*Begin unauthorised broadcast* Hey there, it’s me, MAB - long time, no see. You might remember me from my time at the helm of MusicRadar’s guitar ship, before I hopped vessels to head up GuitarWorld.com.
I’ve spent much of the time when I’m not writing pithy news pieces assembling an album - it’s called Maebe, it sounds vaguely math-/post-/prog-rock-y and it’s available on Bandcamp, Spotify, and all major streaming services right about now. *end plug*
Clearly feeling in a particularly charitable mood, the site’s current benevolent dictators allowed me to return for one last self-indulgent editorial ride, and the format in which I most wanted to partake was this: the guitar albums that blew my mind.
I commissioned so many of these pieces over the years, and never anticipated quite how horrifying it is to narrow the list down to 10. Even coming up with 13 - yes, I’m a maverick - involved making some excruciating choices. It feels weird, for example, to exclude so many albums I adore (there’s no Radiohead, no Thrice, nothing from the Brian Eno ouvre, and not a single record released before 1992, apparently), but I also wanted to give shout-outs to a couple of more recent releases that inspired me.
I think of this as an anatomy of my guitar playing: should you so desire, you can trace all facets of Maebe back to these albums in some way. I’ve listed them here in the rough order in which I encountered them, so prepare yourself for a biographical listicle of epic/tedious proportions - hey, this could be the only shot I get at something like this, so I’m going to make the most of it...
1. Muse - Origin of Symmetry (2001)
Like a lot of guitarists from my generation, my earliest explorations in electric guitar playing revolved around Blink-182 and Muse. The former were my gateway into physically tackling picks and powerchords, but it was Matt Bellamy and co that took hold, set up roots and led me on an altogether riffier, progressive path.
Given the mainstream stadium behemoth Muse have become, it’s easy to forget how god-damn bonkers this album was, while still tapping into the MTV2 audience: it felt ambitious in a Radiohead kind of way, but also incredibly heavy.
The fuzz sounds on New Born, Hyper Music and Plug in Baby were just incendiary; structurally, Citizen Erased was a masterclass in mood and tone; and the guitar playing throughout spanned decades and genres. Muse and I may have parted ways around the time of Black Holes and Revelations, but this album is still an exhilarating listen.
2. Rage Against the Machine - Rage Against the Machine (1992)
In my book, Evil Empire is a stronger album - and one that’s aged better both sonically and lyrically - but RATM’s debut was my first real taste of Tom Morello’s insatiable appetite for The Art of the Riff: you simply cannot argue with the festival-bouncing intensity of Bombtrack, Know Your Enemy, Wake Up, Freedom et al.
Not only that, but this also formed my first exposure to legato and alternate picked-based shredding - Morello was on absolute fire on this record, and I spent weeks woodshedding to master the leads on Settle for Nothing and Take the Power Back.
This obsession led to countless hours tracking down RATM bootlegs, a long-sleeve T adorned with Morello, and even resulted in the membership of a forum dedicated to the man - the sadly now-defunct tommorello.net. It also led me - via Audioslave - to my next choice...
3. Soundgarden - Superunknown (1994)
If you held a gun to my head (rude) and asked me to name my favourite album of all time, this is it. Soundgarden combined a sense of emotional weight and sonic heaviness with fiercely intelligent songcraft and don’t-give-a-fuck punk sensibilities in a way that ticked every box in my mind - boxes that I didn’t even realise needed to be ticked at the time.
Badmotorfinger, Superunknown and Down on the Upside are all outstanding, but Superunknown is the most focused of the three. The twisting time signatures and ‘how’d they come up with that?’ altered tunings make for utterly compelling hard-rock, as does the fusion of Beatles songwriting craft with wrecking-ball riffs - there was no-one out there making heavy music as ambitious as this, then or now. Hell, Chris Cornell pretty much invents sludge-metal at the album’s tail-end with 4th of July.
4. Incubus - A Crow Left of the Murder… (2004)
Ask most people about Incubus, and it’s all about Make Yourself and Morning View. But for a certain era of alt-rock guitarists, this could very well have been their first taste of progressive music within a mainstream band context. Crow… is the absolute pinnacle of Mike Einziger’s inventiveness - his use of open strings and outside notes is very, very smart. He also has a ginormous pedalboard, which was hugely influential on me from a financial perspective - I went on a massive, ill-advised phaser jag after exposing myself to Incubus.
Then there are the solos. Mike Einziger and the similarly angular Omar Rodríguez-López share a lot of traits in their leads; they’re simultaneously frenetic and melodic, with an almost jazz sensibility - albeit with a lot of pedals. Sick Sad Little World was everything I could have possibly asked for from guitar playing back then - especially the extended live version on the Alive at Red Rocks DVD, which still ranks as one of my favourite live concerts committed to disc.
5. Joe Satriani - Super Colossal (2006)
I went through a big shred phase as a teenager, but Joe Satriani was the only one who really stuck. His licks exclusively deal in melodicism, which somehow made them sound achievable, even when they were terrifyingly difficult.
While a lot of Satch’s much-lauded early output can sound very ‘of its time’, Super Colossal saw him cut back on the gain and ease off on the palm-muted powerchord backing in a way that sounded far more contemporary than a lot of the ‘guitar music’ I was consuming at the time. The title track also marked one of the first uses of the Electro-Harmonix POG on record - if I recall, Jack White just beat Satch to the punch - and sonically, that hit me just right.
The extended jams make this one a standout in the Satriani catalogue - A Cool New Way, One Robot’s Dream, and especially Made of Tears still give me chills. I don’t listen to a whole lot of shred these days, but Satriani’s legato and melodic approach has stayed with me.
6. Jeff Buckley - Mystery White Boy (2000)
The death of Jeff Buckley remains one of music’s greatest losses, partly because he never made the album he wanted to make. Grace is magnificent, sure, but its oh-so-pristine production extinguishes much of the fire that made Buckley so captivating. You can hear it in Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, but, for me, this live compilation is a more complete statement of Buckley’s depth and diversity in a band context.
The extended live versions of Dream Brother and Mojo Pin - complete with mile-long reverb trails and entirely new sections - are borderline transcendent. They take Buckley’s mastery of dynamics to new highs, going from the most fragile solo guitar accompaniment to complete fuzz annihilation. This compilation is also notable for featuring What Will You Say, one of his finest compositions, which never received a studio version.
Last year, I had the opportunity to speak to Buckley’s touring guitarist and songwriter partner Michael Tighe, who perfectly summarised what I love about Buckley’s songwriting and playing: “[He taught me] not to be afraid of repetition, even if it’s very simple. To create a trance and a spell is one of the more important aspects of writing music.”
7. Deftones - White Pony (2000)
In my experience, writing metal riffs that don’t sound overly familiar - or ‘stock’ as Lars Ulrich used to say - is a very difficult art indeed. But when I found Deftones, I realised metal comes in many forms - and not all of it needs to be palm-muted chugga-chugga.
Over the course of 50 minutes, White Pony refuses to be branded with a single genre label, instead throwing metal into a vast melting pot of influences ranging from new wave to shoegaze, and forging a sonic elixir that no-one has been able to replicate since.
It’s arguably the zenith of the band’s career, approached only by Koi No Yokan. The combination of Abe Cunningham’s irresistible grooves and Stef Carpenter’s razor-edge riffs is pure magic, especially the way they transition between eerie and crushing on the likes of Passenger and Pink Maggit.
8. Mogwai - Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003 (2005)
While at university, I sought out instrumental rock as a means to aid my concentration. All routes led to Mogwai, and began a lifelong love affair with post-rock and instrumental music in general.
My introductions were Mogwai Young Team and this compilation, which formed something of a greatest hits at the time. But Government Commissions is actually better than a best-of, namely for the versions of New Paths to Helicon, Pt. I and II, which are two of the most beautiful performances in the history of BBC Sessions and beyond.
Again, the dynamics are what really stick with me: in this environment, the arrangements are achingly sparse, which hits you in the feels, before the apocalyptic peaks slap you in the face. I remember reading that, at one point, the band played so quietly during Like Herod that the BBC’s emergency broadcast system kicked in to avoid a dead-air scenario. I’m not sure whether that’s true, but they remain the only live band to make me physically jump with sudden dynamic shifts.
Up to this point, I’d spent years playing in bands who couldn’t find a singer for love nor money, and feeling utterly stuck. Mogwai opened my eyes to the potential of rock music without vocals - something I hadn’t even considered prior to this point.
9. Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream (1993)
Although Mellon Collie and Adore hold a very special place in my heart - I even rate Zwan - Siamese Dream remains sonically jaw-dropping. Layers upon layers of buzzsaw guitars, epic song structures, and the solos - sweet Jesus, the solos. Billy Corgan is a perennially underrated guitarist, and when he really lets rip - as he does on Quiet and Soma - his playing is simultaneously virtuosic, raw and heartfelt.
It also helps that he wrote one of the greatest riffs of all time with Cherub Rock - and the ol’ 11th-fret-on-the-A-string-open-low-E shape is still a big part of my playing. Oh, and I immediately bought a Big Muff after hearing this album, natch.
10. Oceansize - Frames (2007)
Around the mid-Noughties, I was unwisely spending more time typing furiously on guitar forums than actually playing guitar, but the one upside was that pedal addicts kept bringing up one particularly stompbox-savvy band from Manchester: Oceansize.
I picked up Frames, which may have been a mistake, because it’s the band’s least immediate release (the shortest track is six-and-a-half minutes, ferchristssake), but the guitar tones and textures resonated immediately. Actually processing the songcraft took a little longer, but the persistence paid off.
Frames is a staggering achievement. It showcased a band who were prog before prog became cool again, unflinchingly heavy both emotionally and tonally, and psychedelic as fuck at the height of their powers. Oceansize didn’t fit into any scene, and featured a group of virtuosos who actively gave virtuosic tendencies a wide berth. Tracks like Savant and The Frame still have the power to make me weep on demand - they’re beautifully structured, but never calculated; there’s emotional intent behind every twist and turn, and that shines through.
11. And So I Watch You From Afar - Gangs (2011)
After being stuck in an introspective post-rock rut, ASIWYFA came along and showed me instrumental rock could be energetic and riffy - hell, it could even be fun. Gangs provides an immediate hit of adrenaline that makes you want to run across the stage, rather than stare at your shoes.
Rory Friers’ use of pitch-shifter and delay is immediately distinctive - when Search:Party:Animal kicks in, it’s like a bomb going off, and BEAUTIFULUNIVERSEMASTERCHAMPION is one of the most euphoric openers to any album ever. They’re easily one of the best live bands performing right now, too. If ASIWYFA are coming to town, there’s no way I’m missing out.
12. St Vincent - Strange Mercy (2011)
Like a lot of the guitarists on this list, Annie Clark is completely individual - and I’m consistently drawn to players who operate on that level. Everything about her is so idiosyncratic: her timing, note choices, and especially her tone.
It feels like a lot of guitarists don’t quite understand where she’s coming from, partly because her guitar sound doesn’t resemble anything that’s gone before; but that’s precisely why she’s such a genius. There’s not a hint of the muscle memory or tonal slavishness that dictates how so many guitarists play.
The self-titled record drew me in first (Rattlesnake is a jam), but as a guitar album, Strange Mercy is the one. Just listen to Surgeon’s tricksy sliding licks and Dilettante’s orchestra of wonky staccato lines. Cruel is one of the best riffs of this century, too. No question.
13. Polyphia - New Levels New Devils (2018)
In many ways, this album doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the releases on this list; I’m confident New Levels New Devils will one day be seen as a pivotal release in how we view guitar in contemporary culture, but it’s not necessarily an album I’d stick on in its entirety. But as far as an album that blew my mind? It 100% fits that particular bill.
Before Polyphia hit, I was kind of done with the melodic and feel aspects of ‘traditional’ guitar playing. New Levels New Devils absolutely changed my preconceptions of the role guitar can play in contemporary music. And while I can never dream of approaching their death-defying technical ability - I once spent an incredibly depressing weekend attempting the main riff of G.O.A.T. only to work up to a half-speed performance - NLND made me reassess my own playing and feel more comfortable using traditional lead techniques within non-shred contexts.
Polyphia are a hugely divisive band, but to really understand them, you need to experience their live show - it’s a celebration of music in all its forms that draws just about the most diverse crowd of any artist on this list. It makes guitar feel vital and young again - and maybe it makes me feel the same, even just for a little while.