Noise For The Ages: Top Post-Hardcore Guitarists Through the Years
While it may not often be recognized by "mainstream listening audiences," post-hardcore is not a dead genre. Though its popularity has often waxed and waned throughout the years since its inception in the mid '80s, there are always great upstart bands keeping it alive. As of late, the genre has seen something of a big revival in the wake of two of its most important bands reuniting for Coachella performances, those bands being At the Drive-In and Refused.
One of the fundamental genetic make-ups of the genre is that one does not have to be the most technically proficient shredder in the world to be a great guitarist. Sometimes all it takes to influence an entire genre is a little charisma, a few power chords, some hammer-ons and pull-offs, and genuine emotion pouring through each note one plays. In other words, no matter how many notes he can play a second, Yngwie's got nothing on these guys. Because the genre is so vast and covers so many styles, it may be impossible to make a definitive list, but here are the post-hardcore guitarists I feel shaped their contemporaries and the future of the genre for years to come.
Ian MacKaye and Guy Piccioto (Fugazi) Whether it's through their groundbreaking early bands that shaped the eventual sounds of emo and post-hardcore (see: Rites of Spring, Minor Threat), almost single-handedly revolutionizing punk as a whole with their longest lasting band, the legendary Fugazi, running Dischord Records (home to other punk and post-hardcore legends like Jawbox, Q and Not U, and Nation of Ulysses), or doing production work for bands such as Rollins Band, John Frusciante, Bikini Kill, and the Blood Brothers, Ian MacKaye and Guy Piccioto are maybe the most important men in post-hardcore of all time and two of the most important men in punk and indie music over the last thirty years.
While the bassline from their biggest hit "Waiting Room" is probably what most people think of when they think of Fugazi, there's simply no denying that the noisy, dissonant guitar playing of both MacKaye and Piccioto influenced an entire generation of emotional and pissed off teenagers. Though Fugazi has remained on indefinite hiatus since 2001, we can always hope and dream of the reunion they have continually promised will one day happen.
Steve Albini (Shellac) Singer/songwriter, guitarist, bassist, drummer, producer, music journalist, is there anything this man doesn't do when it comes to music? It's impossible to overstate Albini's influence on punk, post-hardcore, indie rock, and noise rock. He has continued to be an important figure in the scene for thirty years and has transcended it into the mainstream of rock and roll. All three of his main bands, Big Black, Rapeman, and Shellac, have gone on to become classics. But his biggest contribution is not just in playing guitar but in shaping the actual sound of the guitars.
The tones used, the production employed. It would take far too long to list the famous bands he has produced for in any number of different genres, but the most important ones to the sound of the guitar in post-hardcore are definitely Nirvana, the Pixies, Helmet, Jawbreaker, the Jesus Lizard, and Superchunk. While these bands are not necessarily post-hardcore themselves, it was in large part due to the sound of these bands that post-hardcore bands created their own tones and sounds.
Rick Froberg and John Reis (Drive Like Jehu) These two started around the same time as MacKaye and Piccioto, with their first band Pitchfork (1986-1990) and then perhaps their most famous one Drive Like Jehu (1990-1995). They would go on to perform together and separate in still more influential bands over the next twenty years including Rocket from the Crypt (1989-2005), Hot Snakes (1999-2005 and some recent reunion gigs, including one at the 2011 edition of Austin's Fun Fun Fun Fest), Sultans (2000-2007), Obits (2006-present), and The Night Marchers (2007-present).
Their impact has been massive on the future of the genre, particularly from their introduction of math rock influences into Drive Like Jehu's guitar playing, featuring complex breakdowns and jerky rhythms. This has led to covers from bands as far removed from post-hardcore as the Deftones and frontman for At the Drive-In, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, to say they were "just emulating Drive Like Jehu."
Cap'n Jazz performs at Fun Fun Fun Fest 2010
Photo by Marc Brubaker
Victor Villareal (Cap'n Jazz) Deep in the underground in 2012, there exists a movement towards lo-fi emotional post-hardcore. It sounds like it was thrown together by some teenagers in a basement and it features intense screaming and twinkly guitars affected with a slight math rock influence. One can find these elements in every band on this list, but no one band brought together each and every one of these aspects in conjunction so well as Cap'n Jazz. Throughout the '90s, they pioneered this sound and one of the more prominent aspects of the band being bitten by current bands is the guitar playing of Victor Villareal.
While brothers Tim and Mike Kinsella, vocalist and drummer respectively, have attained greater attention through their subsequent emo projects, Villareal was the provider in Cap'n Jazz of all those melodies played high on the neck of the guitar, so fragile they sounded like they might break at any moment, and all the start-stop math rock moments. It's this that may be the most important part of their sound that is rearing its head in the underground today. As for Villareal, he's currently on tour with his first solo album of acoustic music.
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, Jim Ward, and Cedric Bixler-Zavala (At the Drive-In) This trio made up the ultimate core of the recently reunited and much beloved band At the Drive-In. Though the band was started by guitarist Jim Ward and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala in 1993, they really came into their own with the induction of second guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez in 1996. They had all been playing in local punk bands from El Paso, Texas, from 1991 on, including bands like Foss, Startled Calf, Los Dregtones, and The Fall on Deaf Ears, but the magic started to happen around the first full-length At the Drive-In album, Acrobatic Tenement.
From then on out, the band continued on an upward trend until their implosion in 2001. With their twinkly lead guitar lines influenced by bands like the Smiths played over heavy dissonant chords reflecting their Fugazi influence, they came the closest yet to bringing post-hardcore to the mainstream with their hit "One Armed Scissor". While their official guitar duo was made up of Rodriguez-Lopez and Ward, it has recently come to light through his YouTube account that Bixler-Zavala also contributed a great deal of the guitar playing and writing, going uncredited for these contributions. I decided to include him among their guitarists anyway, as he definitely helped shape their guitar sound to become as massive as it was.
After their split, Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala would form their progressive rock project The Mars Volta where Rodriguez-Lopez's guitar playing would only get crazier and more complex and Ward would take the rest of At the Drive-In with him to another post-hardcore band, Sparta.
Jon Brännström (Refused) When Refused came on the scene in the middle of the '90s, they may have been somewhat unassuming. Their explosive hardcore style was certainly nothing new to the genre at the time, though perhaps a bit heavier than what some listeners may have been used to. What set them apart was when they released their magnum opus, The Shape of Punk to Come. It was a breath of fresh air into a genre which as increasingly headed towards pop punk sounds. The name turned out to be prophetic as it would go on to revolutionize the entire genre, to the point that imitators such as Stray from the Path are still forming and biting lyrical and musical content from them.
A major part of what shaped their sound was Jon Brännström's crisply-produced, crunchy guitar tone, as well as his invocation of samples and electronics in their music. It was this melding of electronica and powerful post-hardcore that would lend itself to the creation of whole new sub-genres based on it, such as the synthcore played by Enter Shikari, the nintendocore played by HORSE the Band, and the dubstep patterned post-hardcore of the currently massive Attack Attack!. Without Brännström's clash of guitars and electronics, none of these bands may have ever existed.
Justin Beck (Glassjaw) As the primary musical director of Glassjaw, Justin Beck's guitar playing has become synonymous with their unique brand of post-hardcore influenced heavily by metal. Beck takes a vastly different approach than most post-hardcore guitarists or punk guitarists in general, incorporating everything from classic thrash, nu-metal, and even Middle Eastern influences into his playing. His unconventional style is what set Glassjaw apart from their contemporaries early on and gave them a distinct advantage in the mainstream.
This influence has carried over greatly to more recent examples of post-hardcore bands, which have increasingly drawn upon metal influences rather than strictly hardcore. It has also managed to secure Glassjaw's legacy despite an extended downtime and the nearly ten years without a studio album release before their Coloring Book album in 2011.
Cody Votolato (The Blood Brothers) Bringing with him the heavier influence of classic hardcore punk like Nation of Ulysses and Black Flag along with the complex math rock of Drive Like Jehu, Cody Votolato's guitar playing shaped the sound of the Blood Brothers. While his playing could be understated at times or perhaps overshadowed by the dual lead vocals of screamers Jordan Blilie and Johnny Whitney, his role in the band was just as vital. While they are generally agreed to be a post-hardcore band, the Blood Brothers brought a wide range of influences to the table, making them hard to put in any category.
The most fascinating aspect of Votolato's guitar playing was not just what he wrote for the band, but rather how he could conform to any variety of wild tangents that the band went off on. Contrast the crushing and complex leads he performed on their breakthrough album Burn, Piano Island, Burn to the minimalistic approach he took on the follow-up Crimes. His diversity and technical ability would go on to pattern post-hardcore in the '00s. He has gone on to form an indie dance pop band along with Whitney called Jaguar Love, showing off his abilities in a completely different form than ever before, and has previously experimented with lighter post-hardcore in the band Waxwing (along with his brother Rocky Votolato, who now performs as a solo folk artist) and in the much heavier noisegrind group Head Wound City with Blilie and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner.
Will Swan (Dance Gavin Dance) While the most famous member of Dance Gavin Dance will always be on and off R&B influenced singer Jonny Craig, partially due to his wide range of collaborations and his troubled personal life, Will Swan has always been the heart and soul of the band. Swan has stuck around through every change in the band's line-up and performed on all their albums, personally shaping the sonic qualities of each and every release. His guitar playing draws heavily not only on classic post-hardcore but also shows the technical shredding ability normally found among metal guitarists. Complex lead lines sprinkled with quick successions of hammer-ons and pull-offs abound in Dance Gavin Dance and give them a unique sound between their slamming breakdowns.
While this draws upon the influence of another great and underrated post-hardcore band, Hot Cross, Swan has shaped his band into something altogether exciting and unique that has kept real post-hardcore alive in a time where poseurs to the throne have risen to the top. Because of the aforementioned turbulent lifestyle of Craig, the band remains on hiatus, but as long as Swan is playing guitar, I would guess that Dance Gavin Dance will continue in some form or another.
Chad Sterenberg and Kevin Whittemore (La Dispute) As the guitar duo in La Dispute, the most recent heir to the throne of post-hardcore royalty, Chad Sterenberg and Kevin Whittemore utilize similar styles as their predecessors, employing dissonant chords and quick melodic lead lines, but what sets them apart is the vastly more atmospheric playing that they bring to the table.
As with most bands in the recent wave of post-hardcore revivalists, Sterenberg and Whittemore have definitely been paying attention to the advent of post-rock in the last decade and tastefully incorporate it into La Dispute's music. It bolsters the theatricality of the intensely poetic lyricism from vocalist Jordan Dreyer (who did an interview with Rocks Off last year before La Dispute played in Houston) and tells his stories through sound just as much as words. With their 2011 release Wildlife being their most accomplished album yet, there's no end in sight to La Dispute's rise as one of most vital post-hardcore bands in the current decade.
While this list covers some of the most influential and most famous guitarists in the post-hardcore genre over the last thirty years, I'd love to hear in the comments what greats I might have left off.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.