The Defining Guitarists and Gear of '90s Hardcore Punk

The term "‘90s hardcore" is one of those nebulous classifications that group together a range of different scenes and communities and define them by a common aesthetic and purpose, despite what the participants may have actually felt about each other.

Even the small number of bands on this list are wildly different from each other. But still, for many people who like their guitar music loud and aggressive, the term evokes certain stylistic cues.

It conjures up memories and impressions of a time when the foundations made by American hardcore punk bands in the ‘80s were expanded upon, throwing open the gates to a myriad set of wider influences. A time where bands simultaneously got faster and slower, heavier and softer, and DIY ethics were embraced wholeheartedly by so many young punks.

‘90s hardcore in all of its forms—from basketball singlet-clad, vegan, straight-edge mosh to pensive, brooding emo—is having something of a resurgence in popularity of late. Either new generations of kids are discovering the work of some amazing artists, or those of us old enough to have taken part are finally wresting control of the coffee table book and online think-piece industry.

Either way, it’s a great time to showcase some of the decade’s most iconic players, their sounds, and their rigs.

A note on inclusivity: Despite the progressive politics of much of the scene, it was overwhelmingly white, male, and based in the U.S., and this is reflected in the players we are focusing on today. This is not to discount amazing music made by women, people of color, and international punks during this time. The constraints of space meant we had to pick who were, in our opinion, some of the standouts of the era. Let us know in the comments who else should be mentioned.

Tonie Joy

Starting in the latter half of the ‘80s with Maryland experimental punk outfit Moss Icon, Tonie Joy cut a swath of innovative, near-psychedelic, post-punk-inflected guitar through to the following decade.

Joy filled the sole guitar slot in genre-defining outfits like Lava, Universal Order of Armageddon (UOA), The Great Unraveling, and The Convocation Of…, while still finding time to also pick up a bass for the final lineup of agit-punks Born Against.

Moss Icon’s own discography ran the gamut from fast punk to contemplative epics—like the 11-minute "Lyburnum Wit’s End Liberation Fly"—and their impact on ‘90s punk music is undeniable. But because they broke up in ’91, we’ll focus on Joy’s next two projects, the equally influential Universal Order of Armageddon and the criminally underrated The Great Unraveling. Currently, Joy plays with Rogue Conjurer.

The Sound

Forming in 1992, UOA condensed everything that was great about Tonie Joy’s playing into short bursts of tightly coiled fury.

Known for their chaotic and brief live sets, the band eschewed chord progressions and changes for riffs and repetition. Their songs were crafted around the rhythmic interplay of drummer Brooks Headley and bassist Anthony Scott Malat.

This set a solid foundation over which Joy’s guitar could soar, incorporating legato single-note passages, blocky octave chords, and dissonant double stops. It was a style that was mimicked frequently throughout the following decade. While UOA were maybe not the first to do it, they were definitely one of the best.

Following the dissolution of UOA, Joy and Malat went on to form The Great Unraveling (later, Headley would also join the band), which took the UOA template and stretched it further. Malat’s grinding, drawn out basslines repeated to the point of becoming trancelike, giving Joy’s guitar even more space to writhe and contort.

The Gear

Starting with Moss Icon, Joy used a stock '85 Japanese Squier Stratocaster , through a ‘70s MXR distortion+, a Marshall JMP 1987 head, and an ‘80s Peavey cabinet with four Celestion 12" speakers.

In UOA, he added a Marshall 4x12 with higher wattage speakers and started using a ’78 Fender Stratocaster, as well as a ’66 Mustang for a brief period.

On some UOA recordings, he also used an "old tube combo with tremolo" whose make and model Joy has forgotten. You can hear this amp in passages of songs like "Stepping Softly Into." For The Great Unraveling, Joy re-tubed the JMP with JJs and added a vintage MXR Flanger to his rig.

When I asked him if there was any particular reason he went with Fenders and single coils when so many of his contemporaries seemed to be favoring Gibsons and humbuckers, Joy said that Strats "always seemed more comfortable to me (the body). I like working from limitations, so didn’t need humbuckers. … Plus, Ritchie Blackmore always used them."

Eric Allen

Eric Allen’s impact on hardcore punk was brief, cut short by his tragic suicide in 1998. Known chiefly for his work in three bands—Struggle, Unbroken, and Swing Kids—Allen and his small body of work have had a large influence.

Most of the guitarists on this list are featured because they melded sounds that previously weren’t considered to be complementary, and Allen was certainly one of the prime example of this. Especially in his later work, he showcased his influences in a way that no one really seemed to have thought of yet, coming up with a style and a guitar tone that we still hear being reproduced on records some 20 years later.

The Sound

Allen got his start in chuggy San Diego bands Struggle and Unbroken. Struggle formed when the members were still in high school. Perhaps remembered more as a band whose members went on to do greater things than in their own right, Struggle mixed slow, metallic hardcore with outspoken political lyrics in a style that came to be associated with Ebullition Records.

But Unbroken were the band that went on to throw the doors of metal-influenced hardcore wide open. Starting as a fairly unremarkable straight-edge hardcore outfit, by the time of their 1994 LP life. love. regret., Unbroken had opened up their sound to more thrash metal influences. However, they simultaneously drew lyrical and even fashion inspiration from bands like The Smiths and Christian Death.

Instead of big shorts and fast songs with half-time parts about not drinking or doing drugs, they were now playing excoriatingly heavy songs laying bare their pain, heartbreak, and confusion. While dressed like Morrissey.

Around this time, Allen also reunited with former Struggle bandmates Justin Pearson and Jose Palafox to start Swing Kids, in which they incorporated influences from their San Diego contemporaries Drive Like Jehu, but approached the music with more punk rock simplicity.

Swing Kids were a key foundation of another musical movement to come, one of the strongest lines on the map that would lead to what would eventually be called "screamo." Built on a mixture of frantic, jazz-inflected drumming, anchoring basslines and Pearson’s distinctive wail, the Swing Kids sound wouldn’t be possible without bright-yet-heavy tone and atonal chord melodies.

The Gear

Like many of his contemporaries and more than a few people on this list, Allen favored Marshall amplifiers. One of the difficulties in writing this article is piecing together rig details from grainy VHS-to-digital YouTube videos and blurred live shots, where the players might often be using borrowed backline. However a JCM800 or master volume Super Lead 100 appears to have been one of the keys to his sound. The bite of a cranked Marshall is all over the later Unbroken and Swing Kids records.

Another key element of Allen’s distinctive sound on these later works is his Les Paul with an EMG pickup in the bridge. While it seems like the obvious setup for Unbroken’s scooped-midrange, twin guitar attack, the distinct bite of those pickups is equally noticeable in Swing Kids’ work.

Keith Huckins

If Unbroken laid one of the cornerstones for the genre that would go on to be known and often maligned as "metalcore," then Keith Huckins dug the foundation, did most of the framing, and even hung some of the drywall.

Huckins began with New Jersey trailblazers Rorschach before moving on to the ferocious Deadguy and, finally, the seething Kiss It Goodbye. He is arguably the most influential to what we understand as "hardcore" in the 21st century. The chugging, the noise, the screechy chords, the trem picking—he did it all, and he was one of the first.

The Sound

Rorschach made their impact in 1990 with the phenomenally heavy full-length Remain Sedate, which sounded like nothing else that had come before. But this killer record is often overlooked in favor of their second LP, Protestant.

Influenced by the likes of Slayer, Voivod, Kreator and contemporaries such as Bl’ast and Godflesh, it’s a stop-start mixture of fast riffs, chugging grooves, and atonal weirdness. Overlaid with Charles Maggio’s shrieking vocals and finished off with an unwashed punk element through their involvement in the ABC No Rio scene and association with tourmates Born Against, Protestant was an explosion, one that is still echoing throughout underground heavy music.

After quitting Rorschach, Huckins spent some time in Die 116 before hooking up with Deadguy before their debut Work Ethic 7". Even before Huckins joined, the Deadguy sound was taking some cues from Rorschach, fusing their off-kilter hardcore with the slower, more focused sounds of labels like Touch and Go and Amphetamine Reptile.

But it’s Huckins self-described "weird" guitar playing that is the key element of what most people with a functioning set of ears consider the ur-text of modern dissonant metalcore: the Fixation On a Coworker LP. No longer lurching between fast and slow bits as Rorschach did, Deadguy’s songs flowed from one extreme to another. Deadguy took everything that had been percolating in DIY hardcore circles and focused it into 10 tracks of frustration and emotional turmoil. The influence of Fixation (and even some suspiciously similar riffs) can still be heard today in bands such as Converge and Dillinger Escape Plan.

After quitting Deadguy, Huckins and vocalist Tim Singer moved to Seattle to form Kiss It Goodbye. Their Billy Anderson-produced She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not... is full of a kind of dark, seething resentment, compared to Deadguy’s white-hot rage and pain. The record’s slower tempos and bludgeoning repetition, together with Singer’s bitter lyrics and caustic delivery make for a listening experience that can be exhausting but cathartic all the same.

A fun fact: The record actually has four guitar tracks on every song, with both the left and right channels of the guitar being doubled. When I commented on the kind of insanely tight playing required to double those guitars so precisely, all Huckins would say is that "Billy Anderson is a taskmaster."

The Gear

Huckins is probably most recognized for his use of B.C. Rich guitars in an era when they were decidedly not cool, making Mockingbirds acceptable to dudes in camo shorts. Huckins tells us that for Rorschach’s Remain Sedate, he used an NJ-series Mockingbird with an EMG 81 in the bridge. The engineer for the album talked them into using a Mesa, possibly a MK II, which Huckins regrets, saying he "was really unhappy with the guitars on that record."

For Protestant, Huckins had a custom Mockingbird with a PJ Marx bridge pickup and used solid-state Ampeg heads, most likely an SS-410C or an SS-150. Live, however, he preferred to use a—you guessed it—Marshall JCM800. Around this time Huckins also used a cheap Charvel (possibly a Style 1) that he "only used live to abuse."

Around the time of Fixation On a Coworker, Huckins acquired a Mesa Dual Rectifier and used both that and the JCM800 for Deadguy and Kiss It Goodbye. A Les Paul Studio covered in black electrical tape apparently also got some use around that time, in which Huckins also acquired a B.C. Rich Seagull.

When we approached Huckins to ask about his gear for this article he said, "Be warned—I may not have more than guitar, amp, and cable." Watching videos online seems to bear that out. I think I can see a Boss Noise Suppressor in some clips (Huckins told us he never used pedals because he "used to kick them"), but it’s clear that his sound is all amp gain—proof more than anything else that sometimes what makes music heavy is the player, not the gear.

Adam Nathanson

It’s hard to believe that Born Against existed for such a short period of time (1989 to 1993), considering the waves they made and the impact they still have. Just as formative an influence for a certain type of young punk as Minor Threat or Husker Du, Born Against had a constantly revolving lineup, but the key elements were the garbled vocals of Sam McPheeters and the chaotic guitar of Adam Nathanson.

The Sound

Nathanson got his start in Life’s Blood, a late-’80s NYHC band that only played 20 shows during their two-year span, but still left behind the fantastic Defiance LP. When Life’s Blood ended, Nathanson and bassist Neil Burke hooked up with Sam McPheeters to form Born Against.

Over the course of two LPs, Nine Patriotic Hymns for Children and Battle Hymns of the Race War) and many splits and compilation appearances, Born Against’s version of hardcore seemed to revolt against everything. While their songs attacking bigotry and injustice have been adopted by a largely progressive- or liberal-leaning punk audience in the last few decades, vocalist Sam McPheeters has been quick to point out they would have made fun of those people too. Hypocrisy in all its forms was Born Against’s target—lyrically, musically, and in the pages of McPheeters’ zine Dear Jesus, to which Nathanson was a sometime contributor.

While strident and outspoken, Born Against lyrics were always delivered with a sarcasm and wit that made their messages easier to swallow. Even if it was you they were making fun of, the joke was funny and maybe they had a point. At the time, not everyone took it this way, and the band was frequently threatened for their stances.

But it helped that those lyrics were put to chaotic punk blasts that still managed to have a rich, melodic undertone. Adam Nathanson’s guitar playing was noisy and harsh but filled with ringing chords and subtle flourishes that were absent from many of Born Against’s palm-muted contemporaries. The end result is classic punk rock that was catchy, might make you laugh, but also got inside you and didn’t let go.

Given that they had many, many lineup changes—with Universal Order of Armageddon members Tonie Joy and Brooks Headley both doing stints in the band—in some ways, it’s surprising that Born Against lasted as long as they did. Following a move to Richmond, Virginia, and the band’s demise in 1993, Nathanson started (Young) Pioneers, a band that gave his scrappy yet melodic playing center stage, producing tuneful, agitated pop punk, like a rough and tumble version of Virginia contemporaries Avail.

The (Young) Pioneers sound mellowed into the late ‘90s, but Nathanson’s deceptively simple songs built around complicated chords are still worth seeking out, as is work by Nathan’s newest outfit, Teargas Rock.

The Gear

Although he later used a Les Paul Custom and even a Jazzmaster in (Young) Pioneers, the razor-blades-on-barbed-wire sound of Born Against is pure P90. A single-pickup Les Paul Junior Dog Ear P90 in the bridge position and the ubiquitous Marshall JCM800 were all Nathanson needed to reach a cascading, Bob Mould-level of noise and harmony.

Steve Heritage

As guitarist and later vocalist of the legendary "deathgrind" band Assück, Steve Heritage’s incredible guitar playing and incisive lyrics left jaws on the ground all over VFW halls and basements throughout the States.

But perhaps the bigger impact Heritage had was as an engineer and producer. Working on records from bands as diverse as Hot Water Music to Cavity to Shai Hulud, Heritage played a huge part in documenting the fertile music coming out of Florida in the 1990s.

The Sound

Go to any crust or grindcore show in any city in the world, and you’ll probably find someone sporting am Assück patch or shirt. The goofy name belies the intense seriousness of this monumental Florida three-piece. Their impact is both direct (look at how many bands have taken their name from an Assück song or LP title) and pervasive, being an influential touchstone for people playing in all genres that punk fragmented into in the later half of the ‘90s.

Beginning life in 1988 as a four-piece band with a somewhat childish gross-out approach on their Born Backwards demo, Assück soon became a behemoth combination of crust-punk anger (and politics) and heavy metal musicianship. Blessed with an inhuman beast of a drummer in Rob Proctor, Assück played short, minute-and-a-half bursts of blasting fury, with expertly timed stops, tempo shifts, and breakdowns. Try to sit still at the breakdown that comes in at the 0:30 mark in "Automate." You can’t. You’ll be moshing in your office chair before you even realize what’s happening.

By the time of their final LP, Misery Index, Heritage had also taken over on vocals. The metal-influenced, complex riffing had an increasing prominence in their sound, while Heritage’s lyrics became dark and poetic.

By all reports, their live shows could be even better than the record. Little wonder they gained popularity with the developing screamo scene, touring (and sharing a bassist) with the legendary Reversal of Man, before parting ways in 1998. Heritage continued to make records for other bands for a few years, but hasn’t made any music himself since. However, his influence on guitarists who like their grind dark, politically aware, and punishingly technical is still felt today.

The Gear

Early footage of Heritage shows him playing some kind of Jackson. Poor VHS quality and an exuberant stage presence make it hard for us to tell exactly which model. But Heritage is known mostly for using a guitar not many people associate with grindcore or death metal: the humble Fender Telecaster.

Modified with a humbucker in the bridge position, Heritage’s all black tele is all over most of Assück’s best work, before he traded up to a Musicman Axis (all black, naturally) toward the end of the band’s run.

Heritage is also included on this list for being one of the most visible users of an amplifier that has become synonymous with the mid 90s hardcore scene: The solid state Ampeg VH/SS-140C and VH/SS-150. There’s footage out there of Heritage playing through as many as three Ampeg half stacks, while wearing an Ampeg t-shirt.

The gain character of these amplifiers had a quality to it people don’t normally associate with solid-state amplifiers. The raw, crunchy sound is so loved by so many that boutique pedal manufacturers S&K made pedal versions of the distortion circuit. But above all else they were loud, cheap, and reliable—three features that define many of the rigs in this list.

Sarah Kirsch

If there’s one person we hope this article introduces you to, it’s Sarah Kirsch. Through a career spanning countless bands, beginning in the late ‘80s and only reaching its end with her passing in 2012, Kirsch produced some of the most vital and moving music to ever come out of the American underground.

Passionate, anthemic, and not afraid to stand for something, Kirsch’s music took a few different turns over her artistic life. But you could almost always walk into a record store and identify the newest Sarah Kirsch band by her voice, her lyrics, and especially her guitar playing.

The Sound

Something even remotely resembling a comprehensive discography of Kirsch’s work would take up a whole article in itself. So let’s give it the potted history: Beginning in the Bay Area in 1988 with the Skinflutes, she played guitar and often sang in various fast, melodic punk bands including Fuel (not the "Shimmer" one, the Fugazi-influenced one that put out a fantastic self-titled LP in 1990), and Pinhead Gunpowder with Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day.

The mid ‘90s saw Kirsch’s songwriting get heavier in projects like John Henry West and Sawhorse. But Kirsch also managed to produce one of the landmark records of ‘emo’ with Navio Forge. Despite only playing two shows before breaking up, Navio Forge still left behind As We Quietly Burn A Hole Into, a six-song LP of driving, emotionally raw, and devastating music, like Fugazi in the midst of an existential crisis. No band before Navio Forge had sounded quite so desperate. None of the bands that followed in their wake seemed as honest.

The later half of the ‘90s saw Kirsch writing and performing with two of her best-known projects—Torches to Rome and Bread and Circuits. It was in these bands that Kirsch truly refined her sound to something wholly unique and stirring.

Staccato chord changes, musical feedback, neck-bending vibrato, and noisy soloing all became instantly identifiable aspects of her music. As did the sharply critical lyrics, skewering oppressive social constructs and declaring a fierce intent to carve out a space for people to be free from exploitation.

With the new millennium Kirsch continued to stay active right until her passing, building on her inimitable style with projects like Please Inform The Captain This is a Hijack and Baader Brains. The bands further expanded her work by incorporating sound collages, wry lyrical concepts built around invented mythologies as metaphor for the political landscape, and live performance art.

It’s rare, and thrilling, that someone who got their start in the late ‘80s was still producing relevant and deeply resonating work right up until their death.

The Gear

Like many others of the era, Kirsch did all her work with a Gibson SG. It’s hard to say why these guitars were so ubiquitous throughout the ‘90s, although one can make some educated guesses (availability, price, popularization by early pioneers such as Ian Mackaye and other DC musicians). Their clean, woody neck pickup, and the bright crunch of the bridge is, to many, the quintessential essence of ‘90s hardcore. Kirsch also favored the similarly widely adopted Marshall JCM800 head and matching 4x12 cabinet.

A former bandmate of Kirsch’s tells us that she would modify all her heads with a slave output—a trick used by Metallica, among others, in which one amp would have the input of the other’s preamp, cascading the gain stages and producing a more distorted, punchier sound.

Usually using two and sometimes even three JCM800s hooked up this way, Kirsch’s guitar was warm, crunchy, and, above all, loud. The bright top-end of the Marshall and SG combo was helped along further by Kirsch’s use of metal picks. Once you hear all the energy she put into something as simple as a pick slide like the one in the start of Baader Brains "Year Zero," you’ll immediately understand why.

There you have it. Six guitarists and rigs that helped define ‘90s hardcore. There’s so many others we could have put in this article: Hoover’s creepy intertwining guitars, Texas is the Reason’s Britpop flirtations, or Unwound’s barely functioning pawn shop equipment and alternate tunings. But we hope this has introduced you to some new artists, prompted some fond memories, or inspired you to make your own music. Let us know who you would add in the comments.

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.