The term “revolutionary” gets thrown around far too often in music. By their very nature, most guitar bands are derivative and can be traced back to a specific influence. That’s not bad – that’s just the truth. The guitar is such a popular instrument, and was so essential to redefining popular music, that it seems damn near impossible to look at it in a different way. Unless you’re Kevin Shields, that is.
With the help of a Fender Jazzmaster, a whammy bar, and a mountain of distortion, Shields was able to single-handedly create a completely new style of music. All of the instant clones of his sonic signature and all jokes about how he sounds like a vacuum can’t diminish the fact that Shields and My Bloody Valentine radically changed the direction of music. To hear him describe it, Shields stumbled onto his revolutionary sound all in one day.
“It just happened that tremolo arm was set… kind of unusually high,” Shields recalled to Fender back in 2018. “Just by pure luck. I picked it up and started to go, ‘This is cool.’ And literally the first song I ever did using it was a song from the You Made Me Realise EP called ‘Thorn’. That was the first hour I discovered it, and then two hours later, I did a song called ‘Slow’. It was the first time I did that kind of melted effect.”
“I put it through a reverse reverb and then thought, ‘That sounds good,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, turn the tone down,'” Shields added. “I thought, ‘Wow, it sounds totally like some weird tape: sort of a copy of a copy of a copy… It all happened in one afternoon.”
Although he forged his own path, even Shields himself wasn’t immune to following some of his peers. “I first knew about it from bands like The Cure,” Shields recalled about the first time he realised he wanted a Jazzmaster. “I was a big fan of The Birthday Party, and Roland Howard played a [Fender] Jaguar. It was the shape: I wanted that shape. But I had never actually seen a Jazzmaster in Ireland.”
It’s hard to undersell just how essential the Fender Jazzmaster is to Shield’s signature sound. While almost any other artist can be replicated, or at least approximated, by using different guitars, Shields is rigid: without a Jazzmaster, you won’t be able to play any of My Bloody Valentine’s music.
That’s because the Jazzmaster is the only guitar that can properly apply Shields’ “glide guitar” technique. Most famously heard on albums like Loveless and mbv, the “glide guitar” features Shields moving the whammy bar up and down as he strums the strings of the guitar. Most whammy bars are used briefly for wild vibrato, but Shields instead uses his constantly for even, floating guitar lines.
Shields specifically puts tape around the vibrato arm to not allow it to fully attach to the guitar’s body. This separation allows Shields to manipulate the guitar and achieve the “gliding” effect without putting too much pressure on the guitar. “It has to be very loose for that to happen, and the bridge I pull back as far as possible,” Shields explains about the small number of modifications he applies to all of his guitars.
“If you’re bending chords a lot, people’s brains need to hear where it comes up into tune,” Shields adds. “If you’re bending up and down, it’s just wobly nothingness. But if you’re kind of going up into tune all the time… your brain hears a tune. It hears where it should be, and it kind of ignores the fact that 50 per cent of the time, everything I do is out of tune.”
Once you have the proper guitar set up the proper way, it’s time to get tuning. Most of My Bloody Valentine’s music is written with alternate tunings, and Shields takes after the Sonic Youth approach by tuning to the extreme. While open tunings (full chords played by strumming the guitar without fretting any of the notes) are used occasionally, Shields more commonly goes for wild tunings like “DAAAAD”. This can create unwanted tension on the neck, so if you happen to be recreating the sound, slinkier strings can help reduce the strain put on the guitar.
Although shoegaze got its name from scores of bands staring straight at their pedals for extended periods, Shields actually uses relatively few effects to create his sound. A reverse reverb effects rig and a number of equalisers to manipulate the signal of the guitar are usually all it takes for Shields to find his sound. That and volume: anyone who has been to a My Bloody Valentine knows that earplugs are essential for survival since the band crank their amps to the point of near-deafness, using the natural distortion and feedback to achieve their signature surge of power.
Although he utilises a number of specific techniques (and, yes, can sound like an electric vacuum), nothing about Shields’ guitar playing involves gimmickry. All the tricks and modifications serve a specific purpose, and the “glide guitar” sound only came about after My Bloody Valentine went through nearly a decade of change. To sound like Kevin Shields, the biggest factor is a willingness to experiment. As long you’re using a Jazzmaster and aren’t afraid of a little volume, you’ll be surprised how uncomplicated it is to recreate the alien-like sounds of My Bloody Valentine.