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Music

How to play the guitar like Blur's Graham Coxon

@TylerGolsen

During Britpop’s heyday in the mid-1990s, bands like Suede, Oasis, and Pulp had a relatively straightforward approach: grab some glam rock riffs, crank up the gain and distortion, and hammer away. Chord progressions were purposefully simple and basic, with ambitious extensions were restrict to whatever Kinks or Beatles records were being pilfered. But one guitarist set himself apart with atonal riffs, angular solos, and a far more diverse palette than his peers: that would be Graham Coxon, six-string extraordinaire for Blur.

Strangely enough, Coxon’s original musical training was on reed instruments like the clarinet and the saxophone, instruments that were taught to him by his father. On songs like ‘The Debt Collector’ and ‘Badhead’, you can hear the horn-heavy influence and the jazz nut that is hiding beneath Coxon’s guitar god exterior. 

When it comes to equipment, Coxon is mostly identified with the Fender Telecaster. Specifically, Coxon favoured a reissue of the famous 1952 design of the instrument for most of Blur’s work, which can be seen extensively in videos and concert films like Showtime. During the latter, Coxon can also be seen playing a Gibson Les Paul and a Fender Jaguar. But if you can only choose one guitar to replicate Coxon’s sound, take your pick from the various Teles, because Coxon has used them all: traditional models, Customs, Deluxes, even his own signature model from the company.

Moving on to amplifiers, Coxon favoured the Marshall Super Lead 100 Watt amp head with 4X12 cabinets connected to PB100 Power Break almost exclusively with Blur and during his solo career. Usually, Coxon would double this set-up and send his signal through either one, occasionally both. Coxon is also occasionally seen using Orange amplifiers during his solos tours. 

One of Coxon’s major contributions to Britpop was his wide array of effects pedals that diversified Blur’s sound from the high-gain output of their peers. Coxon’s “wonky” style comes from his love of effects other than distortion, including flanger, tremolo, vibrato, and digital delay. All four of these effects came from Boss pedals during Blur’s first run, with RAT distortion pedals being his main source of fuzz. Distinctive sounds, like the DOD Punkifier for the overdrive on ‘Song 2’ and Line 6 delay for ‘Coffee and TV’, have been used on occasion, but many of Coxon’s signature sounds can be replicated by sticking to Boss pedals.

On to the actual playing of Coxon, which is one of the more difficult aspects of his style to pinpoint. Coxon was so insistent on detailing his work to fans that albums like Parklife and The Great Escape came with chord charts included in the lyric sheets. Bizarre progressions like the G-A-Db-Eb in ‘Trouble in the Message Centre’ lent most of Blur’s material an off-kilter and unresolved feeling.

Along the same lines, a prominent element to Coxon’s playing involves dissonance and chromatics: the lead guitar lines for songs like ‘London Loves’, ‘Magic America’, ‘On Your Own’, and ‘He Thought of Cars’ are great examples of Coxon’s atypical and angular playing. Diminished chords, irregular progressions, and wild interval leaps can alternately make Coxon sound jaunty and goofy or prickly and aggressive, depending on what sound the song is going for.

A noticeable music hall influence is often heard during the peak of Blur’s Britpop phase, with tracks like ‘Country House’, ‘Lot 105’, and ‘Sunday Sunday’. But perhaps the most essential part of learning how to play like Graham Coxon involves leaving the door open for any kind of inspiration: Leisure showed the influence of Madchester, 13 had plenty of acoustic folk in its DNA, Blur was explicitly based on American indie rock, and his solo work encompassing everything from noise rock to psychedelic experimentation. 

To truly embody Graham Coxon’s guitar playing, the main course is to create new sounds with standard setups. No matter how out-there his solo albums or his work with Blur got, Coxon knew how to centre them within each song’s specific framework, often going against long, indulgent solos or overly-complex arrangements. Instead, he used a guitar, a few pedals, and a singularly irregular ear for melody as his guides to reimagine what guitar music could sound like, starting in the 1990s and continuing to this day.

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