The Guitarists and Gear of Shoegaze

Left: Bilinda Butcher (2009). Photo by: Kevin Winter, Getty Images.
Center: Rachel Goswell (2017). Photo by: Timothy Norris, Getty Images.
Right: Neil Halstead (2008). Photo by: Jason Kempin, Getty Images.

Shoegaze has a fraught history as the label for a subgenre of post-punk music that began percolating in England and Europe in the late '80s. A music journalist coined “shoegaze” as a criticism of musicians whom he saw as overly fixated on their collections of effects pedals. Since then, shoegaze has since been reappropriated by fans and gear nerds throughout the globe. Although the cult fanbase may debate whether certain bands are shoegaze, a handful of traits characterize the sound.

Shoegaze is defined by guitar: not by riffs and solos, but by the sheer power of the instrument’s ability to overtake a sonic landscape with the use of distortion, feedback, reverb, and modulation. Shoegaze guitar experimentation evolved from the noise rock and dream pop that inspired it. Shoegazers implement drones and obscured melodies created by guitars and effects, which often became as important as any instrument used in the recording or performance. The rest of the arrangement becomes secondary, although elements like filtered, reverb-soaked vocals and punchy rhythms are also trademarks of the shoegazing style.

Foundational albums such as Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy (1985) and Cocteau Twins’ Garlands (1982) inspired future entries in the genre. These bands also established the two ends of the shoegaze spectrum: harsh, noisy lo-fi guitar-driven punk rock and softer, more produced songs crossing over into pop.

Like Sonic Youth, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., and other guitar-based alternative rockers, shoegazers often chose vintage Fender Jaguars, Jazzmasters, and Mustangs. These well-made guitars were far less popular than Strats, Teles, and Les Pauls, making them easier to find at bargain prices. The quirks and tones the guitars are known for became part of the sound of the genre, much as the Fender offsets helped define surf music with its tight riffs and clever pitch bends—a style that noise-rock populists The Jesus And Mary Chain would often emulate and mutate.

Throughout this article, we’ll look at just a few of the guitarists associated with shoegaze, along with the piles of effects pedals, stacks of amps, and collections of six strings these musicians have used through the three-plus decades of the genre's existence.

Kevin Shields and Belinda Butcher

Sharing their name with the 1981 horror film about a slasher who wears mining equipment, Dubliners Kevin Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig played in many variations of their band throughout the 1980s. In the mid '80s, bassist Debbie Googe finalized the rhythm section with Cíosóig. Over several years and releases, My Bloody Valentine evolved from a relatively average jangly indie rock band influenced by The Velvet Underground and Nick Cave’s The Birthday Party. Enthusiasts now know My Bloody Valentine as pioneers of the saturated and layered textures of shoegaze.

The sound they're known for began to solidify on the 1988 EP You Made Me Realise along with the addition of singer and guitarist Bilinda Butcher. Although releases like Glider and Isn’t Anything feature vibrato-heavy guitar strumming and ghostly vocals, the band is almost exclusively associated with their second LP, Loveless. Often considered one of the best and most influential albums of the '90s, the album would only be recognized as more than a footnote almost a decade later.

The mythology around Loveless’s reputation as a complex and drawn-out production has helped establish the album as a singular product of the early '90s alternative explosion, and one of the foundational works of the shoegaze subgenre. Featuring otherworldly loops, a plethora of layered guitars (that maybe sometimes sound like a vacuum), and ethereal vocals, Loveless is both aggressive and ambient, upbeat and depressive.

The Sound & Gear

The guitars are mostly distorted and detuned, thanks to Kevin Shields’ signature playing style which involves subtly manipulating the vibrato bar on a Jazzmaster while strumming. Like the influential avante garde rock of Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine often use alternate tunings, and Shields tours with an array of offset Fenders. Models in his collection include a vintage ‘59 Jazzmaster and several Custom Shop Jazzmasters purchased in 2008.

Gear enthusiasts debate the importance of the Yamaha SPX90 multi-effect to the unique guitar tones Loveless is packed with. Producer Alan Moulder (who mixed the shoegaze classic Nowhere by Ride) credits much of the sound to less obvious experimentation, such as putting mics between two amps that were pointed at each other, then feeding each amp with a separate tremolo.

Shields also used multiple fuzz pedals, often in combinations. A favorite chain was a Roger Mayer Active Fuzz into the Octave Fuzz by the same builder to create a gated effect. The original Digitech Whammy was also used extensively.

Crushing waves of swirling, psychedelic electric guitar aren’t the only ingredient of the Loveless stew. Public Enemy-inspired samples, layered vocals, and heavily programmed drums help set the record apart from almost any other LP, but the album also has simpler additions like the acoustic guitar layered onto “Sometimes.”

When the band resurrected themselves to tour and release the long-awaited follow up to Loveless, simply titled mbv, Shields’ continued his association with the stacks of amps and sprawling pedalboards that make My Bloody Valentine one of the loudest bands ever. Amps in Shields’ recent live rigs include Hiwatt DR103s, Fender Showmans, various Marshalls, and Vox AC30s.

Shields’ counterpart on vocals and guitar, Belinda Butcher, is most often seen playing a Fender Mustang, including a rare semi-hollow model. Butcher also plays other offset guitars, including the Charvel Surfcaster, a model that has since been revived by Eastwood. She usually plays through Marshall and Vox amps.

Thanks to her regular use of the Boss HM-2, the heavy metal distortion has become one of the many pedals associated with the heavily filtered guitar tones of shoegazers. The pedal, also associated with the advent of death metal in Europe, has recently been reissued by Boss after years of increasing demand.

Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell

Lifelong friends Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell started the band Slowdive in the late 1980s. While My Bloody Valentine are influenced more by the noisy side of post-punk music, Slowdive follow from the subgenre dream pop—such as Cocteau Twins and Siouxsie and the Banshees, whose song “Slowdive” provided the Berkshire, England quintet’s name. Slowdive blend male and female vocals that are rarely prioritized in the mix and round out their songs with simple percussion. Slowdive often sonically experiment with modulation and time-based effects rather than walls of distortion.

Souvlaki is Slowdive’s second album, their masterpiece, and one of the crossover successes of shoegaze. Influenced by David Bowie’s work with Brian Eno, the band convinced Eno to collaborate with them, which only encouraged their slow evolution towards a more ambient sound, a trajectory which made them one of the contributors to the beginnings of post-rock, one of the genres to follow in the footsteps of shoegazers.

A trademark element of Slowdive’s sound heard throughout Souvlaki is manual, analog flanging. Engineer Ed Buller or a member of the band pressed the reel to reel tape during recording and dubbing, creating subtle delays and pitch bends. This effect has recently been digitally emulated by the Strymon Deco pedal, which—among other things—allows the user to momentarily activate flanging or similar modulation by holding down a footswitch.

The Sound & Gear

When Slowdive reunited to tour and record in the mid 2010s, Neil Halstead’s guitars included a Fender Telecaster and Epiphone Casino. His amp of choice is the Roland Jazz Chorus 120 combo, and Halstead often uses a pair in stereo.

Halstead favors Boss overdrives and the ProCo Rat as his gain pedals. Other pedals he’s used include mainstays like Boss digital delays and the Eventide Factor series, but he’s also had more bespoke units, such as the Mr. Black Gilamondo phaser and Digitech Echo Plus.

During the reunion tour, Rachel Goswell played a Gretsch Electromatic Pro Jet with a Bigsby, and a Roland Juno-106 keyboard. Goswell also plays guitar in The Soft Calvary, for which she uses a Devi Ever Soda Meiser Fuzz and several Seymour Duncan pedals.

Andy Bell and Mark Gardener

While My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive took their sounds in more experimental directions, Ride blended swirling guitars and energetic drums with Andy Bell and Mark Gardener’s beautiful vocal harmonies, echoing back to '50s radio hits, The Byrds, and The Beatles. The guitarists grew up obsessed with Johnny Marr of The Smiths and John Squire of The Stone Roses.

Like peers Blur, Ride's output would later become associated with '90s BritPop. However, Ride’s first two LPs are essential entries from the height of shoegaze, and 1990’s Nowhere may be the most accessible shoegaze masterpiece. They layered guitars swirl with tremolo, delay, and phasers, often with the use of the Roland GB-16 digital effects rack processor. They also used a Jim Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Cry Baby on one of two amps, helping add to the swirly stereo spread.

In their early days, Andy Bell procured a Gretsch Tennessean. He played through a Hiwatt head into a Marshall cab. Mark Gardener had a Japanese Fender Jaguar and a Vox AC30. The band also had a couple 12-string Rickenbackers. They also used a solid-state Vox amp on Nowhere.

Like many of the successful shoegaze bands of the '80s and '90s, Ride reunited to tour and record a few years ago. In 2019, the band released one of the better LPs of the shoegaze revival, This Is Not A Safe Place. Bell and Gardener took the opportunity to update a lot of their gear

The Sound & Gear

Bell now plays a Gibson Trini Lopez with a Bigsby along with his Rickenbackers, and Gardener upgraded his main Jaguar to a vintage 1965 model. He still uses Vox amps, along with Divided By 13, a respected boutique company that makes high-end versions of classic tube amps.

Ride’s pedalboards now feature modern digital processors that mimic the lush sounds they crafted and inspired, such as those made by Strymon and Eventide. Andy Bell’s recent boards include classics like a Tube Screamer, MXR Micro Amp, EHX Holy Grail Nano reverb, and a Boss digital delay. Less common pedals include a classic Super Fuzz and Gollmer 60s Trem.

Gardener’s boards feature an MXR Phase 100, ProCo Rat, EHX Memory Boy and Small Clone, and the Empress Tremolo. Both guitarists use the Origin Effects Cali76 compressor, highlighting the importance of compression to their layered, effect-drenched guitars.

Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson

Like their fellow Brits Ride, Lush feature heavily modulated guitars and layered vocal harmonies, while their brand of shoegaze also has the vibrato-heavy and percussion-light production style of Cocteau Twins. On guitars and vocals, Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson maintain even more of the class pop sensibility and style that also influenced Ride.

On the 1990 EPs Mad Love and Sweetness And Light the band introduced their sound to the world. Their ethereal vocal harmonies and catchy riffs give Lush some of the best hooks in shoegaze. Lead-singer Berenyl’s clever lyrics and playful, emphatic declamation further set Lush apart from their peers and influences, especially on Lovelife from 1996.

The Sound & Gear

In the early '90s, Berenyi played a 12-string Gibson ES-335, a cherry red Epiphone Riviera 12-string, and a non-reverse Gibson Firebird. She used a lot of the Boss pedals that were widely available at the time.

Emma Anderson usually plays Fenders, including Hendrix-reissue Strat and Thinline Telecaster. She used the Roland GB-16, running a Mesa Boogie preamp into the stereo 395 power amp. In the mid '90s, Anderson also had a Digitech Whammy and Alesis Quadraverb, an influential entry in the development of digital reverb effects for guitarists. Both players have used a variety of amps through the years, including Marshall half stacks and silver-face Fender combos.

Anderson consistently ran a stereo rig as the band’s lead guitarist, playing through identical Fender Hot Rod combos during mid-2010s gigs. For the reunion, she used the Strymon Timeline delay and Strymon Mobius for chorus, flange, and other modulation effects. She’s also used the Turbo Rat distortion.

Elliott Frazier and Alex Gehring

Shoegaze also made its way to the US, especially in Boston, where Drop Nineteens and Swirlies spread the wall of noise ethos. On the west coast, bands like Medicine and Alison’s Halo followed similar paths. Despite the appeal of bands like Pale Saints and Swervedriver, time and other trends came for shoegaze, and the genre became so niche that even My Bloody Valentine’s catalog was difficult to procure.

However, thanks in part to Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (2003), which features original music by Kevin Shields and the shoegaze classics “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus And Mary Chain and “Sometimes” by My Bloody Valentine, a new generation of musicians were inspired to explore sounds drowned in reverb and saturated with dirt. Among the most successful of this new wave of shoegazers is Ringo Deathstarr, from Texas.

On 2009’s Sparkler (a collection of their early recordings) and 2011’s Colour Trip, Ringo Deathstarr make noisey rock much like predecessors My Bloody Valentine. However, guitarist Elliott Frazier brings his own unique flavor with layers of reverb-soaked arpeggios and jangly strumming. Alex Gehring’s fuzz bass riffs give the band’s messier tracks a solid backbone. The early track “Summertime” provides an excellent example of what makes Ringo Deathstarr more than another shoegaze band.

The Sound & Gear

After opening for Smashing Pumpkins, fellow fuzz and modulation obsessives, Frazier became a fan of the Marshall JMP-1, a MIDI controllable rack preamp. His rack has also included an Alesis Midiverb.

Like many other shoegazers, Elliot Frazier plays Jaguars and Jazzmasters, including a customized olympic white JM with a maple fretboard. His pedalboards have included the legendary Univox Super Fuzz, a EHX Freeze sampler pedal, Cry Baby wah, and various Rats. He also uses Fender combo amps.

Alex Gehring plays a Fender Jazz bass, although she often writes songs on guitar and occasionally plays a Jazzmaster through a Marshall Bluesbreaker onstage. Her current bass amps of choice include a Hiwatt 200 and Ampegs. Gehring’s bass distortion is courtesy of genre-favorites the Big Muff and ProCo Rat.

Domenic Palermo

Formed by Domenic “Nicky” Palermo, Nothing joined the latest wave of shoegazers after releasing a few EPs in the early 2010s. The band firmly planted its flag with their first LP, Guilty Of Everything. The band’s lineup has featured a dozen different members over the decade, including Nick Bassett (Whirr, Deafhaven) on bass and Brandon Setta (white lighters) playing guitar.

The current lineup, as heard on 2020’s The Great Dismal, includes Doyle Martin (Cloakroom) on guitar and Aaron Heard, lead singer of Jesus Piece, on bass. Like Whirr and Deafhaven, Nothing are as influenced by hardcore and other aggressive genres as shoegaze. Their tracks often feature gigantic riffs and energetic power-chord strumming.

In recent years, Palermo has used both American HH Strats and Jazzmasters, including a rare Fender J Mascis Signature Model. For musicians on a budget, the J Mascis Squier Jazzmaster is easier to acquire.

The Sound & Gear

Mainstays of Palermo’s pedalboard include multiple reverb pedals, such as the TC Electronic Trinity (a limited variation of the original Hall Of Fame), and the out of production Digitech Hardwire RV-7, a favorite amongst shoegazers for its all-wet reverse reverb mode.

Digitech has replaced the RV-7 with the Polara reverb in its current line. In 2019, Palermo’s board included a EHX Oceans 11. He also uses Boss digital delays, such as the DD-6, at the end of the pedal chain to add even more sustain to everything.

The dirt pedals that Palermo uses are a vintage ProCo Rat and Skreddy Zero, a boutique variation on the Big Muff variant associated with Billy Corgan’s thick tones on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Guitarists seeking the tone without spending hundreds might prefer Electro-Harmonix’s take on the Smashing Pumpkins sound: the Reissue Op Amp Big Muff Pi. On recent tours, Palermo’s amp is a black panel Fender Pro Reverb from 1965.

Zachary Cole Smith

Another more recent band working within the spectrum of shoegaze sounds is New York’s DIIV, fronted by guitarist Zachary Cole Smith, formerly of Beach Fossils. Smith’s guitar and vocals are drenched in reverb and have a spacey, spread finish.

Over the past decade, DIIV has released three LPs: Oshin, Is The Is Are, and Deceiver. Over the chronology of these albums, the guitar tones become more dynamic, with Deceiver often implementing the quiet-loud-quiet song structure popularized by many alternative rock bands, such as The Pixies and Nirvana, whose song “Dive” the band name comes from.

The Sound & Gear

In the early years of DIIV, he often played a couple of Epiphone Wilshires. Over the years, Smith has used a variety of offset guitars, including the Fender Cyclone and Duo Sonic, and a Hagstrom Impala. He usually plays through a Roland Jazz Chorus 120.

In 2019, Smith’s touring pedalboard included the Earthquaker Devices Organizer digital octaver, Gray Channel dual drive, and Warden compressor, the MIDI-controllable Chase Bliss Condor EQ and preamp, a Boss Waza SD-1W Super Overdrive, Strymon Timeline mega delay, Eventide Space reverb, and a ProCo Rat distortion. The effects pedals were routed through a RJM Music Mastermind PBC, a programmable digital switcher and MIDI controller.

Although shoegaze continues to exist on the margins of mainstream public consciousness, the genre’s fans enjoy the hazy sounds and walls of guitar noise from around the globe. The past year alone has seen new albums from Slow Crush (Belgium), Blankenberge (Russia), Midwife (western U.S.), White Flowers (UK), Amusement Parks On Fire (UK), Film School (California), Flying Colours (Melbourne, Australia), Miners (Australia), and Mint Field (Mexico).

Other shoegaze bands—Enumclaw (Northwest U.S.), Deserta (Los Angeles), A Place To Bury Strangers (New York), SPC ECO (London), Oeil (Tokyo), and COLLAPSE (Japan), to name a few—have released singles or EPs in that time.

Listeners and musicians find comfort in the walls of fuzz and modulated melodies. And guitarists continue to chain pedals and other effects to create, as Kevin Shields puts it, guitar that doesn’t sound like guitar.

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