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Kevin Shields, The Jazzmaster and the FX pedal: A love story

There is only one word to describe Kevin Shields — pioneer. The mastermind behind My Bloody Valentine (MBV), the Irish-English quartet, broke down the sonic barriers with the release of their magnum opus, Loveless, in 1991. Two things comprise his unique and elemental sound. The Fender Jazzmaster and a lot of effects pedals.

Loveless is considered to be the definitive album in the whole of shoegaze, and rightly so. From start to finish, it is a hazy, reverb-drenched journey through ethereal realms. The standout element of the album is Shields’ experimental and groundbreaking guitar work. His and the band’s impact is astonishing when you note that they have only released three studio albums since their inception in 1983. This shines a light on the massive influence the group had. They dragged music out of the past and catapulted it into the future. In addition to Loveless, MBV’s other two albums are Isn’t Anything (1988) and m b v (2013), and they also denote Shields and the gang’s penchant for boundary-pushing. 

Whilst vocalist and guitarist Bilinda Butcher’s haunting vocals are also a vital hallmark of MBV’s sound; it is safe to say the band would not be the same without the iconic guitar work of Shields. His impact on alternative music is up there with Kurt Cobain’s. Legends such as Billy Corgan and J Mascis have cited him as an influence, as well as influential directors such as Gregg Araki and Sofia Coppola. If you note the ubiquity of the Fender Jazzmaster since the ’90s, that is largely down to the work of Kevin Shields. When asked by an interviewer for Fender about how many Jazzmasters he actually owns, Shields said “maybe 25, but 12 good ones.” Due to the vast array of tunings he uses, he tells the interviewer in earnest that “he needs more”.

In terms of effectiveness, Shields’ use of the Fender Jazzmaster is second to none. Using its floating tremolo to a devasting extent he perfected the trademark “glide guitar” sound. This loud, droning sound stems from a mixed layer of effects pedals. The swooning sound of his whammy bar is augmented by his use of layers of distortion, delay, reverb and echo, which together create this otherworldly noise. 

He is a guitarist who countless people have tried to imitate but have never truly succeeded in doing so. This is the genius of Kevin Shields; he is a true pioneer because only he knows the secret to his sound. His love for effects pedals runs so deep that he uses over 30 pedals in the live setting, and his pedalboard looks like it has flown to earth from a galaxy far, far away. In the past, he has been asked how many guitar pedals he has, replying, “I don’t know, a good few hundred.”

Shields is also known for the reverse delay and reverb effects that he uses; in addition to his heavy use of the whammy bar, these are what give his guitar lines that “melting” feel. He first tried this that would become his signature cacophony on the early MBV song ‘Slow’. 

The wail of his guitar is sometimes so high pitched that it has caused him tinnitus. This was contracted during the long-drawn-out recording sessions for Loveless, which were so time-consuming they nearly bankrupted record label Creation. Regarding his tinnitus, Shields maintains that he has “come to treat the tinnitus as a friend. It filters unwanted sounds and actually protects my ears. It becomes your first line of defence against audible stress.”

More than thirty years after MBV’s inception, they continue to break down the barriers of sound and inspire countless others. A lot of musicians have Kevin Shields to thank for their musical awakenings and subsequent careers. So for that, we thank him. After recently teasing two new albums for 2022, we cannot wait to hear what walls of sound Shields and co. have in store for us.

Watch Kevin Shields talk about his signature sound, below.

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