Campus & Community

Guitar Great Carlos Alomar Shares Memories of David Bowie and How Technology Offers New Opportunities for Today’s Musicians

Carlos Alomar plays guitar on stage with David Bowie
Carlos Alomar on stage with David Bowie.

Carlos Alomar, Distinguished Artist-In-Residence and director of the Sound Synthesis Research Center (SSRC) for the performing arts at Stevens Institute of Technology, has worked with the likes of John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Alicia Keys, and most recently Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars. But he is perhaps best known for his longtime guitar play behind David Bowie from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s. In fact, Bowie’s first U.S. number one hit single, “Fame,” was co-written with Alomar and John Lennon.

The world reaction to Bowie’s passing last month speaks to the lasting impact the late artist had on music, and more broadly – pop culture. Not surprisingly, Alomar, as a frequent collaborator with Bowie, has since been sought after by numerous media outlets for interviews. In a story for Rolling Stone magazine, Alomar gave a heartfelt tribute to his long-time friend as he looked back on the most significant collaboration of his life.

“Working with David, and specifically working on his Berlin trilogy, has carried me to where I am today– specifically with the way we worked with electronic music. The act of saying, ‘If I'm an artist, I can present my music to my fans and not present it to my record company,’ was very important.”

Curiosity and an open mind are traits he shared with Bowie, Alomar said in the magazine, adding that his current position at Stevens was in large part due to having worked with Bowie on experimental albums like Low, Heroes and Lodger.

But when Alomar was approached by Stevens to join their music and technology program back in 2005, the music veteran wasn’t completely sold.

Self-taught, the famed guitarist balked at the idea of teaching, saying he did not have a “method” to pass on. But despite his initial reluctance, Alomar took up the challenge to translate his 40 plus years of experience and knowledge into a method that he could take into the classroom to teach students how to play the guitar.

He came up with a method to “demystify” the guitar for students who’ve never played, telling them simply that all they need to learn is six chords.

"All changes and variations come from those chords. All you do is travel up and down the neck, and once you address that, everything is demystified and students are no longer intimidated and can play rock or jazz."

Alomar uses this method to get students playing guitar in one semester, while they are learning orchestration, composition and theory from other instructors.

"In 14 weeks, they're playing anything from Bach inventions to jazz improvisation," he says.

"They might come up with an ensemble piece, so I show them how to play synthesizer guitar, and they essentially become an ensemble with cello, vibes and basses.”

During his one-on-one guitar sessions, he encourages his students to experiment and make mistakes, saying it’s the only way to learn. The beauty of technology, according to Alomar, is that it “affords choice and direction that the traditional medium does not.”

Given the essential role music plays in Alomar’s life, one could easily assume he was encouraged from an early age. Not so, says Alomar.

“As the son of a Pentecostal minister, religious music was all I knew. When I was given my first guitar at the age of 10, I was enthralled. I ate and slept guitar,” he recalls.

By the time he was 14, he was captivated by Rock and Roll and the music of Motown. But fearing his parents’ disapproval, Alomar kept his love of secular music secret.

“I would tell my mom that I was helping a local church with its music, when in reality, I was jamming with the local musicians. I was determined to learn how to play "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones.”

But his mother discovered his deception, forcing a long overdue conversation between father and son.

“He listened to my argument about the allure of the chords and progressions, and that I still dedicated my music to the Lord. He then called my mother in and told her that my talent was a gift from God and that they would not stand in my way.”

After his father passed away a year later, Alomar, at the age of 16, went to the Apollo Theater in New York City to begin his musical career. There, he had a chance to observe legends, such as Nancy Wilson and James Brown, and became the youngest guitarist in the history of the Apollo Theater's Reuben Phillips Orchestra.

His time at the Apollo would change his life in other ways.

“It was there that I met my life-long friend Luther Vandross and my future wife Robin Clark. During this time, I knew my father would be proud of me, and I never looked back.”

Alomar has witnessed and been part of the many changes that have occurred during the four decades he has been in the music industry. Through it all, Alomar has always embraced technology. He still remembers the excitement he felt when the Mac Plus came out in the '80s, which he used to create the first synth guitar album.

So when Stevens tapped Alomar to become the director of the Sound Synthesis Research Center at Stevens, he says he couldn’t turn down “the opportunity to be in a musical environment at a technological school.”

The Music & Technology program at Stevens, housed within the university’s College of Arts & Letters, offers courses in sound recording, music theory, digital music systems and much more. Students have access to cutting-edge electronic music and recording equipment in a number of state-of-the art teaching facilities and studios. They also benefit from working with and learning from faculty who are all world-class musicians, composers and producers.

In 2013, the music and technology program program was ranked the second most innovative college music program worldwide, second only to the Berklee College of Music, by The Best Colleges, a website which provides independent evaluations of U.S. colleges based on publicly available data and research. Stevens’ interdisciplinary curriculum received high marks by The Best Colleges, which stated, “Through physics, engineering and technology, [Stevens’ Music & Technology students] learn how the brain processes sound.”

“Since the inception of the Music and Technology B.A. in 2008, our program has exploded 300 percent, and is challenging and engaging students to apply all their skill sets to expand the boundaries of music," Alomar says proudly.