10 great alternative guitarists

By Sergio Ariza

We would like to take advantage of Tom Verlaine’s birthday to talk about various alternative guitarists. Specifically, about those upon whom was constructed the sound of alternative rock that ended up dominating the charts during the 90s. For that reason we have made a list with the 10 guitarists (to whom we have added another 10 below the paragraph, ‘Side B’) who are furthest away from ‘the most classic sound’ or that based on the blues; for which reason we have not included such great artists like Jack White or Mike McReady.  

Tom Verlaine

Punk emerged in New York in the mid-70s, with the epicentre being a den known as CBGB. More than just a musical style it was an ideology that rejected Californian hippie idealism, and backed a ‘do it yourself’ ideology in reaction to the virtuoso turn that the rock scene was taking. Among those groups, Tom Verlaine’s band Television stood out, which besides being among the first that emerged, was among the last that released an album. When they did release an album, the band knew ‘the repertoire’ like the back of its hand, and was capable of taking it one step further. Especially outstanding was the interaction between its guitarists. The guitar battles between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd are alternative music equivalent to Clapton and Allman on Layla; if it is clear that up to this point the instrument had been rooted in the blues Marquee Moon looked designed by a Bauhaus architect. Songs like the title track See no evil, Elevation or Prove it are the true start of what years later Perry Farrell would call "the alternative nation". The album only had a continuation, the undervalued Adventure (with Days or Foxhole) but it was sufficient for Verlaine to be considered the architect of the ‘indie’ sound giving it their most iconic models, a Fender Jazzmaster and a Fender Jaguar run through Fender and Vox amplifiers.

Side B: Richard Lloyd  

Johnny Marr

We have already spoken a lot about Johnny Marr here, but we cannot underestimate his importance in any way as his appearance at the start of the 80s with the Smiths changed the British musical scene forever. His style carried the band, with his riffs, arpeggios and way of playing on songs that barely had a place for solos, became the mirror into which all other new UK guitar bands looked after his arrival. From the Stone Roses’ John Squire to the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner, via Suede’s Bernard Butler, Oasis’s Noel Gallagher and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien. The curious thing is that, on the other side of the Atlantic, as if he was a soul twin, Peter Buck appeared to do something similar with R.E.M. The guitar that will forever be associated with him will be the Rickenbacker, but he has played every possible model, and in the end he has ended up with his own Fender Jaguar signature model.

Side B: Peter Buck      

Thurston Moore/Lee Ranaldo

Sonic Youth
was the definitive alternative band: they had the sound, the concept and the attitude. Besides they were ‘cool’. From Sister onwards they began to define themselves and find the perfect vehicles to express their whole theory, with songs that would mark a generation, such as Schizophrenia, Teen Age Riot, Silver Rocket, 100% and Sister Kane - on which the great protagonists were the guitars of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo; who were responsible for giving the band its distinctive sound. Specifically, that was a sound that breathed life into guitar rock but without sounding like anything - nor anyone – else, but themselves. It is clear that they liked punk, the Velvet Underground (mainly White light/White heat) and the Stooges, but all those influences dissolved into the creation of something new and exciting in which those guitarists with alternative tunings, dissonant and noisy melodies collided against each other to create a unique and exciting sound that would become the cement of alternative music. Both Moore and Ranaldo are loyal to Fender, using Mustangs, Telecasters and, above all, Jazzmasters, which they abused (even with drills) in order to achieve the dirtiest and most distorted sounds possible.

Side B: Scott Asheton (The Stooges)    

J Mascis

J Mascis
borrowed the sound of ‘the Sonic Youth’ and surrounded it with hooky songs, together with a secret weapon, his particular way of guitar playing - picking - that made him the closest thing that the independent scene had to a ‘guitar hero’ in the 80s and 90s. The result meant that Sonic Youth themselves converted the leader of Dinosaur Jr into the ‘president’ of the scene in one of the most remembered songs from the alternative music scene, Teenage riot. Little Fury Things, Freak Scene, Feel The Pain, Take A Run at The Sun and Almost Ready (from their 2007 reunion) are the perfect introductions to this alternative sound. Despite being strongly linked to the Jazzmaster, of which he has a couple of Signature models, in the studio he usually chooses a Telecaster and guitars loaded with P90s.

Side B: Nels Cline (Wilco)      


Joey Santiago

was right, the Pixies were the great guitar band of the 80s. Black Francis and Kim Deal were the visible face of the band but Joey Santiago and his Les Paul were their secret weapons, which gave them a particular sound with a lot of vibrato and ‘feedback’. It was incredible that such a classic and legendary guitar produced sounds that seemed to come from another planet. Santiago himself has referred to his sound as “angular and bent”; the same sound that defines some of the best songs of the genre like Where is my mind?, Gigantic, Debaser, Monkey Gone To Heaven (“Rock me Joe”) and Velouria.

Side B: Bob Mould    

Kevin Shields

Kevin Shields
is not - nowhere near - one of the most technical guitarists that you have ever listened to, but certainly, he is one of the most original. Shields, leader of My Bloody Valentine, decided that his guitar was not going to sound like anybody else’s and he dedicated himself, like an inventor, to search out all possibilities to make sounds that were distinct to everybody else’s, managing on his journey to broaden the sonic horizons of the instrument. His albums Isn't Anything (1988) and Loveless (1991) are true cornerstones of alternative rock. Shields employs alternative and open tunings, with a lot of vibrato and hundreds of effects, to achieve that ‘ocean of feedback’ upon which his ethereal melodies fly. His guitars of choice are normally a Jaguar and a Jazzmaster with personalised tremolo systems, made by himself; which merited him being chosen as the second best guitarist of all time by Spin magazine.

Side B: Mark Gardener (Ride)    


John Frusciante

When John Frusciante joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers it turned a funk rock band that knew how to have a great time in one of the most important bands of the 90s. The sound of the group went from being totally put in the rhythm (which it was not surprising having a bass player as incredible as Flea) to the melody taken a much more prominent role, giving them their own sound. This could be seen on the album that brought them fame: Blood Sugar Sex Magik, where songs like Under The Bridge, Breaking the Girl, I Could Have Lied and Soul to Squeeze appear together with funk rock songs like Give It Away and Suck My Kiss. The huge success of the album was however too much for Frusciante, who left the band mid-tour and descended into drug hell. The band replaced him temporarily with another great ‘guitar hero’ of alternative music, Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction, but it didn’t work out and finally Frusciante returned in 1998 to record the true follow-up to Blood Sugar, Californication, on which the guitar again shone. His style was strongly influenced by Hendrix, but he managed to give it his own unique flavour. His main guitar is a 1962 Fender Stratocaster but he also played a 66 Fender Jaguar (he doesn’t have any guitar built later than 1970) as can be seen on the video Under The Bridge.

Side B: Dave Navarro      

Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain
is the furthest away possible from being a guitar virtuoso but, similarly to his facility with melodies, playing guitar seemed to flow out of him, as if by magic. Each sound he produced emanated naturally from him, each failure, every wrinkle, seemed to be a natural extension, from one of the best composers of all times. He knew how to conjugate the fierceness of punk with those classic melodies to which they were so related; his Fender Mustang or his Fender Jaguar were sufficient to make rock and roll something both dangerous and accesible again. He was responsible for more people picking up a guitar than any virtuoso of the six strings.  

Side B: D. Boon (Minutemen) 

Billy Corgan

When at the height of the popularity of alternative music, Billy Corgan started to praise bands like ELO, Queen, Black Sabbath and Rush, the ‘intelligentsia’ of the movement marked his card forever. Corgan didn’t give a shit, he knew the importance of a good guitar solo and didn’t miss an opportunity to show it. Cherub Rock, Geek USA, Starla, Soma and, my personal favourite, Here Is No Why, are marvellous demonstrations of his skill on the six strings. His guitar of choice on the Smashing Pumpkins early albums was a 57 Reissue Fender Stratocaster with three Fender Lace Sensor pick ups.

Side B: Jerry Cantrell (Alice In Chains)      


Jonny Greenwood

Jonny Greenwood is one of the most important musicians in recent decades. A multi-instrumentalist with academic training, he plays the piano, the viola, synthesizers, the organ, banjo, harmonica and glockenspiel - to name but a few - besides the guitar. But it is clear that is the last that gave Radiohead their distinctive sound on their early albums. From those guitar strikes that defined Creep to that progressive festival of riffs and solos that is Paranoid Android, the first stage of the band is defined by the sound of his Fender Telecaster Plus and his aggressive way of playing it, as can be heard on the album where it is most present, The Bends. Later both he and the band would seek out new directions and sounds in which the guitar did not play such a prominent role, but that is another story. 

Side B: John Squire (The Stone Roses)