Undisputed genius: the 10 most underrated guitarists of the 1990s

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The 1990s was a monumental time for music and culture. Even before the great tidal wave of grunge swept up the world on the back of Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991, an array of widely influential records had already arrived, starting to shift listener tastes. This gives a flavour of just how heavily concentrated the quality of sonics were back then. Things have changed markedly.

While 1991 is undoubtedly the year that changed everything, with Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and Pearl Jam’s Ten also hitting the shelves within those 12 consequential months, aside from it being the outset of the decade, creatively, it was only the beginning. Thanks to Nirvana and their Seattle brothers in arms, the guitar band was now cool again, with a new breed of guitar heroes rising and taking the instrument in a host of directions, underscored by the punk ethos and a desire to do something truly unique, and stick out from the crowd. Individuality was key.

Of course, the grunge explosion also resulted in a host of terrible acts emerging, but it also typified how immense an era the guitar band was to have in its highlights. Kurt Cobain, Mike McCready, Kim Thayil, Jerry Cantrell, Noel Gallagher, Jonny Greenwood—the list of revered axemen who emerged during this decade is quite astounding, giving even the classic rock period a run for its money.

Given the status of such players and the fact that an array of innovations were instituted in the decade, several equally as influential and essential fretboard voyagers do not get the plaudits they deserve. It’s about time that someone set about setting this right outside of the internet fan forums, and so we’ve listed the ten most underrated guitarists of the 1990s. While most of these are still active today and continue to find success with their bands, the only stipulation to have been included – aside from being a master of their craft – is that they first rose to prominence during that decade. From narcotic melodies to clangorous noise, there’s undisputed genius in this collection.

The 10 most underrated guitarists of the ’90s:

10. Blake Schwarzenbach

While the Jawbreaker frontman is certainly a punk guitarist prone to chugging power chords, the way he stretched the formula by toeing the lines between melody and raw noise and anger and despair is an absolute triumph. His oeuvre with the trio is brimming with highlights, from early moments like ‘Want’ and the anthemic ‘Boxcar’ to his later outwardly emo efforts found on Dear You, such as ‘Jet Black’ and the thunderous ‘Basilica’.

A veteran of potent riffs and resonant chords, if Schwarzenbach’s work with Jawbreaker isn’t enough to convince listeners of his might, then his work with Jets to Brazil will. Look no further than the attention-grabbing ‘Chinatown’ and the autumnal acoustic of ‘Sweet Avenue’. The closing solo of the latter is utterly exquisite.

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9. Robin Proper-Sheppard

The 1990s produced many criminally overlooked groups, with The God Machine one of the most notable. In my book, they’re one of the most potent rock trios of all time, finding a perfect middle ground between tangible industrial, metallic heaviness, and emotional force. Unlike any band you’ve ever heard, each member brought something vital to the fold. Unfortunately, their story came to an abrupt end after the tragic death of bassist Jimmy Fernandez in 1994, with just two albums to their name.

While frontman Robin Proper-Sheppard is probably most remembered for his pained vocal delivery, his crunching guitar work is also the cause for celebration. A master of simple but effective chord progressions, biting riffs and otherworldy textures, the way he and Fernandez dovetailed was one of the band’s most substantial facets. ‘Ego’, the EP version of ‘The Desert Song’, and ‘The Tremolo Song’ are perfect places to start for newcomers, utterly haunting.

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8. Andy Bell

Of course, the mod-cut-loving among us will be familiar with Andy Bell for his work as the bassist for Britpop legends Oasis. Yet, prior to him joining the Mancunians in 1999, he’d already established a widely influential back catalogue with Oxford shoegaze pioneers Ride. Although the quartet imploded in the second half of the decade, their first two albums represent the pinnacle of their era’s guitar music, and in a show of their importance, would resonate with a new audience after the internet thoroughly impressed itself on life.

A massively overlooked guitarist, he and frontman Mark Gardener’s duelling performances brought something different to the shoegaze party, with Bell’s shimmering lead lines on debut highlights ‘Seagull’ and ‘Dreams Burn Down’ inspiring many. Yet, arguably, his best moments are found on Ride’s second effort, 1992’s Going Blank Again, distilled by the might of opener ‘Leave Them All Behind’, one of those rare tracks that changes all guitar players’ lives the first time they hear it. Additionally, his busy and intricate work on ‘Twisterella’ and the unrelenting pace of ‘Mouse Trap’ are also cause for much celebration.

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7. Tim Lash

Hum are a cult band that have had widespread influence on everyone from Deftones to later acts such as Deafheaven and Narrow Head. Due to being too ahead of their time, and other reasons out of their control, they were underappreciated during their first lap in the 1990s, and have only recently come to increased prominence thanks to the internet. While leader Matt Talbott is a great guitarist, Tim Lash takes up the place on this list due to his position as their lead player.

A fan before he joined, Lash instilled real power and imagination into the group, helping them take it up a few notches and delve heavily into the strange sonic world they had already sketched out. As with all great guitar bands, every song is a reflection of his exceptional playing, from the frenetic hit ‘Stars’ to the off-kilter groove of ‘Comin’ Home’.

When the group finally returned in 2020 with Inlet and technology had already caught up with the gravity of their work, it produced what might be their masterpiece. Lash and Talbott’s conceptions of it are unlike anything you’ve ever heard.

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6. Ken Andrews

There is simply no one like Failure. The brainchild of Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards, they were wrongly lumped in with the grunge movement and unfortunately felt the negative effects of such pigeonholing. They also did not get the reverence they deserved outside of cult circles and split up amid crippling drug addictions in 1997 before the chef d’oeuvre Fantastic Planet could even resonate. They then reunited in 2014 and picked up where they left off.

While Edwards and Andrews share bass and guitar duties in the group, as the former is also the in-house six-string whizz of cult act Autolux, it’s his bespectacled Failure bandmate who gets the spot here. Fusing spacey sonics and metallic fury, ‘Undone’, ‘Let It Drip’ and ‘Stuck On You’ are three that outline the sheer scope of his narcotic playing. It says all that Hayley Williams, Mastodon, and even Jason Schwartzman are big fans of his group.

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5. Justin Trosper

Olympia, Washington, post-hardcore pioneers Unwound were always the sum of their parts, crafting scintillating sounds so twisting that you could never confidently foresee where they would end up. Vocalist and guitarist Justin Trosper is a pivotal part of their story, with his unique sound about as distinctive as anyone’s you’ll find on this list, thrillingly trapezing between incisiveness and hurtling straight off the rails.

A master of busy picking and effects that places feel at the forefront of his style, the spiky ‘Corpse Pose’ might be his most celebrated effort, but others such as ‘Kantina’, ‘Dragnalus’, ‘Look a Ghost’, and the churning ‘Lucky Acid’ create a portrait of his masterful oeuvre.

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4. Rivers Cuomo

Weezer and leader Rivers Cuomo will always be fascinating. An outfit that started so strong with their 1994 debut and 1996’s Pinkerton before they gradually got lost on the creative heath, for many fans, they became nothing but a joke for years before returning to form with 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End. Yet, regardless of the noise about the quartet’s arc, the guitars have always been brilliant.

Simply put, Cuomo is a guitar hero of the class that inspired him. Existing at a nexus between grunge, power pop and metal, his crunching chord progressions and searing solos on the group’s first two releases are some of the finest of the decade. Forget ‘Buddy Holly’, it’s all about ‘My Name is Jonas’, ‘No One Else’, ‘Undone – The Sweater Song’ and ‘The Good Life’. These are just the tip of the iceberg, too.

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3. Stephen Carpenter

Stephen Carpenter is one figure on this list who has continued to push on, with Deftones one of the most consistent groups ever. Ostensibly an alternative metal group, erroneously lumped in with the nu metal zeitgeist when they emerged in the 1990s, their back catalogue encompasses much more than purely ‘My Own Summer (Shove It)’ and ‘Back to School (Mini Maggit)’. These are still incredible, too.

Carpenter embodies their breadth. Although his work has gotten gradually heavier over the years by dropping down the tunings and moving onto 7-string guitars, he’s also second to none at creating intoxicating melodies that counterbalance his fierce, djent-influenced chugs.

For those desiring to understand his playing better, the singles simply won’t do it justice. It’s the full albums that delineate his immense genius, with their distinctive creative arc one that all rock lovers should embark upon. For instance, the sonic distinction between ‘My Own Summer (Shove It)’ and ‘Minerva’ is positively tremendous. The likes of ‘Swerve City’ were years in the future.

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2. Nick McCabe

A true enigma, The Verve’s Nick McCabe is not only one of the most underrated guitarists of the 1990s but also in the annals of the craft. Yes, they are famed for being adjacent to the Britpop movement thanks to the splendour of Urban Hymns and hit singles like the era-defining ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, but the record only accounts for a small portion of what the Wigan band and their guitarist were all about.

The group released the first three of their four albums in the 1990s, and like all acts of worth, they continued to push themselves during this stint. The dream-laden reverberations McCabe produced on Urban Hymns are about as nostalgic as anything anyone elicited from the fretboard during the decade. Still, the sheer power and soporific din of his endeavours on their introductory albums, 1993’s aptly named psychedelic A Storm in Heaven and A Northern Soul from two years later, are the stuff of pure legend. Head straight for ‘Slide Away’ and ‘A New Decade’.

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1. Adam Franklin

Over the years, the idea of dovetailing guitarists has only been pulled off by a select few, and in my book, the two men who sit at the top of the pile are Swervedriver’s Adam Franklin and Jimmy Hartridge. Although both share the role of lead guitarist, the former is the preferred choice as he is the band leader and frontman. Hailing from Oxford and emerging simultaneously as Ride, as they were also on Creation Records and extensively used guitar effects, they were tied to the shoegaze movement. However, they have perenially inhabited their own space.

A guitar band drenched in the tradition of hard-hitting formative American rock outfits The Stooges and The MC5, and then 1980s underground influencers such as Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr, Swervedriver’s back catalogue is about as compelling as any band from the decade. On classics such as the scintillating ‘Son of Mustang Ford’, from their 1991 debut Raise, Franklin and Hartridge laid down a thunderous blueprint that they then took down a wholly intoxicated route with its 1993 follow-up, Mezcal Head.

They were inactive from 1998 to 2008, but since reforming, the duo and the rest of the group have continued to stretch their formula and confirm why they are one of the most essential guitar acts, period. Apart from the abovementioned classic, I’d wager that ‘Deep Seat’, ‘Duel’ and the album version of ‘Never Lose That Feeling’ represent the pinnacle of their achievements in the 1990s. For later brilliance, delve straight into 2015’s I Wasn’t Born to Lose You.

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