Playing David Bowie on the Guitar
Moon Chords and Space Dreams
Today we will be taking a deeper dive into the music of David Bowie, specifically with the song "Moonage Daydream".
Which thanks to the movie Guardians of the Galaxy and a documentary with the same name, has seen a resurgence in sales and interest in the last decade.
Besides this song, Bowie's work is perfect for guitar students and songwriters as they are filled with great chords and stories.
David Bowie Was a Chameleon
Not all of David Bowie's catalog is suitable for guitarists, his early days were predominantly piano driven songs, later he moved into simple electronic music and even heavy industrial tracks.
But the bulk of his most popular songs are guitar driven and perfect lessons in how to write a great tune.
Bowie was not really an innovator; he was an ever-changing chameleon that constantly pushed the boundaries of his own art.
His early characters were inspired by Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, and many other famous artists, he took what others did and put his own stamp on it.
Regardless of the genres he joined, his chords, lyrics, and singing always stood out and eventually made him an icon in his own right.
He used the same chord progressions as other artists but was always adding modulations and substitutions to give them a unique feel.
If you sit down and play Bowie songs all day on the guitar, you will learn a ton of new chords!
And his lyrics were not as metaphorical or cryptic as someone like Bob Dylan, Bowie was a master at telling you a great story in a short time.
The Background and Chords of "Moonage Daydream"
To capitalize on the glam rock era Bowie created the persona of Ziggy Stardust, who was as an androgynous alien who has come to save mankind.
Unfortunately the drugs, politics, and glory of fame goes to his head and he fails and succumbs to the ego he has created.
Sounds pretty epic right?
Well, epic was a hallmark of Bowie's music; Ziggy Stardust is basically a rock opera.
"Moonage Daydream" is the song that introduces Ziggy to the audience, the opening lyrics using innuendo and slang to signify that he is not man or woman and has a powerful persona.
The opening chord is a heavy hit D major before we hear the lines "I'm an alligator, I'm a mama-papa coming for you".
We know immediately that we are being introduced to a rock God from outer space.
The nice aspect about learning this song on the guitar is that the chords follow the lyrics making it easier to play.
In fact with this song, you don't want to rush the chord changes, we want the tension to build with each strum.
After the D he uses a III instead of minor iii with an F#, as major III's are important aspects of rock music.
Next we have a descending bass line movement with a Bm to Bm/A to E major. Bowie is a fan of these bass lines as he also uses them in songs like "All the Young Dudes".
This chord progression repeats before moving into the chorus which modulates to G and has the progression of G-D-E.
Normally with the keys of D and G we use an E minor, but when it comes to rock music, it sounds better to use the major II or VI. After the chorus we move back into the verse chords.
These chords alone would make it sound like any other rock tune, until we get to the first solo.
The main riffs of the song are a mix of Mick Ronson's heavy electric guitar along with a strumming 12 string acoustic guitar for contrast.
It all seems normal fair for a glam rock song until we get to the solo that uses a saxophone and pennywhistle/piccolo type instrument.
The chords overlying the solo are Bm-A-G-F#, simply moving to the relative minor of the key of D.
The second solo of the song is a more conventional rock guitar sound, and not too hard to play.
The Effects and Vibe of "Moonage Daydream"
Like many glam rock songs, "Moonage Daydream" has a proto heavy metal vibe at times.
Especially on the opening chord and second solo played by Mick Ronson. The gain is pushed high for the electric guitar to give the song a gritty and heavy vibe.
Since the song was recorded in 1971 there weren't many effects pedals available, but they made use of all the tech of the time.
Of course Bowie had to add delay and echo in, to give the song that spaced out vibe.
This is especially noticeable on his vocals near the end of the song.
As it progresses the echo gets longer until it fades into Ronson's guitar solo.
By today's standards his solo is nothing spectacular, but at the time was quite heavy for an artist who wrote mostly pop music.
All in all the chords, effects, and instrumental parts are not that difficult or special, but when put together with the great lyrics, it becomes this incredible song that has endured in popularity.
Even if you are just playing this tune on your acoustic guitar it can be fun and powerful.
Just be sure to put the right emphasis on the chords, especially the part of the descending bass line.
Continue With More Bowie Songs!
Once you realize how easy "Moonage Daydream" is to play it can become a regular song in your rotation.
People love to hear it, especially if you can get that opening timed just right with the lyrics.
Hit that D chord with a hard downward strum and then a quick syncopated up and down before falling silent and letting the tension build.
Once you have this song down, move onto more Bowie tunes.
Songs like "Ziggy Stardust, "Space Oddity," "Queen Bitch," "Modern Love," "Diamond Dogs," "Golden Years," and "The Man Who Sold the World" all have a mix of easy and hard chords.
The song "Magic Dance" from the Jim Henson movie Labyrinth is another hit people love to hear on the guitar.
Even his piano driven songs that are harder to translate to guitar, are worth the practice to learn complicated extended chords.
You can literally play just Bowie songs all day and you will discover so many new chords.
He rarely sticks with the same and common progression, there is always an interesting substitution or movement!
If you are just a guitarist Bowie is excellent study, but if you wish to write your own songs, knowing his catalog is essential.
Beyond music theory his use of different genres, instruments, and topics are a testament to how far creativity can take a musician or artist.
Bowie is more than music, his performance combines fashion, fads, social commentary, and even mimes!
"Moonage Daydream" is one of the easier David Bowie songs to play on the guitar, and because the same structure repeats it is easy to memorize.
If you find you love playing these tunes then check out the movie The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, one of the characters (played by Seu Jorge) plays amazing Bowie guitar covers throughout the film.
Many artists have been inspired by Bowie, maybe you too can create your own space rock operas that take the listener to the moon and beyond!
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