Remembering Mick Ronson

Like some character out of an Oscar Wilde fantasy, Mick Ronson was damned to be beautiful, and the fact that he gained fame as David Bowie’s foil during the loud glittery pan-sexual mess that was ’70s glam rock in no way diminishes his awesome prowess as a guitarist. Just listen to Bowie tracks such as “The Width of a Circle” [The Man Who Sold the World, 1970], “Moonage Daydream,” [The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, 1972], and “Cracked Actor,” [Aladdin Sane, 1973]—as well as Ronson’s own “Angel No. 9” [Play Don’t Worry, 1975]—to experience his raw power, beatific melodicism, and thoroughly modern application of noise. Sadly, Ronson died too young, succumbing to inoperable liver cancer in 1993, while working on his final solo album, Heaven and Hull (released posthumously in 1994).
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It’s also a bummer that someone with such formidable audio-production chops—Ronson’s vast resume includes co-producing Lou Reed’s breakout Transformer album, playing the signature acoustic-guitar riff on John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane,” and producing one of Morrissey’s heaviest albums, Your Arsenal—never spoke much about his studio process. Part of the reason may be that Ronson was a “just do it” type, rather than someone who intellectualized the task at hand.

“The thing with guitar sounds is that I really like to wrestle with them,” Ronson said in 1990. “Sometimes, the sound isn’t quite right, so you have to beat the thing, and that reflects in the way you play. But that feels real to me. And I don’t use many effects, because then you never just get down to playing the guitar.”

It is known that, at various times, Ronson used a ’68 Les Paul (with the finish stripped off), a Telecaster, a 200-watt Marshall Major (nicknamed “The Pig”), a Vox Tonebender, a Music Man combo, and Mesa/Boogie amps, and employed a Crybaby wah to achieve his signature nasal and soaring tone.

“The wah was his sound,” said Ziggy Stardust producer Ken Scott. “He’d find a position he liked, and he’d just leave it there. It worked perfectly.”

Ronson’s approach to crafting solos and riffs betrayed his “producer’s head,” as he thought about the guitar’s effect on the whole song, rather than focusing on his parts.

“Rather than just sort of endlessly play away, I always try to find a reason for what I’m playing,” he said. “I play a lot of simple things in the interest of being direct. If you get fancy and cluttered, it’s hard for people to pick up on—you’re baffling them with science. So I try to look for good hook lines on the guitar—George Harrison-style solos that you can whistle as you walk down the street. People should always remember the guitar lines in a song.”

Composing something memorable for each recording, however, was often a tortuous process.

“Mick’s whole thing was slow and beautiful,” says Ronson collaborator Ian Hunter. “He wasn’t really even a rock player—he was classically trained. Sometimes, he would listen to a track for about an hour without touching his guitar. Then, we’d go through this awful hour where he’d be getting the thing together. He’d form the whole solo completely in his head, and then it would slowly emerge through his fingers. But about the time when I’d be ready to give up and leave, he’d play this absolutely amazing line.”