Grunge was undoubtedly the most significant musical genre/movement of the 1990s. Without the cultural upheaval that it caused, it is certain that music would not be the same today. In the wake of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s tragic heartbreaking suicide in 1994, he was likened to a Northwestern version of John Lennon by elements of the media, reflecting just how important the band and ‘scene’ had become culturally.
Often referred to as the ‘Seattle sound’, the term grunge was used as an umbrella term to encompass the association of bands that had sprung up in Washington state during the mid-’80s. Of course, there were many grunge bands that existed in a space of their own, far from the Pacific Northwest, notably The Smashing Pumpkins, Hole and Stone Temple Pilots, however, the city of Seattle became known as the bastion of all things grunge. After all, that’s where the movement originated.
Alongside Nirvana, the other grunge heavyweights were Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. Often, the scene is associated with the record label Sub Pop as some of the aforementioned groups released early material for the label. In reality, though, they all really made their names on major labels, but that’s a story for a different day.
Although the term grunge is a source of much contention to those who were there, what we do know is that the overall sound was a mix of punk rock, hardcore punk, heavy, thrash and sludge metal. You’d be hard-pressed to find any of the original Seattle bands whose music does not fit into at least one of these categories. The bands fused disparate inspirations from The Beatles, Black Sabbath, The Wipers and Sonic Youth, to name but a few.
Another defining feature of the grunge movement was the volume of guitar heroes it produced. All of the Seattle bands contained at least one guitar hero, as did the majority of their associate bands from other parts of the country. It is genuinely mindblowing how legendary some of the original grunge movements axemen are.
Whilst they all have different styles, it was with grunge that the modern guitar player was born. Never before, and never again, has there been a scene brimming with such iconic guitar players. Duly, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to list the five best guitarists of the era. Although they vary in technical proficiency, together, these figures helped to reassert the dominance of the six-string and inspired generations in the process.
The best grunge guitarists:
5. Kurt Cobain (Nirvana)
I’m sorry to the purists, but there was just no way that Kurt Cobain wasn’t going to make it onto the list, regardless of what you say. It was he who truly popularised grunge, and duly, his guitar style has been imitated countless times over the decades. Via his unconventional style, Cobain showed that anyone can be a guitar hero, and much like his forebear, Neil Young showed that rarely does it have to be a means of massaging the ego.
Aside from penning countless catchy riffs, Cobain’s guitar playing combined pop and hardcore in a way that had never been done before, and every note he played had a purpose. He served the song, and it was this kind of attitude that helped to convey the message that guitar playing was not all about excess as it had been with hair metal during the ’80s.
It is an effective instrument that, when understood, can have much more power than any string tapping could. Just listen to ‘Blew’, ‘Territorial Pissings’, ‘All Apologies’ and a bunch more and you’ll know; Cobain could seriously play.
4. Billy Corgan (The Smashing Pumpkins)
To put it simply, Billy Corgan is The Smashing Pumpkins. This is not to reduce the role of any of the band’s classic lineup, because the first three albums the Chicago group released are all legendary. Alongside Jimmy Chamberlain, James Iha and D’arcy Wretzky, Corgan wrote some of the most iconic tracks of the ’90s.
In truth, it was a toss-up between him and Iha for this spot but because it was Corgan who penned the majority of their best works, it has to go to the main man. Combining the power of Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi with the dynamic beauty of The Cure and Bauhaus, there’s no surprise that Corgan has inspired metalheads, shoegazers and everything in between.
Possessing a knack for a catchy riff, be it ‘Cherub Rock’, ‘Today’, ‘Bullet with Butterfly Wings’ or even ‘Jellybelly’, Corgan’s status as a grunge hero is well deserved.
3. Mike McCready (Pearl Jam)
Another band that had two resident guitar heroes was Pearl Jam. Both Mike McCready and Stone Gossard are incredible players, and the way they dovetailed was like a ’90s iteration of how Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and Wayne Kramer used to in the ’60s with The MC5. McCready pips Gossard to the top spot though, as he is the elected lead guitarist of Pearl Jam.
The most classic rock-oriented player on the list, for those familiar with Pearl Jam, it will come as no surprise to hear that McCready cites legends such as Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend and David Gilmour as influences.
This cohort of classic rock shredders, he mixed with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eddie Van Halen, to create a swaggering bluesy style, with a pinch of metal thrown in for good measure. His solos are as legendary as his riffs, and without his power, Pearl Jam wouldn’t have been the same beast.
2. Kim Thayil (Soundgarden)
A true heavyweight in modern guitar playing, Thayil is a total shredder, but not in the conventional sense. Of course, he can tear up the fretboard in as visceral a manner as any, and the power of his riffs really are something. Fusing punk and metal influences, Thayil has a minimalist style, always serving the song perfectly. Standing with his back perfectly straight, he’s like some otherwordly presence when on stage.
‘Hands All Over’, ‘Jesus Christ Pose’, ‘My Wave’, Thayil is a guitarist who did something different, and much like Cobain, earned legions of followers in the process. Outside of Soundgarden, he’s continued to shine, and Altar, the 2006 record he featured on alongside Sunn O))) and Boris, shows just how far he pushes the guitar.
1. Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains)
Was there really going to be anyone else at the top spot? Jerry Cantrell is an outstanding guitarist, of a quality that we laymen could only dream of being. Notably, his playing is influenced by classic rock, blues and country, but what he does with these rudimentary influences is as refreshing today as they were 30 years ago. He bends them in ways that players such as Mike McCready would have thought impossible.
Aside from the fact that he is such a versatile player, it’s that he doubles up as a singer in the band, which is really something. The way he and the band’s late frontman, Layne Staley, dovetailed whilst Cantrell delivered gargantuan riff after riff, reflects his talent.
In terms of his guitar playing, arguably the band’s second album, 1992’s Dirt, is his finest hour. Tracks like ‘Them Bones’, ‘Damn That River’, ‘Angry Chair’ and ‘Junkhead’ hit you like a sucker punch. There are also more languid moments like, ‘Rain When I Die’ and ‘Down in a Hole’ and the unmistakable ‘Would?’, which all showcase his skill.
A defining part of Cantrell’s playing is his use of the wah-pedal, and akin to a modern Jimi Hendrix, he used it to create some of the most thunderous riffs in existence. The band’s breakthrough hit ‘Man in the Box’ is a masterclass in how to use the wah effectively.
A true master of the six-string, we salute you, Jerry Cantrell.