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The Grunge Revolution and the Dark Ages of Rock Guitar

Updated on December 30, 2015
Guitar Gopher profile image

Guitar Gopher is a guitarist and bassist with over 30 years of experience as a musician.

Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains is one of the best guitarists to emerge from the grunge era. (Image: Alberto Cabello  [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains is one of the best guitarists to emerge from the grunge era. (Image: Alberto Cabello [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons) | Source

The Grunge Era

Grunge music came and went in mainstream culture like a runaway truck careening off parked cars as it barreled down a residential street. With its pseudo-punk, anti-rock star, anti-establishment vibe, grunge music was exactly what some kids were looking for back then.

For a few years the rebellion was on. In the end, grunge fell to the same issues as the music it had replaced, and had so vehemently opposed.

For many rock fans the grunge era represented a return to basics, and the resurgence of a kind of truth that had been lacking in hard rock music for a long time. For others it missed the point what of what music was supposed to be altogether. Love it or hate it, the grunge revolution definitely changed everything. This article is written from my perspective, as a guitarist who lived through it.

I can remember listening to the album Facelift by Alice in Chains when it first came out and thinking it was cool, but didn’t sound like anything else I was into. I can remember being confused by Nirvana's bizarre lyrics and imagery. I recall thinking Pearl Jam’s Ten was a pretty decent album. After that it was all a blur. Seemingly overnight the bands I loved and grew up listening to were gone off the radar. The hard rock of the ‘80s was out. Grunge was in. In the blink of an eye, music was suddenly different.

It’s reasonable to say times change, tastes change, and what works for one generation might not make sense to the next. But this seemed like something different, at least if you were a guitar player. By the middle of the decade it wasn’t cool to be a decent guitarist any longer, and playing solos was seen as unnecessary showmanship.

It was strange, and, for anyone who spent hours every day trying to get better at their instrument, hard to fathom. The grunge revolution challenged not only the heart of music itself, but what it meant to be a guitar player in a rock band.

Now, a couple of decades later, it is easier to see how and why the pieces came together like they did. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make the grunge thing any more palatable to some people. This is the grunge revolution, from my perspective.

Rock and Metal in the ‘80s

To understand how and why grunge exploded like it did, it is important to take a look at the trends that came before it. There were two main movements in heavy music during the ‘80s, the era in which grunge and alternative music really took root:

  • Hair Metal: We call them hair bands today, but back then these were just melodic hard rock bands. Some of the early bands that are lumped into this category really identified more with the glam movement of the late-‘70s. Once the genre caught on in the later part of the '80s these bands started to sprout up left and right. Truthfully, it got a little silly at that point.
  • Thrash Metal: Thrash itself was somewhat of a rebellion against the more mainstream hard rock and metal. The Big Four of Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer get the most credit for shaping the genre, but there were many great thrash bands from that era, and most flew pretty far under the mainstream radar.

Of course there was old-school metal still around like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. American death metal was also beginning to appear in records stores. If you were into metal and hard rock, these were good days. If you were a young guitar player, these were great days. There was so much incredible talent, and it seemed like every month there was some new band with another amazing guitarist.

So why did it all change? I tend to see things from a musician’s perspective, and sometimes I forget that the general public does not necessarily care about how good a band’s guitar player is. The forces that launched the grunge movement were more about philosophy than musicianship, and had a great deal to do with a changing world culture.

The Rise of Grunge

Many music historians credit the backlash against the excess and indulgence of the ‘80s with the rise of grunge and alternative culture in the early ‘90s. Maybe, but I think there is another aspect that’s sometimes overlooked.

In the 1980s we were at the tail end of the Cold War, but nobody knew it. This was the age of Mutually Assured Destruction, when there was a very real possibility that the world could end because either the United States or the Soviet Union got a little trigger happy.

The world leadership at the time was fairly conservative, and not always remembered fondly by those who embrace the more progressive culture of today. However, figures like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II played key roles in ending Soviet oppression and bringing the Cold War to an end.

It would seem to make sense that a rebellion against those conservative ideals as well as a need to mentally guard ourselves against the very real possibility of nuclear Armageddon played a great role in the free-spirited and fun rock culture of the ‘80s.

Once the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union disbanded, times began to change. That positive-energy culture of the ‘80s was no longer needed. We were now free to worry about other things.

In some cases this gave people more time to look inward. Where alternative bands had always been around in the ‘80s, in this new world they would gain a new, strange kind of power. It seemed in many ways the messages they had been putting out all along were suddenly received in a different way.

Where mainstream hard rock was once about having fun, with grunge it became more about introspection. Music became less frivolous, and more serious. Unfortunately, one of the side effects was how this new focus took the guitar out of the equation for many bands.

Enter the dark ages of rock guitar. Unless you are a guitar player you might not think it matters, but this was a time when the entire world of guitar took about ten big steps backwards.

The Legacy of Rock Guitar

For every generation of rock guitarist there is a previous generation to learn from. These are always impressive, innovative, cutting-edge players with skills you can barely comprehend when you are first learning the instrument. For guys my age it was guitarists like Eddie Van Halen. For Eddie Van Halen it was Eric Clapton. For Eric Clapton it was Robert Johnson.

Like the blocks of a massive tower, each generation of guitarist builds upon the legacy of those who came before them. Style and technique are altered, expanded on, improved and tweaked. As individuals, there are always guitar players who stand out in each generation. As a whole, the instrument had been progressing along smoothly for decades. That all changed with the grunge movement.

There were exceptions, of course. Jerry Cantrell is an outstanding guitarist, and Alice in Chains was one of the bright spots of the grunge period. The guys from Pearl Jam managed to grab some decent sounds from time to time. Kim Thayil of Soundgarden is an outstanding musician. But, on the whole, grunge was definitely not about being a good guitar player. It was never meant to be.

The ‘90s was truly a decade with few new guitar heroes. There were definitely great songwriters and visionaries, but few grunge guitarists really pushed the boundaries of the instrument. The legacy of rock guitar evolution that had been progressing for decades had come to a full stop.

Grunge Runs its Course

In the early ‘90s it’s reasonable to say hair bands went the way of the dodo because there were just so darned many of them. What had started out on the Sunset Strip in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s had evolved into a worldwide phenomenon. Where a band like Motley Crue had once been edgy and innovative, there were now a dozen bands just like them. Record companies were signing legions of these guys and churning out power ballads, trying to cash in while they could.

Eventually, it was just too much. Cliché “hair bands” were everywhere, and in many cases the music had been watered down to a more radio-friendly version of what glam metal had been earlier in the decade. The public grew weary of it, and the record companies did an about-face and put grunge out there as the next new thing.

But it only took a few short years for the same thing to happen to grunge. Firstly, it’s unlikely any of the early Seattle bands back in the ‘80s ever considered themselves as leaders in some movement. One for the most refreshing things about grunge bands was that they truly did seem in it for the music, not the fame or fortune or accolades. Unfortunately, that was exactly what they got.

When Nirvana’s Nevermind set the tone for a new breed of bands to rise to the national attention, the grunge attitude and philosophy became co-opted by kids all around the country. This meant everyone from department stores to fashion designers to commercial producers were suddenly doing their best to connect with kids using the grunge thing as a conduit.

Of course, once a movement goes this far it’s always doomed. Very quickly the grunge movement became about everything but the music, and the message of the original bands was lost in the shuffle.

With Cobain’s suicide in April of 1994 the writing was on the wall. The grunge movement, once it had faded, left a tremendous gap in mainstream rock music. Within a couple of years the public’s fascination had moved on to rap/metal bands. Bands like Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit and Korn gained prominence, and things didn’t get any better for rock guitar.

Alice in Chains: One of the Bands that Made the '90s Worth It

How the Internet Saved the Guitar

The 1990’s started out with some of the best guitar-oriented music rock had ever seen, and closed out darkened by some of the worst. That's not to say the music of the '90s was bad; that, of course, is subject to your opinion. But guitar culture had certainly changed by the end of the decade.

However, it just might be possible that this article has been written with a touch of hyperbole. See, through the ‘90s there certainly was great hard rock and metal around, if you knew where to find it. The problem was, unless you knew people you could talk to about such things, you probably weren’t going to be exposed to it very much. The mainstream media wasn’t going to tell you, MTV certainly wasn’t going to tell you and even guitar magazines weren’t going to tell you. You had to go find it.

Fortunately, I had a group of friends and fellow musicians who were dedicated to sniffing this good guitar music out. We had a local record store that would order anything we wanted. We discovered Dream Theater and John Petrucci. Heartwork by Carcass blew our minds. We explored the emerging American death metal scene and got into more progressive bands like bands like Death and Morbid Angel.

Through it all, Megadeth was going strong, and Slayer was getting angrier than ever. Satriani, Vai and Yngwie were still around, and Pantera and Dime were putting out some amazing albums in the '90s. The melodic hard rock of the ‘80s may have been gone, but there were still talented bands to dig up.

By the end of the ‘90s the European melodic death movement was gaining momentum, and it looked like things were on the upward swing for heavy guitar music. American bands like Nevermore and Iced Earth had started to get the recognition they deserved. And by then something else became more popular that has probably saved legions of young guitarists: the World Wide Web.

Thanks to the internet, guitar players can find other like-minded musicians to trade ideas. They can explore bands they would never have heard of otherwise. No more are we at the whim and wish of the media or record companies to put what they think we should be listening to in front of our faces. We can go and find it ourselves. Really, we always could, but now it’s easier than ever.

Now What?

The dark ages of rock guitar are behind us, but in many ways their impact is still felt in mainstream music. Thanks to the internet, as guitar players we have the power to seek out the good stuff, and leave the rest.

Grunge music was, in many ways, exactly what the rock world needed. It reset things, so to speak, to where music reverted back to the message rather than the image. Some great bands and amazing music came out of the grunge period. Unfortunately, for many bands anyway, part of the essence of grunge meant removing the guitar from the spotlight.

Maybe I’m just optimistic, but it seems like rock guitar has a bright future once again. It appears that kids who are just starting out are looking to the masters of the past to learn from, and seeing the value in some of the music that mainstream media and record companies had rejected in favor of grunge, so many years ago.

I didn’t write this article to rant about music, though that ended up happening a bit I suppose. My intent is to get you, as a guitarist, to think about the music you invest your time and money into. What I think doesn't matter, but what do you think? Do you find music from the grunge era inspiring? Do you miss the music of the '90s? Or, do you wish the '80s would come back in full force?

Hey, maybe you're totally happy with how things are today! It’s your choice. Go find music that inspires you, whatever it is.

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    • sparkster profile image

      Marc Hubs 3 years ago from United Kingdom

      This is a superb write-up which I agree with in its entirety. It's amazing how once world-renowned guitarists have had to take the independent route. I was a guitarist and vocalist in a heavy rock band back in the nineties and you're right, the gap that has been left is still there and as a guitar teacher, I believe there is a generation of great guitarists on the horizon who may very well go on to bring the guitar back to what it once was and what it deserves to be.

    • Guitar Gopher profile image
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      Guitar Gopher 3 years ago

      Thanks sparkster. It was truly a bizarre time to be a guitarist. I do think things have been steadily getting better over the past 10-15 years though.

    • sparkster profile image

      Marc Hubs 3 years ago from United Kingdom

      I would say from about 2004 onwards. I think Iron Maiden are the only band who successfully managed to continue throughout all the craziness! I don't listen to them any more though, I got tired of the whole "ghosts and ghouls" thing. Lots of the old classic rock bands making a comeback recently too, which is good.

    • profile image

      Jens Alfke 2 years ago

      I can see where you're coming from, but for me this is a completely topsy-turvy account. By the '80s I was tired of showmanship and flashy solos and just rolled my eyes at the endless parade of spandex-clad pretty boys with big hair. The only really new ideas were coming out of post-punk, industrial and other genres far removed from "classic rock".

      Grunge was just a delayed acceptance of punk rock, mixed with some retro '70s hard rock sounds. It wasn't groundbreaking, but it was at least more sincere. And yeah, if you're mostly concerned with technical prowess, any punk-related genre is not going to be your cup of tea; that's just not what it's about.

      To me the groundbreaking guitarists of the late '80s and '90s were Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins, and Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. They may not have been technically the best, but they acted as R&D groups that wrung some amazing new sounds and moods from the instrument. Into the '90s, the guitar music I liked was mostly from bands exploring outside the boundaries of rock (the "post-rock" movement) like Seefeel and Stars Of The Lid. This music is so far removed from "hard rock" that it might as well be from another planet.

      By now I've come to like a number of progressive/experimental metal bands like Isis, Nadja, Sunn O))), Dysrhythmia … it is genuinely fun to listen to insanely complicated riffs and solos when the players aren't trying to sound like Eddie Van Halen or Yngwie Malmsteen. Good riddance.

    • Guitar Gopher profile image
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      Guitar Gopher 2 years ago

      Thanks Jens! I'm surprised it took so long to get a dissenting opinion on this, but I welcome it. I can respect musicians and fans who value uniqueness and innovation, whatever form it takes (and even if I don't like it myself).

      Thanks for adding your perspective!

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