Guitar Lessons: How to Play 3 of David Bowie’s Best Riffs

David Bowie and his army of six-string co-conspirators had more than their fair share of great guitar moments. Here, we take a look at three fan favorites and discuss the intricacies needed to authentically nail them.

The man who sold the world

This is a simple lick, but it’s worth taking a look at your technique to make sure you’re playing it as well as possible.

First, you’ll need solid timing on the first four notes (AAAG) and that comes down to a steady picking motion.

We recommend repeating the phrase with a metronome or drum loop at a slightly slower tempo.

The curvature of the strings from A to Bb is crucial – hit the wrong pitch and you’ll sound out of tune. This happens when your finger is not strong enough, so use two fingers to bend the string.

For the pull-off, the challenge is to strike the open string without colliding with another string. Train slowly and adjust the angle of your pull if necessary.

POINT: Play the selected notes slightly softer so you won’t notice if your out note is quieter


  • Appears at: 0:00-0:15
  • Tempo: 116 bpm
  • Key/Scale: D minor natural
  • Main techniques: String bends, pull-offs

Rebel Rebel

It’s not obvious at first glance but Rebel Rebel’s riff is based on three easy open chords: D, A and E, which means there are no big surprises when it comes to your fingers.

Of course, there are some variations: an open first string on the D chord makes it a Dsus2 and the 2nd fret C# note added to the E implies an E6 chord, but these are easy changes.

The challenge comes with picking, or more specifically, playing certain notes of each chord, so you’ll need to keep picking hand movements as small and controlled as possible.

There are subtle variations in the riff throughout the track, but we recommend learning it in its simplest form and adding your own ideas.

POINT: Try omitting the open sixth string until you’ve mastered the notes on the first and second strings


  • Appears at: 0:00-0:30
  • Tempo: 127 bpm
  • Key/Scale: A Major
  • Main techniques: Arpeggios, controlled picking

let’s dance

The rhythms of this riff written by Nile Rodgers seem very complex, but, in fact, each chord is only played three times.

Complex rhythms are produced by a double delay effect, one set to an eighth note impulse (263ms) and the other to a quarter note (526ms). If you have a stereo setup, move each delay about 50% to each side for an expansive sound.

Your timing has to be perfect because any badly timed hit will completely throw you off balance when you hear the delayed repeats.

The three chord strikes fall on beat 1, the fourth sixteenth note on beat 1 and beat 3. We advise the “ghost” to strum a rhythm of “four notes per beat”, making contact only with the strings on the three strums.

POINT: Set your delay to a low feedback setting. No more than three or four repetitions and you will be inundated!


  • Appears at: 0:08-0:25
  • Tempo: 114 bpm
  • Key/scale: B-flat minor
  • Main techniques: scraping sixteenth notes, barre chords

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