Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is, by no stretch of the imagination, a traditional guitarist. But then again, Radiohead has never been a traditional band. Perhaps it was the stuffy cloisters of Oxford’s Abingdon School, where Yorke, O’Brien and the Greenwood brothers first met, which pushed Radiohead to venture beyond the walls of traditional rock music.
The band hated the school’s strict, formal atmosphere and were once charged for using a practice room on a Sunday. However, they found a kindred spirit in the form of their music teacher, who introduced them to jazz, film scores, postwar avant-garde, and 20th-century classical music. Greenwood was especially enraptured by the latter and developed a passion for the orchestral works of Oliver Messiaen and Krzysztof Penderecki.
At the same time that Radiohead was finding its feet, their hometown of Oxford was at the centre of the UK shoegaze scene, with bands like Ride and Swervedriver all hailing from the city. Whilst they might appear like diametric opposites, shoegaze and 20th-century classical music have something in common. Neither places their focus on melody, preferring to explore the textural possibilities of music. For shoegazers, this meant blending layers of feedback with airy vocals to create a thick, oozing wall of sound. For composers like Messiaen, it meant developing a new form of orchestration to create sounds that had never been heard before in the concert hall.
Being fed all of these experimental and a-typical forms of music at such an impressionable age, it’s no wonder Jonny Greenwood ended up having a thing or two to say about trad-rock posturing. Despite being an incredibly accomplished musician, Greenwood has never had a taste for the virtuosity of classic rock guitarists, preferring to shape a more angular, effects-driven sound. And it seems this disdain has stuck with him since those early school days in Oxford.
“When we were at school, we hated and distrusted anything that was successful on a large scale,” he said. “We just associated it with bands that did guitar solos with big hair. It’s already such a preening, self-regarding profession. I’ve always hated guitar solos. There’s nothing worse than hearing someone cautiously going up and down the scales of their guitar. You can hear them thinking about what the next note should be, and then out it comes. It’s more interesting to write something that doesn’t outstay its welcome.”
Greenwood’s guitar work with Radiohead, like the shoegazers of the late 1980s and early ’90s, stemmed from a desire to push his instrument in a different direction; to use it – not as a virtuosic lead instrument – but as something which served a greater sonic purpose.
The guitar parts he wrote with Radiohead are unassuming but pack a real punch. ‘My Iron Lung’, ‘No Surprises’, even ‘Weird Fishes’ – they’re all instantly recognisable. But, like Greenwood himself, they never draw undue attention to themselves. It’s pretty amusing, therefore, that Greenwood has been named one of the greatest guitarists of all time. I wonder if he’d have a thing or two to say about that.