There was of course an alternative music culture that produced some good music, but by and large the 1990’s were a strange time for pop/rock music, especially guitar-based music. Aside from Grunge there weren’t too many guitar-based musical developments. Though I enjoyed Grunge for a while it was a brief trend that never stuck with me. Grunge was huge but now it seems a distant memory, most Grunge bands seem to have been forgotten about, perhaps rightly so.
The real 90’s musical revolutions were in electronic music with Rave, Jungle, Electronica, Trip-Hop and Hip Hop. I took solace in some artists from those genres like Goldie, Missy Elliot, Bjørk and Massive Attack, but guitar music they were not! So for my rock/pop guitar fixes in the 90’s, I was discovering music from previous decades.
Perhaps the reason for the lack of innovation in guitar music was because there was a big trend of ‘retro’ music, especially referencing the 1960’s. As the decade went on the 60’s revival was replaced by the 70’s revival and there was even an attempt at an 80’s revival as the 90’s came to an end!
All that is a long way of explaining how my 90’s guitar hero playlists revolve around guitarists more associated with the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Here’s a Youtube and Spotify playlist of some of the music I was listening to and learning from then, followed by my thoughts on each guitarist.
No guitar hero list would be complete without the greatest rock guitarist of them all. The 60’s revival of the 90’s brought a trend of releasing ‘remastered’ classic albums. Jimi Hendrix’s music had a great renaissance then, especially after they produced a video for his cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’. The invention in his guitar playing was inspiring and I immersed myself in learning his music then. His diversity as a player is brilliantly illustrated in tracks like ‘Castles Made of Sand’ and ‘The Wind Cries Mary’. His rhythm guitar playing was as inventive as his famed solos. The true rock guitar hero. Nothing more needs to be said!
The Police (Andy Summers)
It was through listening to The Police in the 90’s that I really transformed as a listener and musician. Andy Summers is probably the most important influence to me for that reason, as it was his guitar playing that really expanded my musical horizons. He played extended chords like no one else in pop or rock did. It all sounded so simple, but then you’d try to play it and your fingers would get sore because they had to stretch across more frets than any other music you’d played! My fingers stretched out to be quite long mainly because I learnt how to play Andy Summers’ add9 chords from Message in a Bottle, Every Breath You Take and perhaps my favourite Police riff De Do Do Do. Some of The Police’s best tracks weren’t singles, so they aren’t as well known. ‘Secret Journey’ and ‘When the World is Running Down’ feature some of Summers’ finest textured playing. I composed my first classical guitar piece when listening to The Police. I called it Homage to Andy Summers as it used a lot of add9 chords. It’s now called ‘Elegy for Joan’ in memory of my late Mum. Summers’ isn’t just a huge influence on me, his influence is basically heard across the entire pop/rock history since the late 70’s! He could do more with one unusual chord and an effects pedal than most can do with all the guitar tricks in the box.
The Doors (Robbie Krieger)
The 60’s revival brought The Doors back into fashion in a big way, so much so that there was a big Hollywood movie about them. I was buying CDs by then and so I got all The Doors CDs. Of course Jim Morrison was an enthralling lead singer, but it was the understated and hugely versatile Robbie Krieger that really peaked my interest. He would move from screaming blues solos like in ‘Peace Frog’, to jazzy sitar-like playing as on ‘Indian Summer’ and Spanish guitar, like ‘Spanish Caravan’.
Simon and Garfunkel (Paul Simon)
Simon and Garfunkel’s music was always in the house, however as I matured as a guitarist I began to understand what a great guitarist Paul Simon is, so I started learning a lot of Simon and Garfunkel songs. They are great songs to learn fingerstyle guitar and are a bit of a bridge to classical and jazz guitar. ‘So Long Frank Lloyd Wright’ is a strangely beautiful song sung by Art Garfunkel to Paul Simon’s gorgeous nylon string guitar part. This song introduced me to the Brazilian style of Bossa Nova which I’d grow to love. Simon’s version of Davy Graham’s guitar instrumental ‘Anji’ also introduced me to the world of solo folk guitar playing, which ultimately led me into traditional Irish music. ‘Punky’s Dilemma’ has jazzy strums using major 7th chords, which became my favourite type of chords.
When you start exploring 60’s folk songwriters like Paul Simon it isn’t long before you discover Joni Mitchell, one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th Century. Though the most famous Joni album is ‘Blue’, the album that really captured me was ‘Hejira’, a sprawling jazz-influenced album about life on the road with a cast of wonderful musicians including guitarist Larry Carlton and legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius. It is also a great showcase of Joni’s inventive guitar playing. She uses numerous alternative guitar tunings to sculpt beautiful accompaniment to her poetic lyrics. A true musical genius.
Neil Young plays harmonica on the ‘Hejira’ track ‘Furry Sings the Blues’. In the 90’s he had a big comeback and became a guitar hero to a new generation. His legendary MTV Unplugged set is perhaps the most memorable edition of Unplugged, I bought the tape when it came out in 1993. Unplugged introduced an almost forgotten 70’s star to the 90’s generation and he was labelled the Godfather of Grunge. The Unplugged album doesn’t explain why he got this name, rather it’s his work with his band Crazy Horse, with whom he played extended heavy rock jams, some featuring really epic guitar solos, like ‘Down by the River’, ‘Cortez the Killer’ and ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’. Down by the River is notable for Young’s ‘one note solos’, where he keeps playing the same note over and over before doing the same with another note. Minimalist rock guitar god!
Pink Floyd (Dave Gilmour)
In 1994 Pink Floyd made a comeback with the album ‘The Division Bell’. I’d been listening to them a bit before the Division Bell came out, having been introduced to the glories of their remastered back catalog of great albums like Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, Meddle and Animals. Dave Gilmour’s guitar playing on these records is some of the best rock guitar there is, so he was a huge influence to me then. I never got to see Pink Floyd live, but I did see their legendary Live 8 reunion live on TV in 2005 and their performance of ‘Comfortably Numb’ brought a nostalgic tear to my eyes! The epic song ‘Dogs’ has incredible guitar playing throughout.
It’s hard to believe it now, but in the late 70’s and 80’s The Beatles were not a trendy band at all, they were seen as a relic of the bygone hippie era that the punks, goths and metal-heads were railing against. So, as a child, I didn’t hear them much on the radio and I knew a lot more about the individual member’s solo work than the band. Then The Beatles had a major revival in the 90’s thanks to a host of ‘new’ bands ripping them off (hello Oasis!) and a huge marketing campaign around their remastered ‘Anthology’. It was impossible to avoid The Beatles at this point, so I began seriously listening to their music. Hearing the albums ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, ‘Revolver’, ‘The White Album’ and ‘Abbey Road’ made me and a lot of my generation realise they were one of the greatest of all pop/rock bands! Some of their non-album singles are among their best work, especially ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ on which John, Paul and George each play different guitar lines. It was the 2000s before I got into their US equivalent, The Beach Boys, so they’re not in my Retro 90’s playlist.
Yes (Steve Howe)
Another 60’s/70’s band to get a 90’s revival was the Progressive Rock band ‘Yes’. I was drawn into Yes’ music by their virtuoso guitarist Steve Howe. I’d known their hit 80’s song ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ but it was really through the publicity around their so-so 1991 comeback album ‘Union’ that I began to explore their back catalog. At their best Yes produced really uplifting music which had a great balance between pop hooks and virtuoso musicianship. At their worst they were self-indulgent. The main Yes album I listened to in the 90’s was the compilation “Classic Yes” which has the best tracks from their 70’s heyday. Howe’s guitar playing is tremendous throughout this compilation, as is Jon Anderson’s distinctive singing. The epic 10 minute “And You and I” is a great showcase of their talents, moving stage by stage from a mysterious 12-string acoustic guitar intro to a folky pop song, to a psychedelic bit, a synth-orchestra interlude, a majestic vocal climax, another folky bit, some bluesy guitar, strange synth noodling from Rick Wakeman, a harmony vocal bit, another synth-orchestra bit and finally returning to gentle folkiness at the end. Genre-jumping at its finest!
The Clash (Mick Jones)
Another band to get a 90’s revival were ‘The Clash’. Their revival was mainly down to ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ being used for a famous Levi jeans TV ad. My sister was a big fan of the band in the 80’s, but I didn’t really listen to them then. With their 90’s revival I started listening to them and I began to really appreciate their diversity, they weren’t just another punk band. They brought in influences from Reggae, Funk and Disco to develop into the best of the Punk bands. My favourite song of theirs is ‘Straight to Hell’, which has strange textures including some beautifully subtle guitar lines from Mick Jones. ‘London Calling’ and ‘Rock the Casbah’ are two other classics I like that were on MTV a lot in the 90’s. Jones is kind of an anti-guitar hero as he doesn’t do flashy guitar solos, but his guitar playing with The Clash was just perfect for what they were doing.
Addendum – Why No 90’s Guitar Heroes? Where’s Kurt Cobain and Jonny Greenwood?
So in this playlist of my “90’s” rock guitar heroes, none of them are artists who first broke through in the 90’s. To me that’s a reflection of the fact that the 90’s weren’t a great time for guitar music. In fact, I remember one of the key aesthetics of 90’s rock music was a reaction against the very concept of a rock guitar solo. Accomplished guitar playing wasn’t cool anymore! Take for example thisBest of 1993 edition of the old MTV Indie music show 120 minutes – There’s a lot of guitar playing on it, but most of it is pretty basic stuff which I find uninteresting. By far the most interesting musician there is Björk, and she doesn’t use a guitar! That was MTV’s idea of the best alternative music of 1993. Most of those bands are forgotten now, to me it was a pretty dull time for guitar music. Some people love this era though and that’s fine by me, it’s just not my idea of good guitar music.
The fact that Kurt Cobain is often cited as the main guitar hero of the 90’s says a lot about the state of guitar rock then. I was a Nirvana fan briefly, but I got bored by them pretty quickly and though his influence on the 90’s music scene is undeniable, the truth is Kurt Cobain was a pretty average guitar player and most of the things he did had already been done by The Pixies and other ’80’s bands (Just listen to “Debaser” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven” for proof!).
The closest person to a 90’s rock guitar hero I’d have would be Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. I enjoyed their big album ‘OK Computer”, and would have learnt some of the songs, but it wouldn’t be honest of me to list Greenwood or any other 90’s rock guitarist as a major influence on me.
I’d also give an honourable mention to Graham Coxon from Blur. In the mid-90’s the Blur V. Oasis battle was unavoidable. I’d be firmly on the side of Blur as their music is far more creative, thanks partly to Coxon’s angular guitar playing. Saying that though, I saw them at a Belgian festival called Rock Werchter a few years ago and I found their music hadn’t dated very well. The same is true of ‘OK Computer’. Music that seemed fresh to me in the mid-90’s now sounds very stale! It’s like a less interesting version of The Beatles and Pink Floyd.
The 90’s weren’t all bad, there was some very inventive electronic dance music and hip-hop, but it wouldn’t be until the late 2000’s when some new guitar bands would emerge to peak my interest and bring me back to rock music. Due to this my playlists over the next few weeks move to other genres because the late 90’s and early-mid 2000s were a time when I moved away from pop and rock music and focused my attention on classical, trad, jazz and African music styles.