Compared with the technicolor explosion that was the '80s, which featured hot-rodded guitars and equally hair-brained technicians at the helm, the '90s represented something of a sullen dream state.
The grunge explosion resulted in six-strings that carried a different vibe. They were a bit angrier, more battered and throaty yet shimmering. From Corgan to Greenwood, to Hetfield to Gallagher, in their own way, guitars of the '90s packed a memorable punch to the gut.
In celebration of the splintered, duality-laced vortex that was the guitar space in the '90s, we're running through 10 guitars that defined the decade.
- For more '90s nostalgia, check out the latest issue of Guitar World, which celebrates a huge decade for guitar music – available now from Magazines Direct.
1. Billy Corgan's Fender Stratocaster ‘Bat Strat’
Billy Corgan played a few notable guitars in the '90s, but considering he once said he'd like to be buried with his ‘Bat Strat’, we'll give his well-loved '57 Fender reissue number one status.
Boasting three Lace Sensor pups and a hand-poured silver finish, it's not hard to see why Corgan took to it so quickly during the Pumpkins heyday aka, the Gish, Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness era. Other notable characteristics include an alder body and a maple neck with a '50s rounded profile, making the Bat Strat a hefty and poetically noisy beast.
2. Jonny Greenwood's Fender ‘Version 1’ Telecaster Plus
Jonny Greenwood's mid-'90s-era Tele Plus may be his most well-known, but it was not his first. Before he came upon the soon-to-be-scruffy sunburst that appeared on landmark albums including The Bends and OK Computer, Greenwood had two Tele Plus models that he used interchangeably.
The first, an early '90s model in sunburst, bore a peace sign sticker and was fitted with Lace Sensor pups, and the second was a Tele Plus equipped with a rare Ebony Frost finish. Sadly, both were stolen in 1995, leading to the Version 1 Tele Plus – also outfitted with Lace Sensor pups – that Greenwood still uses quite often. (Side-note: Greenwood was miraculously reunited with his Ebony Frost Tele in 2015.)
3. James Hetfield's ESP MX220 ‘Fuk Em Up’
James Hetfield began using ESP MX220s in '88, the first of which was white and named ‘Eet Fuk’. How cute. Then again, we're talking about a man who called his Jackson King V ‘Kill Bon Jovi’... Later, during Metallica's polarizing Load and Reload era, Hetfield adopted an MX250 named ‘Elk Skull’.
But before that, Hetfield's black MX220, aka ‘Fuk Em Up’, featured heavily on the …And Justice for All tour, and would become part of the arsenal of ESP MX220s that would fuel the sound of 1991's Black Album. Fitted with all-black kit and EMG active pickups, it's easy to visualize Hetfield pummeling its low E string within an inch of its life.
4. Nuno Bettencourt's Washburn N4
As far as heroes of '90s shred go, few did it better than Nuno Bettencourt. Given his flamboyance and let-it-all-hang-out attitude, it's more than a touch surprising that Bettencourt's signature Washburn N4 has such a seemingly simple appearance. But, of course, appearances can be deceiving.
In truth, Bettencourt's natural-colored curio is a beast fitted with two humbucking pups, a floating tremolo and a Stephens Extended Cutaway enhanced bolt-on neck for shred-happy types to go buck wild with. And Nuno did just that… and continues to today.
5. Billie Joe Armstrong's Fernandes S-Style 'Blue'
If we dial back to Green Day's quintessential Dookie era, you'd find Billie Joe Armstrong with an off-the-beaten-path and very punk-rock Fernandes S-Series Strat copy often slung over his shoulder.
Sure, it might have been a copy, but Fernandes made some excellent gateway instruments over the years. And it seems Armstrong, in between the bouts of angsty laconism, knew as much. Or maybe he just thought it looked cool, plastered some stickers on it and called it a day.
Regardless, its sizzling pair of Seymour Duncan JP humbuckers allowed Green Day to ride the success of songs like Basket Case, Longview and Welcome to Paradise to '90s glory and beyond.
6. Eddie Van Halen's Music Man EVH ‘5150’
Edward Van Halen's 'Frankenstrat' surely changed rock music forever. But that didn't stop Eddie from veering into territories unknown in the early '90s, ushering in the Ernie Ball Music Man EVH.
There is tons of footage of Van Halen holding his amber-orange-colored 5150 Music Man during various music videos and shows during the '90s. And it's with good reason, as the Music Man EVH is as comfortable as it is snazzy.
Reportedly, Eddie's toggle switch was moved to the center for easy access, a custom body contour was added and a wider neck was adopted to prevent string slippage, making the Music Man EVH a worthy companion for King Edward.
7. Dimebag Darrell's Dean ML ‘Dean from Hell’
The story goes that Dimebag Darrell won his legendary 1981 Dean ML – which he would later name the ‘Dean from Hell’ – in a contest that same year. Owning a Dean was Dime's dream; for young Dime, at least, dreams do come true.
But before the guitar could be anointed the Dean from Hell, its garish maroon-colored body would have to be remedied. That didn't happen until a few years later when local luthier Buddy Blaze – who had temporarily purchased the guitar from Dime so he could buy a Pontiac Firebird – repainted the guitar and fitted it with a Floyd Rose and gifted it back to Dime.
From then on, the Dean from Hell was Dime's main squeeze, starring on albums like Cowboys from Hell and Vulgar Display of Power.
8. Noel Gallagher Epiphone Sheraton ‘Union Jack’
From day one, Noel Gallagher's British pride was fully displayed with Oasis. And that's fair enough, considering the guy crafted some of the best tunes this side of the Beatles. But Gallagher wasn't just Oasis' primary songwriter; ‘The Chief’ was also the cocksure Manchester group's lead guitarist. And with his oodles of swagger, it shouldn't be surprising that one of his main axes was a '96 Epiphone Sheraton repainted with a Union Jack.
Gallagher's ‘Union Jack’ Sheraton is instantly recognizable, but it sounded killer, too. Like Gallagher's style, his Sheraton kept it simple, featuring two mini-humbucking pups and a classy Frequensator tailpiece. Later, Epiphone released a custom line based on the Gallagher Sheraton called the Supernova, featuring regular humbuckers and a stop-style tailpiece.
9. Tom Morello's Performance Guitar USA ‘Arm the Homeless’
Somewhere between jamming in a garage band with Adam Jones and packing up and moving out west, Tom Morello asked Performance Guitar USA to make him a custom guitar. For the uninitiated, Performance Guitar USA's owner, Kenny Sugai, had previously built guitars for Frank Zappa and Steve Vai, so he was no chump.
But much to Sugai's chagrin, Morello was unhappy, and he began modifying it to the point that the only original component left today is its alder body. As such, Morello's blue ‘Arm the Homeless’ guitar is said to have featured dozens of pickups, necks and tremolos. But these days, it has a Fathead sustain plate fastened to the back of the neck, EMG pickups, a Floyd Rose and a Les Paul-style three-way switch used as a trademark kill switch.
10. Kurt Cobain's '65 Fender Jaguar
As the unwilling face of the grunge movement, Kurt Cobain flipped the script in the early '90s, and he did so – for the most part – with his trusty ’65 Fender Jaguar in hand.
Cobain's Jag is all over 1991's Nevermind, appeared during Nirvana's performance on SNL in '92, and was in Cobain's hands during the band's 1992 headlining performance at Reading Festival. So, yeah, you could say the guitar was an important part of Nirvana's world domination.
As far as how Cobain obtained this sacred talisman, the word is that he found it through an ad in the L.A. Recycler in '91. The guitar's unusual mixture of weird mods (like DiMarzio humbuckers and a three-position toggle rather than slide-switches) and non-period correct specs (like its seemingly custom neck), continue to intrigue players – as they did Kurt – to this day.