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The underrated power of Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones

Steve Jones is simply an underrated guitarist. Providing the six-string bite of the Sex Pistols, his gritty tone and straightforward riffs influenced scores of budding guitarists. One would go as far as to posit that Jones is the most significant member of Sex Pistols. Not only was he there at its formation and its demise, without his riffs, the band would never have enjoyed the ride.

Yes, purists will argue that frontman Johnny Rotten and his distinct, snotty voice and unhinged persona qualifies him as the group’s defining member, or that original bassist Glen Matlock qualifies for the group’s executive role because he had a hand in writing all of their songs, but these arguments all fall flat when you put Jones in the picture. 

His legacy as a guitarist cannot be stated enough. The simplicity of his riffs is essentially to blame for the fact that he often gets overlooked. Not a flashy guitarist like the prog-warlocks that the punk movement was railing against, nor a technically gifted one like some of his contemporaries, he managed to craft a tone that would go on to give a voice to angry teenagers everywhere. 

Jones gave us some of the most iconic riffs in the whole of punk. It’s crazy to think that without him, there would be no Fugazi, Black Flag, The Smiths or Jesus and the Mary Chain, to name but a few. Vicariously, his tone lives on in disparate genres of music ranging from hardcore to pop. Think about it, would Olivia Rodrigo’s unapologetic pastiche of 1990s alt-rock exist without Jones? No.

Jones had a hard early life, and this informed the rage that his strings delivered. His father, Don Jarvis, a professional boxer, left when he was two-years-old. Subsequently, he lived with his grandparents for around six years, but then his mother met the man who would become his stepfather, Ron Dambagella. This was when the darkness set in. Dambagella sexually abused Jones, and understandably, this would damage him for life. Jones has since said that the incidents sent him “spinning” and that it is due to this abuse that, as an adult, he cannot form lasting relationships. Furthermore, until his 2016 memoir Lonely Boy, Jones never told a soul about Dambagella’s crimes.

This created a wrath and confusion within Jones, and like with the majority of his punk peers, the rage was directed at the establishment and their elders, the primary source of their woes. Punk totally flipped what was socially acceptable, and with many of its proponents coming from working-class backgrounds, they carved out their own way, in their own vision.

In fact, a lot of Jones’ equipment in the early days was stolen. It is said that the amp he used in the ’70s was stolen from the back of a truck when Bob Marley and the Wailers completed a run of shows at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1976. Additionally, his iconic white Gibson Les Paul Custom adorned the pin-up girls wasn’t originally his. It first belonged to Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls, but Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren acquired it after his brief stint as the New Yorker’s manager. 

Duly, he was also a self-taught guitarist. Later he would say of his style: “Not knowing how to play was the way I ended up playing”, and that it came from a place of “anger and frustration”. The irony of his playing is that instead of the sloppy player you’d expect him to be, he actually was a tight player, very rarely off time, a contrast to many of his peers. 

In a 2002 documentary, Bill Price, the respected sound engineer who worked on Sex Pistols’ debut album, 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, hailed Jones one of the tightest guitarists he’s ever seen. This is high praise given Price has worked with the likes of Pete Townshend, The Clash and Guns N’ Roses. Price attributed this to the iconic “chuggy” playing style that Jones has. Furthermore, Jones played the primary bass guitar parts for most of the tracks on Never Mind the Bollocks, as bassist Sid Vicious was notoriously an incompetent musician.

It wasn’t just in Sex Pistols that Jones crafted his classic aggressive sound, however. After they disbanded in 1978, Jones went on a long musical journey, rubbing shoulders with some of the best in the game. In early 1980, Siouxsie and the Banshees touted him as a new member, and he even played on three tracks on their psychedelic masterpiece, Kaleidoscope. However, he would never become a fully-fledged member of the goth heroes. Later, he had a brief stint in rockers Chequered Past from 1982 to 1985. 

Subsequently, Jones then went on to play with Thin Lizzy, Billy Idol, Iggy Pop, Joan Jett and Megadeth, to name just a few. Showing his stature, in 1995, he formed the hard rock supergroup, Neurotic Outsiders, with Duff McKagan and Idol. These days though, Jones presents his radio show Jonesy’s Jukebox in Los Angeles, where he has interviewed some of the most iconic alternative musicians. He even made a cameo in the video for Arctic Monkeys’ single ‘R U Mine’.

Whilst he is known for his larger-than-life media personality, his effect on the world of music should not be forgotten. Typifying the ‘angry young man’ character and sound of punk, his meaty riffs augmented Britain’s most iconic punk band. If you were to erase Jones from music history, countless subsequent guitar hero’s would also cease to exist. This is a dizzying truth, so why not revisit some of his work?

Listen to Jones walk through some of his signature riffs, below.

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