15 punk guitarists of the ’90s who paved the way for the genre’s future
These six-string wonders shaped the decade and beyond.December 22, 2020
Welcome to Alternative Press’ pick of the 15 best punk guitarists of the ’90s. One notable difference between this list and the other two we’ve compiled is the inclusion of several women. Punk did much to democratize rock ’n’ roll in the ’70s, with many pioneering all-female (the Runaways, the Slits) or mixed-gender lineups (X-Ray Spex, Talking Heads). But only one ’70s female punk guitarist was truly remarkable: The Cramps’ Poison Ivy Rorschach. As for the ’80s? Face it: Hardcore was a sausage party. True, the Plasmatics‘ Wendy O. Williams could’ve eaten any of hardcore’s little boys alive. But she was a singer, not a guitarist.
The ’90s were when the testosterone truly siphoned from the sewer. A welcome shot of estrogen finally fulfilled punk’s initial promise of gender equality, especially with grunge’s arrival. Women dominated the lineups of everyone from Hole to the Breeders. Meanwhile, the much-needed riot grrrl scene kicked all the boys out of the pit and off the stage.
Strong voices like PJ Harvey’s rang out from the now-dominant alt-rock firmament. Base One Punk offered alpha females such as the Muffs’ Kim Shattuck, as great of a guitarist as she was a crafter of perfect pop songs. But women truly won the rock ’n’ roll wars when Southern punks Nashville Pussy arrived, with their half-female lineup. Bassist Corey Parks stood as tall as her basketball star brother Cherokee and breathed fire. But the band’s real star was lead guitarist Ruyter Suys. She was truly rock’s first guitar heroine, possessing impressive instrumental skill and showmanship that kicked arena rock in the balls. Many a guy and girl picked up a Gibson SG because of her.
Yes, plenty of men feature among the 15 best punk guitarists of the ’90s. But the playing field finally balanced.
CLAIM TO FAME: The Muffs
PROOF: Singles collection Hamburger
SIGNATURE MOVE: The Pandoras bassist Kim Shattuck quit in solidarity with keyboardist/friend Melanie Vammen when she was fired from the L.A. garage revivalists. Both became guitarists when joining with bassist Ronnie Barnett to provide an outlet for Shattuck’s pristine raunch pop tunes. Ramming a pawn shop Gretsch BST 1000 through what sounded like 10 distortion boxes, she proved an able trash-can guitarist. She especially had a facility for sloppy post-Johnny Thunders leads. As time progressed, she indulged in a variety of tones and techniques, from jangle to crunch. Her growth was certainly impressive before she died from ALS complications Oct. 2, 2019.
Billie Joe Armstrong
SIGNATURE MOVE: Leading the band who single-handedly moved punk from the underground to the Top 10, Billie Joe Armstrong seemingly arrived fully formed. A quick listen to Green Day’s pre-Dookie releases 39/Smooth and Kerplunk! indicates he remained a super-tight power-chorder, start to finish. He likely had a leg up, moving from the prevalent metal culture of the ’80s into punk. He wielded his sticker-covered, Christmas gift Fernandes Strat copy from age 16 into MTV stardom before switching to a Gibson Les Paul Jr. Marshall amps have provided the requisite crunch and blast for most of his career. He’s likely sold more electric guitars than any other punk guitarist.
CLAIM TO FAME: Nashville Pussy
PROOF: High As Hell
SIGNATURE MOVE: Alongside Motörhead and Turbonegro, Nashville Pussy were the band who brought hard-rock dynamics to punk, in a manner differing from speed metal. Evolving from singer/guitarist Blaine Cartwright’s Southern rock/garage-core hybrid Nine Pound Hammer, the hard-touring Atlanta-based riff machine’s not-so-secret weapon’s always been Ruyter Suys. She pushed the aggression levels into the stratosphere with her fire-breathing, Angus Young-style Gibson SG fret-busting. Two vintage Marshall half-stacks and an MXR Distortion + pedal supply the necessary raunch and blast. Her nimble hands do all the rest. Subverting all the cock-rock guitar hero cliches onstage, she remains one of punk’s few true virtuosos.
Steve Turner and Mark Arm
SIGNATURE MOVE: When these Seattleites began playing guitar as teens, they couldn’t figure out how to make their cheap six-strings blast like their favorite punk records. A whole universe opened to them when a friend suggested to Steve Turner that he buy a fuzzbox. By running his Fender Mustang through a Big Muff, and Mark Arm’s Hagstrom III through a Superfuzz, they didn’t just get an album title. They invented the classic grunge guitar sound: really loud, extra thick and chunky mud. From debut single “Touch Me I’m Sick” to 2018’s Digital Garbage LP, said sludge has defined this great, definitive ’90s punk guitar team.
Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner
CLAIM TO FAME: L7
PROOF: Bricks Are Heavy
SIGNATURE MOVE: Grunge’s other definitive guitar team proved the ’90s finally delivered the gender equality punk had promised with ’70s outfits such as the Slits and X-Ray Spex. The L7 duo possibly rocked harder than any of the men melding Black Sabbath and the Stooges through a fuzzbox. Could this be because they had as much Joan Jett and Ramones in their makeup as anything? Donita Sparks’ used-and-abused Flying V entered her amp via a Maestro Fuzz-Tone—the box Keith Richards used on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Suzi Gardner punished her Gibson Melody Maker via a Pro Co RAT Distortion. They sounded thick and smeary yet retained note definition.
CLAIM TO FAME: Didjits
PROOF: Hornet Piñata
SIGNATURE MOVE: The sarcastic clown prince and best songwriter of ’90s punk was also one of the scene’s best ax-mashers. He had the fastest, tightest downstroke this side of Johnny Ramone and spat leads as crazy as the MC5’s Wayne Kramer. His tone’s cleaner than it seemed at the time, using his Music Man RD 112 amp’s crunchy preamp and no pedals. Rick Sims’ weapon of choice: an antique Danelectro, featuring a Masonite body and pickups encased in old lipstick tubes. When it got stolen on tour in German, a Gibson SG replaced it. Dig Didjits’ “Killboy Powerhead” to bask in his six-string perfection.
CLAIM TO FAME: Dead Moon
PROOF: Echoes Of The Past compilation
SIGNATURE MOVE: Fred Cole began in the ’60s, with first-generation garage band the Lollipop Shoppe and their small hit “You Must Be A Witch.” He’d passed through both ’70s hard rock and punk before mixing elements of both with vintage carport rock in Dead Moon. He developed a wailing guitar style to match his Robert Plant-meets-Roky Erickson singing style in this Portland-based trio. It basically bridged Johnny Ramone and Jimmy Page. He built that viaduct with an old Guild Thunderbird and a red 50-watt Marshall half-stack—old-school tools for an old-school sound, from one of the best punk guitarists of the ’90s.
James Dean Bradfield
CLAIM TO FAME: Manic Street Preachers
PROOF: Generation Terrorists
SIGNATURE MOVE: Welsh Situationist glam-punks Manic Street Preachers hit the world running with Clash-meets-Hanoi Rocks outbursts such as “Motown Junk” and “You Love Us” before going widescreen stadium rock. Biographer Simon Price remarked he was surprised upon initially seeing them live that singer James Dean Bradfield “play[ed] all the music.” Perhaps this was because he learned guitar from copying Slash’s guitar parts from Guns N’ Roses records? It resulted in a hooky punk/hair-metal hybrid, resembling the Sex Pistols on the Sunset Strip. Bradfield achieved his AOR-approved tone with a white Gibson Les Paul Custom (a la the Pistols’ Steve Jones) and a Marshall JCM900 pushed hard.
CLAIM TO FAME: Fastbacks
PROOF: The Question Is No
SIGNATURE MOVE: Kurt Bloch is this long-running Seattle punk-pop outfit’s secret weapon—writing the songs, producing and playing flashy, melodic lead guitar. He and bandmates Kim Warnick and Lulu Gargiulo also enjoyed vintage bubblegum and Deep Purple-esque hard rock. So he occasionally seasoned Fastbacks’ hooky bombast with Van Halen-esque widdly-widdlys and wang-bar divebombs. Gear-wise, he didn’t have a trademark guitar or amp. He tends to like Gibsons—Les Paul Jrs., SGs, Sg Juniors and various Les Pauls. Amp-wise, he’s used 50-watt Marshalls, Peavey 5150s and Fender Prosonics. “As long as it can sing the solos, then it’s a good guitar/amp combination,” he told Alternative Press.
Danny Sage and Richard Bacchus
CLAIM TO FAME: D Generation
PROOF: No Lunch
SIGNATURE MOVE: This quintet strode through ’90s NYC’s Lower East Side like they’d rebuilt Max’s Kansas City. Featuring mostly early hardcore vets, their version of New York Dolls-esque glam-punk was harder, flavored by ’70s hard rock. Their guitar team spooned out as many Joe Perry licks as Johnny Thunders raunch-outs. Danny Sage issued his riffs via a ’68 Les Paul Custom and a Marshall half-stack. Richard Bacchus favored two double-cut Les Paul Jrs. and a 50-watt Orange amp, punching up his leads with either a Boss Blues Driver or a RAT. In their prime, no band were more exciting live than D Generation.
Justine Frischmann and Donna Matthews
CLAIM TO FAME: Elastica
SIGNATURE MOVE: The best known of what English rock magazines dubbed the New Wave Of New Wave, Elastica resembled a Stranglers/Wire/Buzzcocks supergroup. In fact, Elastica paid royalties to the first two acts after getting sued for half-inching some of their riffs. Their guitar team managed the interesting trick of dividing riffs one guitarist would normally play in two, creating a unique dynamic tension. It made them two of the best punk guitarists of the ’90s. Both played Fender Telecasters: Justine Frischmann fed hers into a Fender Twin and a RAT pedal, while Donna Matthews used a 100-watt Marshall half-stack.