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Darkness and Light: How to play the guitar like Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood

Jonny Greenwood is the definitive modern guitar player. One could even stretch that argument further and say he is the quintessential modern musician, but that would be a story for a different day. A genius who expertly tied the contemporary with the classical, as a solo artist and in Radiohead, Greenwood has created a unique niche for himself that many have tried and failed to imitate.

Famously, he joined Radiohead at the age of 14 as their harmonica player, and never has a musician moonlighted so greatly. Without him, they would be a completely different band. He is the guitarist, keyboardist, arranger and the rest. These days, he’s more known for his compositional work and use of the Ondes Martenot than he is a guitarist, but more the power to him. He looks at music as a whole, and not just via the skewed lens of the guitar, and this perception has augmented his work immensely. “The only difference between the guitar and the Ondes Martenot is that you end up playing one more often because of touring,” he once told The Guardian.

A total guitar playing iconoclast that some have even labelled as an ‘anti-hero’, Greenwood is an incredibly gifted and versatile musician whose creations are filled with uber-realism. His thoughts on the guitar have helped to release him from the sonic manacles that the instrument can often wrap a player in, setting him free unto the world of endless other musical possibilities. 

In 2015, he told The Sunday Guardian, in earnest: “Guitars are like typewriters. It’s technology, it’s not something to be admired or worshipped. Like, oh, a washing machine or something. It does the job. You start seeing people putting them on walls as decorations and it’s just… it’s like putting a vacuum cleaner there. That’s really bizarre for me. They’re okay; they all sound the same, it’s the brutal truth.”

Greenwood’s guitar playing and musical ideology position him as an unwavering servant to the craft of songwriting. This is what truly accounts for his unerring direction. He forgoes any of the ego that usually comes with musicianship and, instead, he takes a step back and sees the bigger picture. He explained to NPR in 2016: “It’s not really about can I do my guitar part now, it’s more… what will serve this song best? How do we not mess up this really good song? Part of the problem is Thom will sit at the piano and play a song like ‘Pyramid Song’ and we’re going to record it and how do we not make it worse, how do we make it better than him just playing it by himself, which is already usually quite great.”

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In a sense, then, Greenwood’s guitar playing is as much about ideology as it is a necessity and for what the residents of Sandford, Gloucestershire, would call “the greater good”. Not just his guitar playing, but his artistry as a whole is guided by a revisionist, almost purist understanding of songwriting. 

Balance is the name of Greenwood’s game, and like with everything he does, his influences are also readily varied. Greenwood cites jazz, classical, rock, reggae, hip-hop and electronic as being essential sounds that have helped shape his own vision. There is no genre that he hasn’t taken something from, with the likes of Lee Morgan, Alice Coltrane, Miles Davies, Scott Walker, Can, Sonic Youth and Magazine acting as the main influences that often get mentioned.

Greenwood has also showered with considerable praise Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Turangalîla Symphony’ and cited composers Krzysztof Penderecki, György Ligeti, Henri Dutilleux and Steve Reich as significant idols. In fact, Greenwood’s revision of Reich’s iconic Electric Counterpoint on guitar is one of the most important things he’s ever undertaken as an artist. Furthermore, Greenwood’s guitar playing style helps to set him apart from the crowd, particularly in Radiohead’s early days; on their first three albums, Pablo HoneyThe Bends and OK Computer, he hit the guitar incredibly hard. This grunge-like aggression was some of the most visceral guitar playing the world had ever seen outside of music’s peripheries. 

However, with success often comes pain. From his relentless style, he developed a repetitive stress injury leading him to wear a brace on his right arm, a solution that he likened to “taping up your fingers before a boxing match”. It’s not all full-blown power, though. There’s a duality between darkness and light that characterises Greenwood’s playing, which is again something budding guitarists could do with acknowledging. 

(Credit: Michell Zappa)

On one side, he’s got the monstrous riffs on tracks such as ‘Paranoid Android’, ‘My Iron Lung’ and ‘The Bends’, then on the other, he has a softer, more subtle edge. There are moments such as the arpeggios underpinning ‘Street Spirit’, the acoustic fingerwork on 2014’s ‘Amethyst’ or the jazzy grooves of ‘Spooks’ for the Inherent Vice soundtrack, and even the minimalist beauty of ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’. His playing is both primal and technical.

If one was to attempt to emulate his sound, there are two guitars that were required. One is a Fender Telecaster Plus with added Lace Sensor pickups, which he used for his more aggressive work and used exclusively in the early days up until around the OK Computer era. The power and instability of a Telecaster are what truly helped to give him that punchy sound that set apart Radiohead in the ’90s. However, a Telecaster is also used for his more jazz-inspired work, owing to the warmth of the neck pickup. He can be seen playing one during the Paul Thomas Anderson directed live version of ‘The Numbers’. His Telecaster playing really is unmistakable, regardless of emotion conveyed. This is his true genius.

For the softer songs that aren’t acoustic – both in Radiohead and solo – he uses a 1970’s Fender Starcaster, a rare semi-hollow body that has two humbuckers. He uses this mainly in a lot of Radiohead’s later work, particularly for texturing; it can also be heard on tracks such as ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ and ‘Let Down’ from OK Computer and ‘You And Whose Army?’ from Amnesiac.

In the early days, Greenwood utilised the clean tones of a classic Vox AC30 amp, but these days he tends to use the understated Fender 85. In terms of equipment, he veers off the beaten track and uses what suits him, another valuable lesson for any musician out there. The Radiohead innovator is also famed for his extensive use of pedals and FX. The most crucial one is the DigiTech Whammy which he used on tracks like ‘Just’ and ‘My Iron Lung’ to change the octave of the instrument. He also uses the Demeter TRM-1 on the ‘Just’ solo. In terms of distortion, Greenwood’s go-to is the equally as overlooked Marshall Shredmaster. 

If you’re looking to replicate his classic sound on the band’s controversial ‘Creep’, you want to pair the Shredmaster with the Small Stone phase shifter by Electro Harmonix to really capture that early, angsty sound.

A complete guitarist and musician, everyone could learn a thing or two from Jonny Greenwood. To attempt to follow his style is a mammoth task, but one that is certainly worth undertaking for the lessons you’ll learn along the way. Study his versatility and perception of songwriting as a craft, and you will well be on your way. Oh, and don’t be scared to play using a violin bow from time to time.

Watch Jonny Greenwood play segments of Electric Counterpoint below.