Guitarist Carlos Alomar Reveals the Secrets Behind the Funky Sound of David Bowie’s Young Americans

David Bowie’s guitarist and musical director Carlos Alomar opens up about tunings, funk, and surprising arrangements of Young Americans.

David Bowie and Carlos Alomar
Photo: Luciano Viti/Getty Images

This year’s David Bowie World Fan Convention took place in New York City. Over several nights in several locations, musicians and other players who worked with David Bowie spoke with fans about the golden years. One creative concept which was reinforced over the weekend is how Bowie chose to work with artists who were as curious, experimental, and funny as himself. No one fits that bill as much as guitarist, composer, arranger, and natural raconteur Carlos Alomar.

Born in Puerto Rico, and raised in the Bronx, Alomar is a New York institution. He made cultural history when he was 17 as the youngest guitarist in the history of Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater, going on to join the house band. The guitarist met Bowie in 1974 and stepped right into the recording of Young Americans. Alomar brought in singers like his wife, Robin Clark, who brought in Luther Vandross, who brought songwriting chops to the sessions. “Luther swore ‘Fascination’ was going to be the single, until ‘Fame’ came out,” Alomar told the audience from the convention stage at Racket NYC. The song began as a cover of “Footstompin” by the Flairs, which yielded the signature guitar lick.

“David Bowie walks in with John Lennon and May Pang,” Alomar remembered. “I didn’t know who David Bowie was, but I definitely knew who John Lennon was. They invited me to go out to dinner. I come from the James Brown school, so I heard these three or four guitars playing at the same time, and when they said you want to go to dinner, I was like, ‘You know what, David? Respectfully, I hear these parts. Let me just put down my thoughts.’ I could have had dinner with John Lennon.”

When Bowie was looking to fuse rock, funk, and electronics for Station to Station, Alomar, who was also the musical director for several of Bowie’s largest world tours, put together the D.A.M., which should be as well-known a name as the Spiders From Mars, Bowie’s most famous backing band. Alomar, bass player George Murray, and the late drummer Dennis Davis “could play jazz, rock, funk or whatever we’ve got, everything.” From the stage Alomar reverently recounted Davis’ lightning-fast one-handed single-stick rolls. The band consistently flipped beats mid-song, and when Bowie asked Davis to play rhythm in “Ashes to Ashes” backwards, he did without missing a beat.

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D.A.M.’s tight flexibility allowed Bowie full access to on-the-spot exploration. The trio continued through Young Americans, Station to Station, Low, Heroes, Lodger, Scary Monsters, Outside, and Reality. Alomar sat in with us to talk about keeping the sound and vision sharp and skewered.

Den of Geek: Do you remember the first time you surprised David Bowie with something you came up with?

Carlos Alomar: “Fame,” cause that man ain’t funky. In 1974, he knew nothing about funk. Next thing you know, he’s shaking his butt on Soul Train. Don’t you think that would’ve surprised anyone? He comes into the studio after having dinner with John Lennon, and the tracks are already finished. He comes in and he puts one guitar [sings the fuzz riff Bowie plays], and that’s it. Song is done.

How was it like going back and forth on guitar with John Lennon during the jam?

It wasn’t that situation. He comes in and says let’s do a little strumming. I don’t think we used many of the things that he did. I think the thing that you hear in the beginning that sounds like a piano, that might be his acoustic guitar backwards, but you might want to ask Tony Visconti.

“Fame” is just a blues song. It’s only three chords. Anybody can play that. Maybe he’s playing a little strumming guitar on the back. You can’t hear it. All you hear is the funky guitar. His name is what needs to be there. I think that that was the original intention of his coming down, and being honored by David by doing “Across the Universe.” The fact that he stepped into that studio and got involved in that was fortunate for everyone, including me.

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First song I ever wrote, with John Lennon and David Bowie. Not too flaky.

Were you on the sessions with Robert Fripp?  

He was an overdub.

I love hearing Bowie tell Fripp to shut up, because no one could tell him to shut up. 

Well, it’s a setup. It’s a conversation piece. Sometimes you want to be provocative enough to really have people wonder why the hell did he do that? To make fools ask questions. It’s important for him to be able to tease his audience. I think he did that brilliantly by doing things like that. Like you said, he said shut up to somebody that no one tells to shut up.

How do you continually evolve in your approach to guitar playing?

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Well, let me put it to you this way. I’m a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. When I got involved with Eno, they changed my mind so much that I formed the Sound Synthesis Research Center for the Performing Arts at the school. Through that, I’m able to continue my studies on the guitar.

My approaches to the guitar have been because of the many experiences that I have had with Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, all of these amazing guitar players that I got to steal techniques from as a young musician. I would never have done any of those things. I’m a soulful kind of little R&B guitar player, playing a little R&B twin reverb amplifier with a 335. I’m not the Marshall Stack [kind of player]. Then suddenly something happens. I meet Adrian Belew, next thing I know, I’m hammering. I hear Fripp. Now I know how to control feedback. I hear some other guitar players. I got open tunings under my belt.

Open tunings, the four B tunings of the Louisiana Bayou. The original slave tunings gave us the minor pentatonic. I play synthesizer-guitar. Half of the stuff that you hear me playing after a certain album, that’s all synthesizer-guitar. What you think you’re hearing is not a synthesizer. It’s me. My studies on the guitar continue until now. I found that, because I teach students and I teach guitar, my chops are better than they have ever been because I continually reinvent myself in order to apply what I need to know to a new environment.

Also, the inconspicuous benefit of being at a university is that the kids keep me current. By exchanging ideas with them, they challenge what I came with to where they’re going. I’m caught in a place where my past doesn’t reflect on my present. And my present gives me no indication of my future. So, the odyssey continues, and the curiosity is still totally intact. In fact, I think it’s rather blossomed more.

Onstage, you mentioned using open tuning for one measure of a lead you had to punch in. Do you know the tunings on the spot?

You find yourself playing the guitar, and you find that your shape will allow you to arpeggiate. We do that all the time when we do a chord, but we have some open strings that we can just let ring, and we just bounce off of the strings. But if I make a chord change, that one string that I would’ve kept ringing is wrong. But if I could just drop that tuning one half fret, I can continue doing it. So, for the record, I detune it and then I retune it.

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In the old days, I might not have been able to do that live, but I play synthesizer-guitar, and I can tell my synthesizer-guitar to do all the tunings. When I bring my synthesizer-guitar, I no longer have to do acoustic guitar, electric guitar, 12-string guitar, Spanish guitar, 335, Fender Strat. I got all of those programs in that one guitar. If you want to hear a Quatro or a mandolin, I got you covered.

Do you take a guitar technician with you?

No. It’s all in the pedal. You have to program it. I’m a programmer. First of all, there’s not a lot of stuff you need. I got a pedal, and the pedal has everything. I do have outboard equipment that I can use, but it is not necessary because it’s only sound processing. What I mean by that is the synthesizer-guitar in itself gives you the tunings that you need, and then also gives you all the effects that you need. But I don’t find that I need to overprocess something. It’s not the effect, it’s the player.

I can always add the effect later, but sometimes I gotta do things clean, and just figure out what they are, and then add the effect. The synthesizer-guitar allows me the luxury of thinking on a totally different level. Then, later on, I start thinking about effecting what I would do with them.

Do you do the same kind of exploration with amplifiers?

The amplifier in itself has only a few characteristics that you can expand. Of course, we know that we can run effects through, in and out, and all that, but bridging amplifiers together is an important aspect of what you get when you don’t know what you’re doing.

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Imagine that if you took an amplifier and you took a lead from that amplifier and plugged it into another amplifier. You know full well that we can do that. It’s just looping a few amplifiers together. But what happens if you put one effect on one amplifier? I put reverb on this one and then I feed that to another amplifier, and then that amplifier, I put chorus in on that one, and then I feed that to another amplifier. When you get down chain, you’ve probably degraded that sound in such a way that you never would’ve expected. That sound might be good for three or four notes on one album.

The David Bowie World Fan Convention is an annual event powered by Sound City.