The Guitarists and Gear of Britpop

Few musical genres have had the effect that Britpop had in the UK in the 1990s. Britpop was more than just a style of music—it was a movement that inspired changes in fashion, culture, and TV all around the same time. Though the term Britpop is fairly loosely defined, it normally refers to guitar bands of the mid-'90s that were generally rock, indie, or alternative in style—Oasis, Pulp, Blur, Ocean Colour Scene, and Suede are all examples.

The influence of '60s and '70s rock and pop was huge within Britpop. However, its close association with the Cool Britannia movement (a sort of increased sense of pride in Britain around the time) also meant that British pop acts like the Spice Girls were sometimes caught up in it too. Even Tony Blair—the newly elected British Prime Minister in 1997—aligned himself with Britpop.

Britpop rejuvenated guitar music in the '90s in the UK. Whilst shoegaze and grunge were undoubtedly popular in the early '90s, when Britpop came along, bands like Oasis and Blur were gracing the front page of the newspapers and making national TV news headlines. Oasis and Blur releasing singles at the same time was even dubbed the "Battle of Britpop" in 1995 and dominated the press. It exploded in the UK, and it helped make the guitar considerably more popular.

Even today, there are new British bands like Blossoms and The Sherlocks wearing their Britpop influences proudly on their sleeves. It’s hard to imagine the indie scene kicking off in the 2000s without Britpop in the decade preceding—the likes of Arctic Monkeys, The Strokes, and The Killers all owe something to it.

It’s fair to say that Britpop had a huge, lasting impact on guitar music and players. In the same way that the Fender Strat is associated with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and the Gibson Les Paul with Jimmy Page, Slash, and Peter Green, the Epiphone Sheraton is often seen as the "Noel Gallagher guitar."

Here we’ll go through some of the key guitarists and gear within Britpop, looking at some of the biggest names associated with the genre and some of the smaller, more underrated players whose influence shouldn’t be overlooked.


Graham Coxon
BLUR, SOLO

Blur was one of the biggest bands to wear the Britpop badge, and one of the biggest bands of the '90s altogether. They provided a counterbalance to Oasis while residing in the same musical ballpark. Coxon was the only guitarist in the band and had a great knack for blending rhythm and lead parts to create fluid guitar lines that helped drive the songs. This perfectly complemented Alex James’ far-from-simple basslines.

Blur had a defined sound right from the start, taking just as much influence from post-punk as from '60s pop. Their first two albums enjoyed some success in the UK, but their third album, Parklife is synonymous with the Britpop movement to this day.

"Girls And Boys" features some incredibly creative guitar playing, showcasing jarring riffs and licks that sit on top of a groove-soaked disco bassline. Every song on Parklife is a masterclass in playing guitar for the song without being boring for one second. Their success and, indeed, Coxon’s playing went from strength to strength for years after that, until Graham left the band in 2002.

The Sound & Gear

Graham Coxon is probably most closely associated with the Fender Telecaster—he even got his own signature model in 2011, based off of his late-'60s Tele modded with a Gibson humbucker in the neck position. He quite often played a ’52 Tele Reissue but also used a Gibson Les Paul Custom in Blur’s heyday, as well as a 335 and a Fender Jaguar amongst many others. Different songs would often feature different playing styles, so Coxon would choose the right guitar for the song.

In terms of amps, he’d almost always be running into a Marshall Super Lead head through a 4x12. There are some pictures of him using a Marshall PB100 in between the head and cab, too.

Coxon is also a big fan of using pedals and often used different distortions, fuzzes, and overdrives almost like channels on an amp to boost and cut volumes in addition to adding gain. The ProCo RAT 2 was often used, as were a number of Boss pedals, including the DS-1 Distortion, BF-2 Flanger, DD-3 Delay and more. Oh, and if you’re after the "Song 2" pedal, that would be the Dod FX76 Punkifier.


Noel Gallagher
OASIS, NOEL GALLAGHER'S HIGH FLYING BIRDS

If you had to assign one band to the Britpop movement, it would have to be Oasis. Fronted by Liam Gallagher, with his older brother Noel on backing vocal and lead guitar duties, Oasis had a long career, adorned with some truly timeless and classic songs.

Their debut album, Definitely Maybe, was released in 1994 to an incredible reaction. Music fans, particularly in the UK, were perhaps unknowingly waiting for a band like this to come along after the huge pop wave of the '80s and grunge of the early '90s. Oasis wrote songs about things that they knew, which, coming from a working class background, meant that plenty of people could relate to them.

What followed their debut album was a meteoric rise (despite their now-legendary second album, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, receiving fairly negative reviews at the time) that accumulated in one of the most iconic live concerts of all time—two nights at Knebworth, playing to over 250,000 people. If you had to place when the peak of Britpop was, it was probably then.

Oasis then returned with their third album, Be Here Now, which was received fairly well but lacked a lot of what made the first two special. This record instead boasted a collection of multi-layered, five- and 6-plus minute songs that were heavy with the weight of unnecessary guitar layers. They did produce some incredible stuff after that, though, and after splitting up in 2009, both Liam and Noel have since gone on to enjoy very successful solo careers.

The Sound & Gear

The Oasis sound was massive—it was a wall of guitars, accompanied by Liam’s (and sometimes Noel’s) unique voice. They had two guitar players, Noel and Bonehead (until 1999), and no keyboard player until later, so it was a combination of their chord inversions, playing styles, and rigs that made them sound so big. Bonehead would usually be playing barre chords, leaving Noel to play open chords, allowing more strings to ring out. Alternatively, Noel would play single-note riffs on top of chords, and when called for, a guitar solo.

Over the years, Noel Gallagher has used a lot of gear. He’s often mentioned in the same breath as the Epiphone Sheraton, having played a '60s model in the early days of Oasis. Epiphone made a Union Jack Sheraton that was a clear nod to the model given to him by his then-girlfriend for their Manchester Maine Road gigs in 1996. Epiphone also made a Noel Gallagher Supernova signature model, which is a bit of a cross between a Sheraton and a Riviera. He and Bonehead also played Japanese Epiphone Rivieras, so hollowbodies are a way to go if you’re seeking that early Oasis sound.

Gallagher also played Les Pauls. Really early on, he played an Epiphone Les Paul Standard; that is, until Johnny Marr lent him an original 1952 Les Paul, converted to 1960 spec. This guitar was unfortunately broken when used as a weapon after their stage was stormed by a fan.

Marr then lent him another guitar, this time a black Les Paul Custom. Noel also had a 1967 Gibson Non-Reverse Firebird in the early Oasis days, and throughout his career, he’s been known to play a Rickenbacker 330 (including a white one given to him by Paul Weller), Fender Telecasters, and more recently, a Nash Jazzmaster, amongst many others.

Likewise with amps, Noel has used a lot, though Marshalls nearly always tend to feature. Presumably before the budget allowed for more, Noel used what looks like a Valvestate Marshall combo—possibly an 8080 model—and sometimes a Vox AC30.

He then moved on to Marshall stacks, with a JCM900 on top of 4x12s, as well as an Orange OR120, before moving on to a more complex rig, post-Britpop. Though not a huge pedal person in the '90s, Noel did use a TS9 Tubescreamer as part of his core sound to boost for solos, as well as a Roland Space Echo and possibly a Boss DD-3 or DD-5.


Justine Frischmann & Donna Matthews
ELASTICA

Elastica was formed by Justine Frischmann and Justin Welch—two of the original members of another huge Britpop act, Suede. They took a lot of influence from new wave and post-punk bands of the '70s and '80s and had a huge hit with their single "Connection"—the guitar break after the first chorus is one of the most iconic of the genre.

Their debut album sold incredibly well, and actually set a record that was only broken in 2006 by the Arctic Monkeys. It showcased poppy vocal melodies and harmonies, tight and well thought-out musicianship, and fantastic songwriting.

You can hear some edgy punk-style rhythm guitar parts, combined with clever lead parts utilizing capos and open strings that are slightly reminiscent of Johnny Marr at times. Frischman and Matthews had a great knack for playing riffs between them using slightly different rhythms, giving a really cool off-kilter sort of effect.

The Sound & Gear

Elastica’s sound was dominated by the jangle of single-coil pickups. Frontwoman Justine Frischmann was usually seen slinging a Fender Telecaster, and you can hear that unmistakable bite in the rhythm guitar sound on songs like "2:1" and "Connection."

Lead guitarist Donna Matthews was normally on a Strat or Tele as well. Balancing guitars nicely with synths as Elastica did can sometimes be tricky, but playing guitars with single-coils means that there’s slightly less in the mix to compete with.

Fender Twin amps were usually run by Frischmann, fairly clean with a Rat when needed. Matthews usually plugged into a Marshall Super Lead. Having different styles of amps also helped to differentiate and define the band's tone.


James Dean Bradfield
MANIC STREET PREACHERS

The Manic Street Preachers were a bit of an anomaly within the genre. While they were undoubtedly part of the Britpop movement (they were one of the support acts for Oasis’ legendary 1996 Knebworth gig), they took a lot of influence from the likes of The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and Guns ’N’ Roses—particularly in the group's early days.

This gave them a heavier edge than most other Britpop bands and helped widen their appeal, though their capabilities as songwriters should not be understated. Their first three albums were pretty riff-laden, laced with plenty of distortion. Then, along came Everything Must Go—probably their most successful record to date, packed full of perfectly crafted Britpop masterpieces.

They gradually mellowed out a few albums later, but what has remained throughout the Manics’ career was James Dean Bradfield’s blistering guitar playing. Not only was JDB performing some impressive vocal acrobatics, he’d also be riffing or soloing at the same time when playing live.

So many of the Manics’ songs are peppered with complex chords too, adding a lot of color and musicality to their sound. This stood in contrast to a lot of other Britpop bands using standard open or barre chords. Guitar solos weren’t rare in Britpop by any means, but most of them steered towards the pentatonic scale. James Dean Bradfield, on the other hand, wasn’t afraid to show his proficiency on the instrument and break out of that box.

The Sound & Gear

Bradfield is largely known for using a Gibson Les Paul Custom (in Alpine White, to be precise), though he’s an avid collector and uses quite a range of guitars both live and in the studio. Another guitar closely associated with the band is a Fender American Vintage ’72 Tele Thinline that used to belong to rhythm guitarist and chief lyricist Richey Edwards before his disappearance in 1995.

Bradfield also has a bunch of Gretsch guitars, most notably a G6120 that has been used on recordings and live. He’s also used Strats, Rickenbackers, and much more.

In terms of amps, again, he’s used quite a range. In the early days, he used a Marshall JCM900 head with a matching 4x12. Later, he used various combinations of that, a Vox AC30, an Orange combo custom-built for him by Ade Emsley and used for clean tones, a Fender Twin, and a Trace Elliot Speed King, before seemingly settling on a couple of Mesa Boogie Lone Star 2x12 combos, running through 4x12s.


Charlotte Hatherley & Tim Wheeler
ASH

Though most members of Ash were Irish, the band did fall into the Britpop category in the late '90s. They didn’t particularly like being labelled as such, as their music did lean more into punk rock than the likes of Oasis and Pulp. That said, their combination of raucous guitars, poppy vocals, and floppy haircuts—plus the fact that they rehearsed in the same place as Pulp and Blur—rendered them perfect fodder for the final stages of Britpop.

The band's first full-length album, 1977, was raw and edgy and spawned hit singles "Girl From Mars" and "Kung Fu." For their second record, they recruited guitarist Charlotte Hatherley, and despite Nu-Clear Sounds not being quite the success they hoped for, their sound certainly opened up.

Following that, their third album, Free All Angels, was a huge hit and gave us singles such as "Shining Light," "There’s A Star," and a song with one of the most recognizable intros of the era—"Burn Baby Burn." By the time Free All Angels was released in 2001, the heyday of Britpop had been and gone, but the likes of Ash helped evolve guitar music into what was to come.

The Sound & Gear

Both Tim Wheeler and Charlotte Hatherley are well-known for their guitars of choice. Wheeler is rarely seen without a Gibson Flying V (his particular guitar is an ‘81 or ‘82 model), though in the early days, he was often playing a Les Paul Standard or a mid-'70s Fender Mustang.

Charlotte Hatherley was usually playing a cherry red Gibson SG. It looks like the guitar started out life as an SG Junior but was perhaps converted to house a humbucker pickup instead of the stock P-90. The interplay of these two humbucker-equipped guitars gave Ash a huge sound, particularly live.

Charlotte’s SG would normally go through an Ampeg Fallen Angel head, alongside a Fender combo that, from photos, looks to be a Fender Twin. Tim was usually seen using Mesa Boogie amps—either a Dual Rectifier or a Road King, though Marshall heads were also seen on stage early on as well.


John Squire
THE STONE ROSES, THE SEAHORSES

John Squire’s impact on Britpop is interesting, as he was one of the key influencers on the genre to begin with. The Stone Roses put out their debut album in 1989, inspiring nearly every Britpop musician to come.

Their following album, Second Coming, took years to produce and was released in the same year as Oasis’ debut,Definitely Maybe, in 1994. After the group disbanded, he went on to form The Seahorses, who released one album in 1997. So, not only did Squire pave the way for Britpop, he helped shape it along the way.

Squire is an incredible, versatile player. His work on the debut Roses albums encompasses '60s-style jangly open chords, single note riffs, Keith Richards-esque licks, and tasteful solos. As the only guitarist in the band, there was a lot of room for him to play, without clashing with anything else in the mix.

Double-tracking was used to thicken up choruses, and acoustics were used alongside electrics for texture. Second Coming was considerably more guitar-centric and was more like a collection of jams featuring a lot of '70s classic rock-style riffs and solos. While the album is generally less acclaimed by fans than the first, the guitar work shouldn’t go unnoticed.

The Sound & Gear

The Seahorses’ one and only album was titled Do It Yourself, and that’s what Squire did. It's a record chock-full of guitar riffs and long solos. Footage from that time shows that he had an affinity for three-pickup Gibson Les Pauls and Marshall JCM900 SLX amps, as well as a half-stack that was custom-built for him by Kendrick Amps

With The Stone Roses, he’d often use a Fender Twin or a Mesa Boogie Mark II, though to play those classic tunes in recent years, he’s relied on Mesa Boogie Lone Stars.

There were a few pretty key guitars as well, including a mid-'60s Gretsch Country Gent, a 1960 Fender Strat and an original ’59 Les Paul on Second Coming. There have been numerous pedals used by Squire over the years, but a Tube Screamer, an Ibanez Chorus, a Boss Flanger and a Fuzz Face are fairly closely linked to the Mancunian.


Debbie Smith & Glenn Johansson
ECHOBELLY

Echobelly perfectly epitomized the middle ground of Britpop with their loud, brash, jangly guitars sat beneath poppy, hooky vocal melodies. They had a good string of albums in the '90s, with their first two enjoying chart success at the height of the Britpop movement.

Their tunes were catchy and upbeat, and they gained fans in the form of none other than Smiths frontman Morrissey and pop royalty Madonna. While it’s hard to imagine Echobelly without the incredible voice of lead singer Sonya Madan, the guitar interplay between Glenn Johansson and Debbie Smith really helped define their sound.

Super melodic clean, jangly lines would sit on top of distorted power chords to give a nice, wide sound—"Great Things" being a prime example. There are times when the guitars lean into punk, or even grunge, which acts as a really effective juxtaposition to the vocal lines.

The Sound & Gear

The pair seemed to go down the classic humbuckers/single-coils route, with Johansson usually playing Les Pauls and Smith on Fenders—either a Mustang or a Strat. Having the different pickup types helps keep definition within the mix of the band.

In keeping with this, Johansson’s Les Paul looks to be going through Marshall stacks (possibly a JTM100 or 1959SLP) and Smith’s Fenders through a Fender combo—again, giving two completely different tones that compliment each other and can easily be distinguished.


The gear used by many of the key guitarists in Britpop shows how diverse the music actually was. Whilst you could imagine them all on at the same festival, the likes of the Manic Street Preachers were very different to Elastica, for example.

A common feature within Britpop was to have one guitar using single-coils with another using humbuckers to create easily distinguishable tones, or to use two humbucker-equipped guitars for a massive sound. Marshall JCM900s are fairly commonplace within Britpop, as are AC30s and Fender Twins, as well as Fender Telecasters and Gibson Les Pauls.

Whilst Britpop may have fizzled out in the late '90s, its influence can still be heard in music today and doesn’t look to be going anywhere soon.

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