In the year that the music world lost its most creative force, Stuart Ryan examines the acoustic style of this much-missed genius.
David Bowie used his acoustic guitar and a set of brilliantly whacky chords to weave wonderful tunes that set our world to music.
When David Bowie passed away earlier this year the world lost not only one of its greatest songwriters but also a guitarist with a unique, quirky style. While his genius lay in his songwriting, Bowie’s abstract chords and spiky, funkinflected acoustic guitar rhythms underpin many of his classic tracks. It’s hard to imagine classics like Starman without the dissonant, crashing opening acoustic guitar chords; and remove the classic acoustic break from Space Oddity and you’ve lost one of the most distinctive features of that track.
David Bowie was born on January 8, 1947 in south London. He formed his first band at age 15 and like many musicians of the time their focus was on performing covers of the music of the great American bluesman like Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon. Bowie’s tastes went beyond this, however, though he did cite his contemporary Mick Jagger as an early idol. His scope widened in 1967 when he began to study dramatic arts and the David Bowie that came to dominate the world stage began to blossom as he took onboard everything from avant garde to folk influences. Bowie’s late ‘60s and early ‘70s sound is probably best characterised as a brand of acoustic folk-rock, but with an edge that others in that genre often missed. Early tracks like Space Oddity released in 1969 feature prominent acoustic guitar parts with the folk-influenced strumming patterns of the time. However, the famous acoustic guitar break in this track hints at a harder rock sound that was to come later.
Often Bowie’s acoustic parts are at the core of a track, bolstering the rhythm section with simple, solid strumming – The Man Who Sold The World is a good example as is Soul Love where a steady, tightly-strummed part locks in with the bass and drums underpinning the track. Bowie’s acoustic style and songwriting
bowie’s late ’60s, early ’70s sound is characterised as a blend of folk-rock but with an edge that others often missed is very interesting around this era as you start to hear the transition from a ’60s folk sound to the harder rock material that would come later. Tracks like Kooks from the Hunky Dory album also hint at a Ray Davies-style Kinks influence with the characteristic open chord strumming from that era.
There are no histrionics in Bowie’s guitar style – he had Mick Ronson, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp and others for that – but listen to his parts and you will hear some unique ideas from unconventional chords to unpredictable progressions.
David Bowie’s guitar underpinned very many great tracks