The man who did not want to be a 'guitar hero'

By Sergio Ariza

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, the banjo, the harmonica and the 'glockenspiel', to name just a few, besides the guitar. Of course it is his guitar that gave Radiohead their distinctive sound on their first albums, from those that marked 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. Afterwards both he and the band would look for new directions and sounds in which the guitar did not occupy such a predominant place, but Greenwood’s enormous musicality would continue to be noticed.  

Greenwood was born on November 5, 1971 in Oxford, and as a child he fell in love with music and discovered that he had a great ear for it. His father listened to Mozart, his older brother Colin, to New Order, and little Jonny liked both. His first instrument was the flute, which he learned to play when he was four years old, then the viola; and soon he was playing in an orchestra of young people playing baroque music. When it was time for him to go to high school, he went to the same as his brother Colin, Abingdon, where he had met a boy named Thom Yorke, and they had formed a band called On A Friday. The group was composed of Yorke as lead singer, Colin on bass, Ed O'Brien on guitar and Philip Selway on drums. However, Jonny was always asking for a chance to get up on stage and play with them. In 1987 they let him in, first playing the harmonica, then the keyboards and, finally, lead guitar. Jonny had got his first electric guitar that same year, an 80s Fender Telecaster, from which he was soon getting the most incredible sounds.


But shortly thereafter On A Friday was put on hold when its older members left school for college. The young Greenwood began studying music, learning many things that would be very useful in the future. In the beginning of the 90s, the band began to work again. Just three weeks before Greenwood graduated in music and psychology from Oxford Brookes University, the band got a contract with EMI and he left everything to follow his ex-classmates. The bet would be a good one, one of the songs the band had was Creep; although it was composed by Yorke it was Greenwood who managed to lift the song with his guitar playing. And from this first moment it was clear that Greenwood's style was entirely his own, beating the guitar mercilessly to get some of the dirtiest and most ‘pissed off’ sounds ever. The song started with some arpeggios by O'Brien and the special voice of Yorke but Jonny had not liked it, and so he made his Telecaster enter the song like a bull in a china shop. As O'Brien said, "That's the sound of Jonny trying to fuck the song up. He really didn't like it the first time we played it, so he tried spoiling it. And it made the song." By that time he had replaced his original Telecaster with two Telecaster Plus; in particular using one with a 'sunburst' finish and Lace Sensor pickups, decorated with two small stickers, which is what suffers his attack in Creep.

When Creep hit the market in late 1992, the group had already changed its name to Radiohead, in homage to a song by another legendary band, Talking Heads. But the song passed without getting noticed through the lists of their native country. So the band went into the studio to record their first album, Pablo Honey. The result was not as expected, the band had not yet found their own personality; never had such a great band had such an unpromising start. After listening to Pablo Honey one had the feeling of having listened to a band obsessed by the Pixies, Nirvana and other luminaries of American indie rock that had found, by chance, a hit in the form of Creep. It is also true that if their career had not been what it was one could look at this album with other eyes and songs like Lurgee, Stop Whispering, Blow Out or Anyone Can Play Guitar (mainly the latter, thanks again to Jonny in a state of grace ) could pass as favorites in a canon less important than theirs.

The thing is that the advent of 'Britpop' and the triumph of bands like Oasis and Blur, wrongfooted them, despite the late success of Creep around the world. Their pessimism seemed out of place in a scene devoted to hedonism and celebration, but the band was finding itself and was going to prove that its alienation was closer to the 'zeitgeist' of the times than previously thought.

Few suspected that such an unpromising debut as Pablo Honey would be followed by a masterpiece at the height of
The Bends, which found a band discovering its sound and delivering a perfect album from its beginning with Planet Telex until its end with Street Spirit (Fade Out). Both Yorke and Greenwood brought extra originality to their respective instruments, voice and guitar, making the band a strange entity that, to top it all, in a way ‘defended’ groups that were totally despised at the time, for their alleged pomposity, such as Pink Floyd or U2. With The Bends the world of rock discovered a guitarist with new things to say. His solos were unpredictable, with every surprising and unpredictable note, violent bursts of inspiration that can be heard in the title track, Bones, My Iron Lung and, above all, Just, where he uses his Telecaster Plus with a DigiTech Whammy and a combo of Vox AC-30 and Fender Deluxe 85. On the band’s subsequent tour his aggressive style led him to injure his wrist, which meant he had to wear a bandage that would become part of his visual style.

But not even a work as great as The Bends prepared the world for the moment in which
OK Computer appeared. With their third album Radiohead managed to square the circle, unite two different worlds, the guitar rock of his previous album, The Bends, with the experimentation of other music and worlds that would come with his next album, Kid A. Ok Computer was that moment in which Radiohead emerged as the most important rock band on the planet and delivered an album that both Pink Floyd and R.E.M. fans liked in the same way. Classic and alternative rock finally agreed on what might be considered the Dark Side of the Moon of the 90s. Like Floyd's records, it is a conceptual disc very much its own, not following a linear narrative but rather a general concept; in this case a satire on modern life, on the growing weight of technology in our lives and the problems that this entails. The band was ahead of the Internet revolution, achieved perfection as musicians and managed to take their sound to the maximum in a collection of songs without blemish that made them the great white hope of rock guitars. Of course, they would reject all that and would launch themselves in search of new formulas to perfect, but in a glorious moment, they delivered the album that the world needed.

From the atonal riff that opens Airbag, and the album, Greenwood definitively redefines the sound of the guitar in the decade, culminating with that barbarity called Paranoid Android where he delivers one of the most important riffs of the 90s, plus two memorable solos, the first with the strength and filth of his iconic interpretation in Creep, the second from science fiction, as if his Whammy rebelled and was the one that drew those sounds from his Tobacco Burst Fender Telecaster Plus, a guitar that had replaced the two previous ones, which were stolen in 1995. But these are not the only 'guitar hero' moments on the album; Electioneering, Lucky and The Tourist, also prove his expertise and originality on the six strings.

But where can you go once you've done Paranoid Android? For people as creative as Radiohead that was the question. Greenwood was increasingly limited by the guitar, he knew it was hard not to repeat himself, something he could not stand, so the most important guitarist of his generation left the guitar aside and turned, together with his companions, to exploring other sounds. If Ok Computer was "the album that the world needed", Kid A was the album that Radiohead needed. It began with a song in which synthesizers sounded, there were 'samples', treated voices, and then Yorke entered and sang "everything in its right place". But the rock audience could not be more in disagreement, nothing was in its right place: where were the guitars? Of course the answer was nowhere when the next song started - the one that gave its name to the album - electronic and without apparent melody.

With only two songs they had managed to alienate their audience. I remember the first time I heard this album, I could not believe it, I felt betrayed, without knowing it, I was on the side I never thought I was going to find myself, shouting ‘Judas’ to an artist, for not working on Maggie’s farm. Over time I have returned to this album many times and I have understood its importance. You can not understand 21st century music without it; it's not that Radiohead opened new paths, it's that they broke down all the barriers and allowed rock to open up like never before to all kinds of music. Now in the equation, everything from intelligent electronics to hip hop, from the abstract jazz of Mingus or Alice Coltrane to contemporary classical music, Kid A acted as an entity in which the important thing was not the songs, but the textures, the discoveries, the journey in which they take you. Kid A was not the death of rock but its renovation, an album that represented a before and after and that confirmed Radiohead as the most important band of their generation.

Over time Greenwood would again use the guitar; I Might Be Wrong, was built on a blues riff and an electronic base, in one of the best examples of the guitarist and his band updating a sound with almost 100 years of history; 2 + 2 = 5, was the distant cousin of Paranoid Android, on There There and Go To Sleep he even returned to his iconoclasts solos; while on Bodysnatchers all the bad temper and aggressiveness of The Bends appeared. In the last album by the band, A Moon Shaped Pool, the songs benefit from his exquisite orchestrations, the same ones that have earned him a great career as a composer of soundtracks with works as interesting as There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice, The Master and Phantom Thread.

The world wanted to reduce him to a simple 'guitar hero' but Jonny Greenwood was much more. In 2017 he said that he hated guitar solos, something that was not entirely true, what he meant was that he hated those soulless guitarists who only seek personal brilliance, running up and down the neck, note after note without surprise, without helping the song at all. That, of course, is not his thing, for him music is not about speed, but art. And of that, Jonny has plenty.