that they never even saw Ronson get ruffled, let alone mad. The lesson? Aim that pent-up aggression at your guitar, not your mates.

2 PLAY, DON’T WORRY Ronson had a few favorite instruments, but was never a slave to his gear. Early on, he often played instruments in various states of disrepair, from missing strings to cracked necks held together with gaffer’s tape, but still managed to get the job done. At 19, Ronson acquired his first “really playable guitar,” a Fender Telecaster, but it wasn’t long before he switched to the 1958 Gibson Les Paul Custom with which he became most often associated. By mid-1973, Melody Maker listed Ronson’s rig as three Les Paul Customs strung with Rotosounds (.009, .011, .014, .025, .035, .044) pumped through a Marshall Major 200-watt head and one 120-watt 4x12 Marshall cabinet loaded with Celestions, plus a Cry Baby wah and an American Tonebender formerly owned by Pete Townsend. Ronson’s less-seen ’70s instruments included a Carlos Robelli acoustic, a black Gibson SG Special, and a Fender Mustang. He was also fond of Fender Pro Reverb amps and often employed an Echoplex and later, a Roland Space Echo—not only for delay effects, but to add warmth and just a touch of grit by hitting the front end of his amps a little harder. Though he also grew to love Fender Stratocasters, the Tele eventually became Ronson’s go-to guitar for the duration of the ’70s through the ’80s, when his amp collection also expanded to include various Music Mans and Mesa/Boogies. Though he swapped out guitars and amps with regularity (he preferred stock models), the Cry Baby wah, which Ronson would click on and leave stationary after finding the pedal’s edge-of-feedback sweet spot, remained a key component of his sound throughout his career. Coming from one who waxed so many monstrous and memorable guitar tones, Ronson’s casual attitude towards the tools of his trade may seem surprising, but the bottom line is that he simply looked at his gear as a means to an end. “Sometimes, I wouldn’t think of what I was plugging into,” he told GP, “as long as it works.” Only a poor craftsman blames his tools!

3 GO BEYOND GUITAR A combination of early musical training and intuition allowed Ronson to operate well beyond the boundaries of most 6-string slingers. A compassionate collaborator, Ronson once commented that his greatest strength was coming up with riffs and hook lines, and “making things up so songs sound more memorable.” Apparently, many agreed. Ronson, in addition to his groundbreaking work with Bowie, was called upon to lend his well-honed guitar, keyboard, arranging, and production skills to recordings by dozens of artists, including Lou Reed, Roger McGuinn, John Mellencamp, and Morrissey. An extremely social guitarist, Ronson rarely practiced alone after becoming proficient on the instrument, preferring instead the intimate experience of playing music with others, whether it was with a well-known artist, for an unsigned band demo, or simply jamming in houses and hotel rooms.

4BECOME A GOLDEN GOD From his very first recordings with Bowie, it was obvious that Ronson had the whole package (though the outfits came later). “The Width of a Circle,” the opening track from The Man Who Sold the World, commences with the regal, single-note Ronno riff shown in Ex. 1a, while the E-D-E chord figure that follows in Ex. 1b is pure protopunk informed by a Yardbirds rave-up. Be sure to note the doubled tempo in the latter. (Note: Many of these examples have been notated at half of their actual tempo to provide more bang for the buck.) You can construct Ronson’s verse figure by alternating measures of A5 whole-note power chords with this figure. The combination of halftime single-note riffage with a frantic double-time chordal figure is an early testimonial to Ronson’s arranging prowess.

5 COVER ALL BASES Fortified with signature growly Les Paul chunk, Ronson’s opening riff to Bowie’s “Panic in Detroit” (Aladdin Sane) comes off like Bo Diddley taking a wrong turn down a dark, sinister alley. Ex. 2a shows you how it’s done. Establish a swing-sixteenth feel and pay close attention to the details, which include accents, muted notes, slides, and staccato phrasing blended with full-valued notes. (Tip: Feel free to fill up the remainder of beat four in bar 2 with appropriate slides or scratches.) Ex. 2b depicts an excerpt from the song’s verse rhythm figure, an amalgam of a descending single-note scalar run played as straight eighth-notes followed immediately by an energetic chordal figure similar to the one in bar 2 of Ex. 1a, albeit applied to a static E chord. The cool thing here is how Ronson blends the previous two techniques to forge a single muscular riff.

6 MASTER THE MELODIC INTERLUDE Some may refer to them as solos, but many of Ronson’s signature riffs were more akin to miniature compositions or interludes than traditional wailing guitar leads. Ex. 3, similar to what Ronson laid down in Bowie’s “Starman,” is a perfect example of how to build a strong, memorable melodic line over a simple IV-I-V-I progression (Bb-F-C-F). The idea is to target the 3 of each chord on every downbeat and connect them with adjacent Fmajor scale tones, while “playing” the strategically placed rests and making the melody more guitar-y by adding bends and finger vibrato. For total authenticity, convert all eighth-note triplets to syncopated sixteenthnotes (i.e., all upbeats) beginning on the last sixteenth of the previous downbeat. Now, sing it, baby: “La, la-la-la, la, la-la-la, la, la-la-la, la, la-la-la.”

7 KNOW WHEN TO CUT LOOSE While Ronson was a master of subtlety and restraint, he could certainly blow it out with the best of them. The stage was Ronson’s element where he would, much in the manner of his main man Jeff Beck, liberate signature licks by altering their rhythmic phrasing and stretching them out with extended trilling or bending excursions like the one in Ex. 4a. (Tip: Play this one over A and D chords applied to the rhythmic motif from Ex. 1a.) The wailing, upper-register riffing in Ex. 4b recalls Ronson’s penchant for three-against-four rhythmic displacement, or hemiola. Note that while the 3/16 motif begins on a downbeat every three beats, it will take three full measures for the lick to recycle back to beat one. Ex. 4c shows a quintet of similar patterns that can also be played as 3/16 (or 3/8, depending on tempo) hemiolas, or reapplied as repeated sixteenthnote triplets. Have at them, then incorporate rhythmic trills like the one in Ex. 4d. Branch out by trilling between various adjacent minor and major pentatonic scale tones. Ronson occasionally went aggro on a single note, as in Ex. 4e, but also peppered his forays into ferocity with more sweeping (and distinctively British) phrasing, like the open-string-based sus4-tovibratoed-tenth resolution in bar 1 of Ex. 4f, and the 5-to-6 bend and release in the next measure. Ronson’s extended bending tangents typically went on much longer than illustrated in Ex. 4g, but here we get the idea across in two bars. Play this whopping major-third bend (that’s two whole steps, folks) as long as you like (Tip: It works well over Ex. 1b), then resolve to the Beck-ish lick in bar 3. Other suitable bendies include b3 to 5, 3 to 5, 5 to b7, and b7 to 9.

8 KEEP MOVING FORWARD Ronson’s work ethic was always inspirational, but never more so than after he was diagnosed with a devastating illness in 1991. The man simply never stopped working, and Ronson’s final album, Heaven and Hull, brims with his finest guitar work, almost as if he was paying a final tribute to friends and heroes. “Don’t Look Down,” the opening track, epitomizes Ronson’s hope and optimism with a fuzzy tapestry of toneful Tele magic that’s right up there with Beck’s finest. Ex. 5a shows both the opening riff (Tip: Try combining Gtrs. 1 and 2 into a single part.), plus the much darker, minor-tinged octave melody Ronson overdubbed four bars in. Despite those ominous octaves, there’s no mistaking Ronno’s positive message once Joe Elliott’s vocals enter with a glorious, harmonized E-major melody. Even Ronson’s most tortured-sounding licks end up resolving on uplifting runs like the short, countryflavored snippet in Ex. 5b. Buy the record and you’ll hear exactly what I mean.

9 KNOW WHEN TO LAY BACK The exquisite, middle-ten solo in “When the World Falls Down” (Heaven and Hull) is a testimonial to Ronson’s maturity as a composer, arranger, and player, as well as a textbook example of how to craft a heartwrenchingly melodic guitar solo that’s as memorable as it is masterful using only a handful of notes. If you think this sounds easy, record ten bars of the circular E-Am-G progression, then compose your own solo. See what I mean? If you come anywhere near Ex. 6, consider yourself an apt pupil. The first seven-and-a-half bars can be played by a single guitar using octaves, but halfway through bar 8, Ronson drops the lower part to create a two-octave split, an ingenious strategy that elevates the solo to even greater heights.

10 GET “ZIGGY” WIT IT When it comes down to naming one Ronson riff you’ve gotta know, I guess “Ziggy” is the biggie. Sure, Bowie originally demoed the song’s signature opening figure on 12-string acoustic, but it took Ronson’s subtle tweaks, rolling arpeggios, and honking cocked-wah tone to transform it into the iconic riff it has since become. Bask in the majesty of Ex. 7, then check out other “Ziggy” highlights, including Ronson’s low-register single-note counterlines, edge-of-feedback harmonics, and luscious, May-worthy tripletracked harmonies. Yep, that’s Ronno— savory stuff with just the right amount of edge.

Special thanks to Suzi Ronson, George Cowan, John Holbrook, and Ian Kimmet. For all things Ronno, please visit mickronson.com.

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