Jerry Cantrell is an exceptional guitarist, cut from an artistic cloth that we laymen could only dream of hailing from.
Famously, his playing is influenced by classic rock, blues and country, but what he does with these fundamental influences remains as refreshing today as it was 30 years ago. He bends them in ways that players such as Mike McCready would never have thought impossible. In many ways, Cantrell is the definitive Generation X guitarist, bringing darkness to the guitar that took up the mantle from Black Sabbath’s resident shredder, Tony Iommi.
Aside from the fact that he is such a versatile player, it’s the fact that Cantrell doubles up as a singer in the band, which is really something. It’s not often that we see a guitarist who can shred and sing with such insouciance. The way he and the band’s late frontman, Layne Staley, dovetailed whilst Cantrell delivered classic riff after classic riff, reflects the gravity of his talent.
In terms of his guitar playing, arguably, the band’s second album, 1992’s Dirt, is his finest hour. Tracks like ‘Them Bones’, ‘Dam That River’, ‘Angry Chair’ and ‘Junkhead’ hit you like a sucker punch. There are also more emotive moments like, ‘Rain When I Die’ and ‘Down in a Hole’ and the unmistakable ‘Would?’, which all showcase the different areas of his skill. He’s equally as adept at the lighter side of music too, as the band’s iconic 1996 performance on MTV Unplugged showed when he brought a stripped-back beauty to Alice in Chains’ work.
A defining part of Cantrell’s playing is his use of the wah-pedal, placing him as something of a modern successor to Seattle forebear Jimi Hendrix. He’s used it to create some of the most roaring riffs in existence. The band’s breakthrough hit ‘Man in the Box’ is a masterclass in how to use the wah perfectly. It’s a testament to Cantrell’s playing that we continue to discuss just how much of a guitar-playing legend he is, some 32 years after Alice in Chains first broke onto the scene with their debut album Facelift.
As today is his 56th birthday, join us as we list Jerry Cantrell’s ten finest guitar moments. A word of warning, though, the majority of these come from the first two Alice in Chains records, as his work on them is unmatched.
Jerry Cantrell’s 10 best guitar moments:
‘We Die Young’ – Facelift (1990)
The opener and lead single from Alice in Chains’ 1990 debut, ‘We Die Young’ was the first time that many outside of Seattle and Washington had heard Cantrell, and what an introduction it was. Heavy, thunderous and unrelenting, this is a classic example of how Cantrell augmented the blues formula.
‘We Die Young’ is one of the ultimate grunge riffs because of it, and bouncing off Mike Starr’s pounding bassline, this is one of his rawest cuts. Furthermore, the pinched harmonics during the brief solo are just incredible.
‘Man in the Box’ – Facelift (1990)
‘Man in the Box’ makes a strong claim for being Jerry Cantrell’s best moment on the six-string. It’s one of the most iconic uses of the wah pedal ever, and as soon as that sliding opening riff comes in and gives Staley his lyrical motif, you know you’re in for one hell of a ride.
Utilising chromatic runs alongside Starr, Cantrell carries the track, and it’s just so good. There are many genius licks smattered across its 4:46 run time, as well as the searing solo, which remains one of the best ever recorded.
‘It Ain’t Like That’ – Facelift (1990)
‘It Ain’t Like That’ is an underrated Alice in Chains and Jerry Cantrell cut. One would even argue that it’s his most attitude-laden riff. In the main riff, the bend and the way he runs up the strings with his pick from the high E to the low E is a simple but effective way of creating mood.
It’s not just the riff, though. The whole of the song is a masterclass in atmospheric guitar playing. The verse is also one of the best examples of Cantrell’s use of chromatic harmony, and we love it.
‘Sunshine’ – Facelift (1990)
‘Sunshine’ is another underrated track by the Seattle legends. Carried by Cantrell’s super bluesy riffing, there are flecks of Bon Jovi’s ‘Wanted Dead Or Alive’ and Appetite for Destruction-era Guns N’ Roses here. In fact, the bridge riff is straight out of Slash’s handbook, but it’s not to be baulked at.
What Cantrell does with the blueprint is really interesting. He then slows the pace to half-time for the chorus, akin to the way that Janes Addiction slam on the breaks during the middle of ‘Stop’ to create a heady cacophony.
‘Them Bones’ – Dirt (1992)
One of Cantrell’s most iconic guitar moments, ‘Them Bones’ is another drop D masterclass in chromatic runs. Dark, grungey and infused with sludge, there’s no surprise why ‘Them Bones’ is consistently mentioned as one of Cantrell’s finest moments.
Not the most complex riff to play, leaning heavily on the blues, it’s the tension he creates using the chromatic runs that is so legendary. Added to this, the solo ranks among his finest, and on it, he makes his six-string scream like no other.
‘Dam That River’ – Dirt (1992)
‘Dam That River’ is a fan favourite for Alice in Chains and Jerry Cantrell lovers, including myself. I remember being blown away the first time I heard it, and still am every time I hear it, which is at least once a week.
Something of a sister track to ‘Them Bones’, Cantrell utilises many of the same songwriting and playing techniques here. If ‘Them Bones’ was more embellished, this would be it. I’d also argue that this is his best solo on Dirt.
‘Rain When I Die’ – Dirt (1992)
‘Rain When I Die’ is best described as a classic. This song shows every side of Cantrell’s electrifying playing and is undoubtedly the most atmospheric on Dirt. There are noisy dive bombs, moody bends, the swaggering sounds of the wah pedal, and from start to finish, Cantrell shines.
I’d also argue that ‘Rain When I Die’ is the ultimate Generation X anthem, and on it, you hear the true power of Alice in Chains’ classic lineup. Also, more love needs to be heaped on the way the track fades back in at the end. It’s perfect.
‘Angry Chair’ – Dirt (1992)
One of Cantrell and the band’s darker pieces, ‘Angry Chair’, is another fan favourite from Dirt. Almost oppressive sounding, the way Cantrell creates tension with his simple but creeping riff, is something of a sonic embodiment of anxiety.
It has you on the edge of your own increasingly angry chair waiting for the break. When it finally comes, it’s radiant. Almost a pop chorus, this juxtaposition between parts perfectly encapsulates the two critical facets that comprise Alice in Chains and Jerry Cantrell’s artistry.
‘Heaven Beside You’ – Alice in Chains (1995)
A stripped-back number at the start, during the first part of 1995’s ‘Heaven Beside You’, we see the true bluesman in Cantrell come to the fore. It’s a moody piece featuring some of his classic bends and one of he and Staley’s best choruses.
As the song ramps up towards the middle, we get some moody guitar work for Cantrell, as well as a solo that bounces between the melodic and dissonant before fading out for the earworm of the chorus for one last hurrah.
‘A Looking In View’ – Black Gives Way to Blue (2009)
Perhaps Cantrell’s heaviest riff, ‘A Looking In View’ is dark and thunderous, and we’re here for it. Aided by modern recording technology, Cantrell was able to take his playing into even heavier and more sinister realms. It borders on the twilight of the nu-metal guitar sound and is really underrated.
Whilst his playing here is great, utilising all of his usual techniques, it’s the guitar tone that really stands out. It’s thick and bassy, akin to the viscous tones that you’d hear on a Sleep or Hum record.