The start of 2016 landed on music fans like a ton of bricks with the unexpected passing of David Bowie on January 10. While Bowie was famous for being a musical shape-shifter, often ch-ch-ch-ch-changing personas and music styles over the years, it was his early '70s glam-rock work, especially The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album, that first made him a mega-star.
As the guitarist in the Spiders from Mars band, Mick Ronson’s throaty leads and caustic, mind-searing riffs undergirded and punctuated many of the great Bowie songs of that era – "Starman," "Ziggy Stardust," "Suffragette City," "The Jean Genie," and "Panic in Detroit," to name a few.
So you want to get some of that Ziggy Stardust guitar sound? Obviously, the best way to get Ronson’s sound is to get some vintage gear like the stuff he used and crank it up. But most of us don’t have the dosh for that, so here are some suggestions for how to get that quintessential Ziggy-era Ronson tone without the rock-star budget.
During the Bowie years, Ronson’s main guitar was a 1968 Gibson Les Paul Custom that featured a two-piece maple top, one-piece mahogany body, and a mahogany neck. Ronson’s main modification was to strip off the "Black Beauty" factory finish from the top of the guitar, leaving just the natural wood. He had heard that stripping the finish from the top gave the guitar more high-end response and made it resonate better, which was something that appealed to him.
For this same reason, he removed the covers from the humbucking pickups, exposing the dual coils. For strings at that time, Ronson preferred Rotosounds (.009, .011, .014, .025, .035, .044).
How you get there
Unless your name is Trump, a vintage ’68 Les Paul Custom just ain’t happenin’. Even Gibson’s reissue of the guitar, though less expensive than a vintage model, lists at $6,699 on gibson.com. Fortunately, there are more affordable options that can provide really good bang for your buck.
Epiphone (owned by Gibson) makes a complete line of Les Paul guitars at a range of prices, including a few different custom models. There are also other LP copies that will likely get you in the ballpark from such brands as Tokai, Agile, Edwards, Vintage, and others. Of course, one way to go is to pick whichever decent, affordable Les Paul copy you prefer and drop a pair of Gibson or after-market pickups into it to get closer to Ronno’s sound.
There’s some question as to exactly what kind of pickups Ronson had in his Les Paul, but probably anything similar to classic Gibson PAF (Patent Applied For) humbuckers will get you close enough. If you decide to remove the pickup covers, as Ronson did, do some online research before attempting it yourself, or take it to your trusted guitar shop to have it done by a pro. However, it would seem that at some point, the neck pickup was reversed on Ronson’s guitar, so keep that in mind if you want to replicate Ronno’s sound.
Ronson’s main amp in the Spiders from Mars consisted of a 200-watt Marshall Major head driven by four large KT88 tubes going into a widened 4x12 Marshall cabinet (which Ronson dubbed "The Pig") housing Celestion speakers.
How you get there
Okay, first of all… 200 watts? Yeah, maybe just don’t go there. Even Ronson reportedly removed two of his power tubes so that the output was lowered to a "mere" 100 watts.
Thankfully (for your eardrums), even though Ronson’s sound relied on volume, you can still get an approximation of that sound through other means. Maybe try a smaller Marshall (or other brand) combo amp rather than a head and a monster cabinet. Plus, there are lots of fairly decent modeling amps around that will let you dial in that Marshall stack sound.
Though he sometimes used an Echoplex and a Roland Space Echo, there were really just two main pedals in Ronson’s arsenal.
When he needed to add some fuzz to his sound or give it a bit more snarl, Ronson used either a Vox Tone Bender pedal or a Sola Sound MKI Tone Bender, depending on who you listen to. They differ in their circuitry and the number of transistors used.
But more interestingly, and more distinctive to his sound, was the way he used his Cry Baby wah-wah pedal. To get what Ronson described as a kind of "honking" tone, he’d back off the Cry Baby to a certain position and just leave it there, half-cocked, as it were, using it more like a tone filter to achieve that sweet, edge-of-feedback sound.
How you get there
Original Tone Benders are not cheap, and the boutique reproductions can also be a bit pricey. Manlay Sound’s Ronno Bender, the Phoenix Custom Electronics Lady Stardust Fuzz, or the Ghost Effects Ghost Bender Tone Bender MkI will all set you back around a couple of hundred dollars or so (although you may find deals online).
The bottom line is, opinions vary as to exactly which fuzz pedal Ronson used (and therefore, the circuitry within), so maybe just try to find a decently priced fuzzbox that will get you close enough to the Ronno sound as you hear it.
Wah-wahs are easier, as there are all kinds of affordable pedals to choose from with various features, but you can pick up a Dunlop Original Cry Baby for $100 or less. Again, poke around in used gear stores and check online for deals. Cock that wah-wah and wail!
So there you have it – some affordable options for getting that Mick-Ronson-Spiders-from-Mars sound. Let’s give the last word to Ronno himself. As he says in an outtake from the 1996 BBC documentary Hang On to Yourself about the sounds he got on those Bowie albums, while the gear helped a bit, "the rest of it was basically just plug the guitar in and turn it up, and away you go."
We know we couldn’t cover all the options here, so if you have anything to add about getting that Mick Ronson sound on a budget, leave a comment below.
Jim Kelly has been a freelance music writer for more than 15 years and has served as the senior copywriter at Columbia House Canada. Based in Toronto, he’s been a regular contributor to nationally distributed music magazines, websites, and organizations, and has created promotional and press copy for independent and major-label artists. He’s been a guitarist in Toronto bands and claims to be the world’s third-best tambourine player. Visit his website for more information.