Top 10 Grunge Guitarists

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Grunge (sometimes referred to as the Seattle Sound) emerged during the mid-1980s in the state of Washington, particularly in the Seattle area. Inspired by hardcore punk, heavy metal and indie rock, grunge is generally characterized by heavily distorted electric guitars, contrasting song dynamics, and apathetic or angst-filled lyrics. Here are the top 10 grunge guitarists that help define this music genre.

10. Roger Osborne of the Melvins

Being one of the first grunge bands, the Melvins guitarist has to be on the list because of his influence on such guitarists as Mark Arm and Kurt Cobain. At first listen you can hear that the music is metal, but the guitar is starting a steady lean towards grugedom. From the screaming solos to the moaning power cords, Osbourne paved the streets of the 90’s with his guitar.

9. Vernon Reid of Living Colour

Although not so much grunge and more in the range of funk metal, Reid cannot be exactly categorized. From his crisp funk solos of Love Rears It’s Ugly Head to the famous guitar riffs of Cult of Personality Vernon Reid is an amazing, influential guitarist to all forms of hardcore rock, including grunge.

8. Mike McCready of Pearl Jam

Raised in the punk ridden 70’s McCready is unfluenced by both Kiss and SRV. Behind his lightning fast licks there is a blues influence that makes his music so enjoyable to listen to. Even some of his epic solos suck as the one in Black have blues influence. My only reason for not making him #1 was because of his lack of influence on modern music.

7. Pat Smear of Foo Fighters/Nirvana

In Nirvana’s early work Kurt couldn’t do all of the guitar by himself, so he had Pat Smear help him with it. Smear, unknown to many people, helped Nirvana in many of their hits such as Heart Shaped Box and Polly. He is responsible for the sliding guitar riffs in Scentless Apprentice, and helped with many of their live shows. Later on Dave Grohl invited his to play with the Foo Fighters, which he did, and was a major role in their live performances.

6. Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins

Inspired by Pink Floyds acid filled guitar odysseys, Corgan was the arena rock genius of the 90’s. As if his ego wasn’t enough, Corgan pioneered several guitar tequniques including open E string in 1979 and Cherub Rock. Even in the song Geek USA his crazy guitar solo and riffs told grunge bands that their guitarists don’t have to be sloppy just to sound rebellious.

5. Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains

Fast paced metal riffs, soaring solos, this guy was the foundation of the emo rock era. Every note was hit to a metronomic beat which other grunge bands had ignored, a tequnique that made Cantrell’s music so different from all other grunge artist’s music.

4. Kim Thayil of Soundgarden

Thayil is the ultimate grunge guitarist; he was the influence for nearly all of the bands of the 90’s. His untuned guitar and offbeat riffs paired with Chris Cornell’s projected voice made the ghouly effect of Soundgarden which inspired a generation of music.

3. Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead

Let me be frank with you: there would be no indie rock without Greenwood. Even though his grunge side was only brought out in three out of Radiohead’s eight albums, they changed the minds of the major contemporary musicians of today such as Coldplay and Muse. Greenwood wasn’t even the band’s guitarist (he was their keyboardist), which was a huge part in why his guitar riff were so “odd”.

2. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana

Lets face it people, Kurt is god. From his tortured guitar riffs in Aero Zeppelin and Heartbreaker (live) to the all famous Smells Like Teen Spirit lyrical mimicking solo, Kurt was the epiphany of modern rock as we know it. Nobody could do what he did, and what he did was bring out the inner emotion of grunge by thrashing and bashing the noised produced by guitar into the 90’s.

1. Neil Young

Cinnamon Girl, My My, Hey Hey (Into the Black), and Rockin’ in the Free World were the foundation of what the Melvins paved through for the invention of grunge. His elastic guitar solos influenced Mike McCready, his sloppily strummed chords were Kurt Cobain’s favorite technique, and his violent swinging of his guitar was copied by Johnny Greenwood. Without Neil Young, there would be no Grunge.

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56 Comments

    • That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen anyone type. Cantrell at 5? He was virtually the only real guitar legend to come out of grunge. Vernon Reid is another possibly, but you can’t possibly put any grunge guitarist ahead of Cantrell. For me he was a better song writer than Cobain, but that’s really all Cobain was great at was writing. JC had better riffs, better licks, better solos, his playing was tighter and more articulate than any other grunge guitarist. He could slam you with some heavy grunge riffs or pick up an acoustic and make every single note ring. Some of these guitarists were song writers playing guitar like a Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney and no I’m not putting them in that category, but Jerry Cantrell and maybe Vernon Reid are the only ones worthy of an all time guitarist ranking. I sure as hell hope you didn’t get paid to type this article.

  1. kurt was not a god he was a pathetic junkie that got lucky with a couple of great songs all his life he had it all but decided to jack up and blame every one but himself otherwise great list

    • kurt cobain was not just a pathetic junkie, you have absolutely no idea what your talking about, you have no idea why he even started doing herion, kurt cobain gave hope to angsty teenagers who felt comfort in knowing they werent alone.

      • Lol. “Angsty teenagers”? Oh, you mean spoiled brats who have never had a real problem in their entire lives, yet were somehow “disillusioned” by the bleak hopelessness of the times?

        Take your liberal arts degree and get the hell off of my internet.

        • although he wasnt the best of guitarist he still took the world from hair metal and bring it back down to a level of modern day blues, you can’t say that he wasnt a voice for a generation because teenagers then didnt have ‘real’ problems, what makes their problems so less significant then problems of teens now days? if anything it makes them more significant and making him more iconic now more than ever. how many musicians/artists now days can you HONESTLY say have that much of a positive influence on people?

    • With all due respect your point is invalid. Kurt blamed no one but himself. And that “junkie” affected more peoples lives then you will ever know. Thanks.

  2. Geoff Kuhfeldt on

    Really? uhhh…. ok, grunge was not a genre, but a record company creation. second, there are two guitar players that really belong on this list buzzo and Thayil. Nirvana, maybe on bleach qualified as this sound but had moved on by Nevermind, and he is not much of a player. Jerry Cantrell and AIC are something completely different, only related by geography and time. The rest, are not related in anyway to the title of the list. I am make no judgments on anyone's playing at all, cept maybe kurt, he is just the biggest seller, not the best player. Also I have heard the Neil Young argument before, don't buy it. Blue Cheer. Black Sabbath. Big Muffs. SuperFuzz. Sun Model T's. This music would have happened when ever creativity ran into all that gear being dirt freaking cheap.

  3. sidvee, I am not sure what you are talking about Kurt Cobain was one of the most talented and influencial musicians of all time. He was a great guitar player and wrote his own music. He was very young when he died and had a lot left to give to the musical world. He would own many of the guitarists on this list. Get your facts straight.

    • You obviously don’t play guitar. I was able to play literally EVERY piece of music he ever wrote within 3 months of playing. And I wasn’t trained, I just picked up the damned thing and went to work. Kurt was a good songwriter, but not in a sense of being “different”, in fact it’s just the opposite– he was a great POP songwriter. That’s right, Kurt Cobain was a good songwriter in the same way that Madonna was, NOT the way Morrissey was. And that’s fine. The Beatles were a pop band, too. But the way you dorks overrate Kurt is hilarious. It’s one thing to be a fanboy of his songwriting, but to defend his guitar-playing is asinine.

      • Exactly. Cobain was a good writer, but he wasn’t on the level of playing as Jerry Cantrell. Heck he wasn’t on the guitar writing level as Cantrell. Nirvana has always been overrated in my book and so is Cobain’s guitar playing

  4. Where to start…

    "In Nirvana’s early work Kurt couldn’t do all of the guitar by himself, so he had Pat Smear help him with it.". Pat Smear didn't work with Nirvana until the In Utero tour ("In Utero" is their last album – not early work), and he certainly had nothing to do with writing or recording "Polly" other than playing on the "Unplugged" version.

    Radiohead were not a grunge band by any stretch of the imagination, and "there would be no indie rock without Greenwood" is one of the stupidest things I've ever read. Indie rock had been around for years before Radiohead existed.

    Jerry Cantrell…"was the foundation of the emo rock era". No, no, no – that would be the DC hardcore bands (Rites of Spring, Embrace, Faith, Void…).

    This article is poorly written and researched.

    • Thank you! I was gonna post ‘pat smear didn’t join till in utero was being written/recorded/toured’

      In the 80’s while touring for ‘Bleach’ they had hmm… I believe the guitarists name was James everman (or something along those lines I dont have the album in front of me to look) to provide a 2nd guitar for Nirvana as their sound really benefited from the addition of a 2nd guitar.

      But the majority of nirvana’s guitar work was done by cobain alone.

      not to mention Pat Smear was in the Germs (one of the early L.A. 70’s punk bands) so he would have had a bigger influence on 80’s punk rock than grunge.

      k im done here lol.

      • Kurt played the guitar in every Nirvana song, just him. The dude, Jason Everman did not actually play on any of the tracks on Bleach.

        So yeah, Kurt was god.

  5. Late to the party, but;

    Although they weren't a Seattle band, many people consider Dinosaur Jr's work in the late 1980's as proto-grunge. Albums like You're Living All Over Me (1986) and Green Mind(1988) are absolute masterpieces and are definitely in the same stoner metal vein as grunge itself. Assuming this is true, I would have to say that J Mascis is the greatest of all grunge guitarists. In fact, he may be the greatest alternative rock guitarist ever.

    Speaking of Dinosaur Jr, how about doing a list of the most criminally ignored rock bands of all time. It would be hard to whittle it down to just 10, since there are so many.

  6. Are you serious??? Kurt Cobain created Grunge! He was the GOD. Neil Young? Give me a break! According to who? Please do your research before making these lists.

    • Check out the wiki on grunge for some back up or just take a look at his plaid shirts, messy hair, and listen to his even messier guitar. Neil Young is widely accepted as the 'godfather of grunge'; if he's not the godfather he's at least grunge's older Canadian cousin.

      • Anyone that thinks that Neil Young is the Godfather of grunge has been subject to way to much brainwashing by MTV. Grunge did not suddenly burst forth from Kurt Cobains forehead one day back in the early 90s. Before Seattle hit the scene there was Athens and Minneapolis. There was “College Radio” (yeah that was the listing in the back of Rolling Stone) There were bands like REM, 10,000 Maniacs, Sonic Youth, Midnight Oil, The Smiths, The Church, Love and Rockets and many many more. I have seen videos of Dave Grohl talking about his influences and it wasn’t Neil Young it was Bob Mould of Husker Du.
        Watch the Documentaries loudQUIETloud and American Hardcore and then tell me if Neil Young had a freaking thing to do with Grunge other than just being a washed up baby boomer that saw a chance to reinvent himself and try and make himself relevant to Generation X.

        • Just saw this now so I’m responding a bit late… I grew up a couple of hours away from Seattle, and I am a musician who is just a bit younger than the ones on this list so I don’t need the music history lesson and I’m not brainwashed by the media – I was there.

          I agree that grunge didn’t just “suddenly burst from Kurt Cobain’s forehead” but I’m not sure how that is an argument against Neil Young’s title as the godfather of grunge – it only backs up the idea that grunge was a music style that emerged from musicians who shared various circumstances and influences. One of them was Neil Young. No doubt Husker Du, as well as many other bands and musicians, were influences but I don’t think Bob Mould fits the godfather role since he was busy putting out albums with his band Sugar at the time. He seemed like more of a contemporary than an older generation. Same with Thurston Moore. I own a copy of loudQuietloud and I’m not sure why you’re recommending it – I don’t remember it covering this topic or do you consider the Pixies grunge? As for Michael Stipe or that bald guy from Midnight Oil – godfather’s of grunge? I don’t think so. Lou Reed is an alternative thanks to his Velvet Underground and Metal Machine Music noisiness – but I prefer Young.

          I seem to recall that Neil Young wasn’t pointed out as the ‘godfather’ of grunge until after the fact, when everyone was so interested in dissecting grunge – and I’m sure lots of people don’t agree. However, I think grunge’s popularity opened a younger generations’ ears to his music and I think that is wonderful, because I respect his talent and because I am a fellow Canadian. (Happy Canada Day!)

        • Tanya, I am not trying to label anyone as “the Godfather of Grunge” I am pointing out that Grunge evolved from many different sources.

          Yes, I agree that Neil Young influenced Grunge, but to call him the Godfather of Grunge or to say he is one of the greatest Grunge guitarists would be like saying Les Paul is the Godfather of Rockabilly. While they both influenced the movement there is such a generational gap between the two that you cannot draw a direct line. In fact the album that Neil Young released during the 90s that I remember was Harvest Moon a country/ folk album. You can get to Grunge from Neil Young but to get there you have to go through the Velvet Underground, the Punk Movement, The New wave movement, the hardcore movement, the college radio movement until you finally get to grunge. Neil Young is more the great grandfather of grunge than the god father.
          But MTV chose to label him the godfather of grunge and people accepted it as fact. (Except for those of us who were listening to College Radio and knew better) It was in 93 when Young performed his UnPlugged show on MTV that they labeled him the Godfather of Grunge.

          Why did I reference Loud Quiet Loud? Because if you pay attention to the Pixies and then you listen to Nirvana you will see the loud quiet loud structure, that Nirvana made it huge with, being done 5-10 years before Nirvana, by the Pixies. Do I consider the Pixies Grunge? No, they were college radio.

          Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to take anything away from Neil Young (except this fake title) he is a great musician, he is a better lyricist than 90% of the music world, he can even sing passably. But God father of grunge…. No…. (And happy belated Canada Day, Have a Molson Golden on me)

        • Paul, I just reread our comments, and I notice we both agree that grunge evolved from many different sources and we both are not convinced that Neil Young is the ‘godfather.’ We both also agree that he is a great musician and that he did influence Grunge to some extent (I refer to him as grunge’s older Canadian cousin and you say he is more like the great grandfather of grunge). I was just saying he is widely accepted as the godfather so I wasn’t surprised to see him on this writer’s list.

          I found the inclusion of the Living Color guitarist much more shocking. I’m not saying they weren’t influential – but grunge? Really? I also don’t consider Smashing Pumpkins or Radiohead grunge (some of their songs may be grungy but overall, no I don’t think so). They were just part of the musical landscape at the time, so would have influenced each other. If we’re going to discount Neil Young, I think these bands should be taken off the list too. Grunge replacements: Eric Erlandson, Donita Sparks, Mark Lanegan, Steve Turner…

  7. Soundgarden,Mudhoney and Nirvana are by far the greatests and most influential grunge nads of the early 90's and Kim Thayil is the best grunge guitarist…oh yeah and Kurt Cobain

  8. Kurt Cobain didn't create grunge. He was responsible for popularizing it and making it a mainstream commodity (as well as an intensely idiosyncratic), kind of like what Elvis did for R&B in the mid 1950's.

  9. Kurt Cobain was mote then just a guitarist. He's not a brilliant guitarist. There's so many better than him but he was a good 1. He was the voice of a generation. Kurt was 1 of the best singers of all time. There is no one who can scream their head off and make it sound so good. He wasn't a sellout!

  10. Kurt Cobain was the most brilliant Grunge song writer…and he did so on his guitar so yeah..he's a gutiar God..His rythm playing and chording is excellent. But if you're evaluating overall technical proficiency than Kim Thayil wins hands down.

  11. grunge wasnt about how cool guitar solos you could make in a song, and half of these guitarists are not grunge. good effort though

  12. For the love of the English Language, can you PLEASE proofread these things before they are published? I could hardly get through some of these descriptions for the grammar and spelling errors! Look, I know it's about grunge guitarists, but COME ON!

  13. As much of a fan i am of Nirvana he really was a pretty bad guitarist… yes he influenced a lot of other bands but people who actually PLAY the guitar no how badly he played it. So badly that its hard to get the same sound… it was sloppy which made it sound good. Cobain actually said in an interview that he cant play guitar well at all. I repeat COBAIN SAID HE CANT PLAY GUITAR….. so to the people going on and on about how much of an awesome guitarist he was learn guitar first. He was influential but still a really bad guitar player…..

  14. This list is total BS. Pat smear is NOWHERE on any Nirvana record. He was hired to play rhythm guitar for the In Utero tour. THAT’S IT! He isn’t “responsibly for ANYTHING on any of their records. Give me a break…how pathetic. The least you could do is a little research.

    • noone said anything of contributing. He was still in the band and would have continued to be if kurt hadn’t died, are seriously that retarded and incase you didnt know he was in a band called ‘the germs’ aswell which are awesomely influencial in their own right

  15. Wow…this is…this is just…poorly done. No J. Mascis? Not even an honorable mention? A best Grunge Guitarist list and no J Mascis…what is this world coming to…
    This list is invalidated until this horrendous wrong has been righted.

  16. People needs to realize the difference between Kurt Cobain the songwriter and Kurt Cobain the guitarist. We can’t argue what Kurt did for music, but qualifying him as a better guitarist above Mike McCready, Jerry Cantrell, Kim Thayil and Johnny Greenwood takes away all the credibility on this list.

    • Thanks for finally stating what I thought was obvious. Cobain was a mediocre guitarist at best, and the fact Nirvana were the most popular Grunge band does not mean he was one of the best guitarists. I’m shocked to see Mike McCready 8th: he’s so underrated – the Alive solo is an all-time great and he never produced a bad riff.

      Besides, calling Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins and Living Colour Grunge is a distinction made only to serve the purposes of this list. You could put Steve Turner and Dean DeLeo to compensate that.

  17. first Cobain sucks at guitar, second greenwood is a way better musician than any one on this list incuding Neil young , third Neil young is still the man but unfortunately is not grunge

  18. AWFUL LIST!

    Kurt Cobain better than Jerry Cantrell?! ARE YOU INSANE!?! Billy Corgan is on this list, not James Iha?! Radiohead is grunge? And In Living Color, too? Did you forget Kirk Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, or are you just a fool?

    The ONLY thing you did right was put Neil Young at #1, because he’s one of the best guitarists in so many, many ways that has ever graced the Earth. But it’s clear that you did it just to be a music snob.

    Seriously, this is a really awful list. I know we all have our opinions, but this is really, really bad.

  19. This list is ridiculous. First of all, Grunge was an invention of the media… something to write about and hype up. That being said, there WAS legitimate reason for much of the hype at the time; regardless of how you want to brand “the movement”. The great thing about “Grunge” IMO was that it spelled the end for glitzy glam rock, and spawned musicians that were less interested in how they looked on stage.

    I’ve always been a Nirvana fan, and i can appreciate what the band did for music — i HATE most hair metal of the 80’s aside from Van Halen and a few guilty pleasures — but anybody who actually plays guitar would NEVER, ever rate him ahead of a Kim Thayill or Mike McCready.

    McCready can cover Jimi Hendrix and make it sound just as good or even better than the original, Kurt Cobain was a great songwriter but he could NEVER do that. We are talking about technical guitar playing here… not fanboy worship. And please, with such a poor list you’re going to go history-snob on us and put Neil Young at NUMBER ONE??? Please….

    PS- since when was Radiohead “Grunge”?? I’ve never even heard of the connection ever before… i have heard Smashing Pumpkins lumped in the with Grunge scene but aside from timing, they weren’t really Grunge, and i love SP but they were just a thing of their own (still closer to the genre than Radiohead).

  20. Kurt Cobain at number two?If it was a list of influential guitarists then I could understand it but Kurt was a limited guitarist, good song writer but nothing special on the guitar!

  21. Mudhoney fan on

    Steve Turner/Mark Arm or Tad Doyle at no. 1 for me. Just as I Tad and Mudhoney truly defined that sound in the late 80’s I think before messing about with it and moving further into a garage-rock/psych/punk direction in Mudhoney’s case and a hugely heavy metal-punk hybrid in Tad’s case. (Then Brothers of the Sonic Cloth veer into Sludge/Doom territory)
    King Buzzo should also be higher. The Melvins took the slowed down punk of “My war”-later era Black Flag to the next level. As for godfather of grunge; surely Ron Asheton? Groundhogs Tony McPhee also has some insanely dirty grungy riffs, (Neil Young with Crazy Horse has some pretty intense grungy moments right enough but Neil Young as an artist was a chameleon- (maybe not to the same extent as someone like David Bowie) but he played around with folk, acoustic balladry, jazz inspired improvisations, rock n’ roll, country and hard rock…even a brief electro phase. His first band Buffalo Springfield are just something else, too. The dreamlike “Expecting to Fly” is like heaven, musically as far as I’m concerned)
    Sometimes I feel the problem with the supposed genre (media creation or otherwise), “grunge”, is what exactly constitutes “grunge”? Is it a guitar sound/ recording aesthetic/ what? Much of the records associated with grunge are actually quite polished records. Bands like Kyuss have a much grungier sound than the early 90’s “big 4” (much as I very much like those bands) Their churning, gutsy sound, both in terms of the guitar sound and recordings, are like the equivalent of what Blue Cheer could sound like if they started in the 90s.
    Just my two quid… cents.. or whatever the GBP/USD conversion rate is these days(!)

  22. Jimmy Scott on

    Whoever wrote this or was the so-called editor did an amazing job eh? No I’m not being sarcastic at all. Couldn’t spot one single spelling mistake or grammatical error. Pure genius.

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