15 Britpop guitar heroes who shook up the UK in the '90s

[L-R] Graham Coxon, Noel Gallagher, Jonny Greenwood and Miki Berenyi
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The '90s is a time often associated with grunge, family sitcoms, and guilty pleasure pop music.

Dialing back, though, you'll find a time when groups from across the UK made their respective marks on an evolving scene. And though not always apparent on the surface, one of the most magical aspects of the indie/Britpop era was the guitar work.

Some focused on the cascading rhythms of '80s college rock, while others harkened back to '70s-inspired blues rock. And some brave souls amalgamated their style and influences so deeply that entirely new soundscapes were formed, reshaping our notions of what we thought we knew musically.

The '90s UK scene had many contenders – below, we're dialing back to 15 indie/Britpop guitar heroes who shook up the UK in the '90s.

15. Adam Devlin (The Bluetones)

As one of the lesser heralded six-stringers of his era, Adam Devlin formed a symbiotic partnership with The Bluetones frontman and vocalist Mark Morriss. The Bluetones' first two records, Expecting to Fly (1996) and Return to the Last Chance Saloon (1998), are sweet slices of Britpop heaven, yielding the Hounslow-based group major chart success.

Devlin pulled no punches in lionizing his heroes through his chiming chord progressions and sing-song approach to the guitar. After closing shop in 2011, The Bluetones reformed in 2015 and have performed on and off since.

14. Mark Day (Happy Mondays)

Madchester scene legends Happy Mondays aren't exactly known as a ”guitar group” per se, but peel back the onion, and it's plain to see that guitarist Mark Day's contributions are constitutive, nonetheless. In the case of Day, the best way to describe his importance to Mondays' psychedelic blend would be “structural”.

The group fancied themselves as a musical tornado, with an aim to get people up and dancing. To that end, Day laid the bedrock for a cataclysm of samples, vocalizations, and keyboards that would define the iconic group's music. Anyone who has heard 1990's Pills' n' Thrills and Bellyaches understands the magic of Happy Mondays. And Mark Day is at the epicenter of the madness.

13. Donna Matthews (Elastica)

Sadly, the wonder that was Elastica lasted for only two records, Elastica (1995) and The Menace (2000), but their impact is everlasting. A sublime blend of Britpop, punk rock, and post-punk, Elastica personified “cool” by every measurable output. At the heart of the chaos was red-haired firecracker, Donna Matthews.

Never one to take an excessive solo, it was Matthews' punk chords and whip-smart songwriting that would catapult the group to early success. However, luck wouldn't smile on Elastica for long, with drugs taking a toll on Matthews, leading to her departure in 1998. Matthews has kept a low profile since, with her recent output being restricted to improvisational music uploaded via YouTube.

12. Graham Lambert (Inspiral Carpets)

As a critical cog in the late-'80s alternative dance scene, the Inspiral Carpets were early purveyors of what was to come. By 1990, the Carpets had made waves with Life, and it was with that head of steam that they careened into the decade with The Beast Inside (1991) and their magnum opus, Revenge of the Goldfish (1992).

Lambert's atmospheric chord stylings and heavy riffing showcased an alternative approach to that of scene mates Happy Mondays, which would prove authoritative over a bustling musical movement. After two more records, the Carpets folded their tent in 2016, and Lambert has been mostly quiet since.

11. Debbie Smith (Echobelly)

After lending her talents to shoegaze outfit Curve, guitarist Debbie Smith joined vocalist Sonya Madan at Echobelly's onset in 1994. Smith's soaring vocals were accented to perfection by Smith's heavy, sidewinding approach to the guitar.

Known for sporting a Fender Jaguar, Smith provided textural layering, intertwining her string strokes with Madan's vocals to spellbinding results. At the height of their fame, Everyone's Got One (1994), and On (1995) were big hits in the UK. In the years since, Echobelly continues, but sadly, Smith no longer drives its engine.

10. Steve Cradock (Ocean Colour Scene)

Best known for their 1996 record Moseley Shoals, Solihull veterans Ocean Colour Scene are one of the few survivors of the Britpop era. But none of that would have been possible without the diverse talents of guitarist Steve Cradock.

A rare breed who could ably shift from sparse indie chord progressions to beefy, blues-rock riffing, Cradock gave Ocean Colour Scene free hand to cover multiple genres throughout each album. Since the group's inception, Ocean Colour Scene has never wavered – even when not releasing new music – and Steve Cradock has been a massive part of the band's longterm stability.

9. Miki Berenyi (Lush)

If you're going to feast your ears on one record leaning more toward the dream pop and shoegaze side of the era, Lush's sprawling 1992 affair Spooky is a great place to start. As a vocalist, Miki Berenyi is an ace in the hole whose angelic musings will send you into the ultimate dream state. But her luxuriant fretwork ultimately set Lush apart in their heyday.

Known to brandish anything from a Gibson Flying V to an ES-335 12-string, Berenyi is the complete package. As a linchpin of the “alt-girl” movement, Berenyi influenced droves of young women to vocalize their emotions through bursts of six-string fury. While Lush is no more, Berenyi has just released her memoir, Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me from Success. If you've got the time, it's must-read stuff.

8. Russell Senior (Pulp)

The musical kinship between Jarvis Cocker and guitarist/violinist Russell Senior was undoubtedly apparent, culminating in what's generally regarded as one of the decade's finest records, Different Class (1995). And so, it was no surprise that after Senior took his angular, Fender-driven approach with him in 1997, Pulp was never the same.

Another example of a guitarist who was never much for a solo, Senior excelled at building complex, post-punk-inspired song structures accented by thoughtful riffs. While Senior did participate in Pulp's 2011-2012 tour, as it stands today, he will not be joining Cocker for Pulp's recently announced reformation.

7. PJ Harvey

As a prodigious songwriter and a talented multi-instrumentalist, PJ Harvey has always seemed most comfortable with a guitar in her hands. Since the release of 1992's Dry, Harvey has been a supernova, colliding with adoring fans' eardrums in an implosion of alt-rock glory via cool Britannica.

As a defiant female presence among a vast sea of male guitar machismo, Harvey carved out a path for those who wanted something different and maybe slightly weird. Unafraid to combine genres, Harvey has laid her contralto-ranged vocals on the top of some of the decade's finest tracks and continues to grace stages in the same manner to this day.

6. Nick McCabe (The Verve)

Easily one of the '90s' most gifted guitar personalities, Nick McCabe played sideman to Richard Ashcroft for most of The Verve's iconic moments. Aloof by nature, McCabe made his talents known via The Verve's music, starring across stellar efforts A Storm in Heaven (1993), A Northern Soul (1995), and Urban Hymns (1997).

Deploying a combination of Les Pauls, Stratocasters, and Jaguars, McCabe straddled multiple genres – sometimes within the confines of one song – seamlessly merging shoegaze, alt-rock, and modern psych to fabulous results. 

While McCabe often stands motionless, the sounds he elicits are nothing short of memorable. Ashcroft and McCabe would bury the hatchet in 2007 following professional differences, leading to 2008's Forth. But old tensions halted things once more in 2009.

5. Bernard Butler (Suede)

Though only a member of Suede during the band's formative years, Butler lent a hand to their first two records. Generally regarded as one of the UK's finest players, Butler's unique tone, iconic vibrato, willingness to experiment, and silky-smooth fretwork not only defined but created the sound of Suede.

While he left the band before its most significant commercial success, it's plain to see that Suede (1993) and Dog Man Star (1994) are Suede's finest hours. More so, it's not a stretch to say that Suede doesn't exist as it stands today without Butler's Gibson ES-355-inspired influence. Butler continues to lend his talents to various projects but has never returned to Suede since his 1994 departure.

4. John Squire (The Stone Roses)

John Squire proved a throwback in an era not always associated with old-school guitar heroes. With a Gibson Les Paul effortlessly slung over his shoulder, the amiable six-stringer was a perfect foil to The Stone Roses' enigmatic lead vocalist, Ian Brown.

As early combers to a rising scene, Squire showed his meddle, covering everything from baggy, alt dance, and Big Star-inspired indie rock on the Roses' 1989 self-titled debut and 1994's Second Coming

With the Roses folding in 1996, Squire next lent his licks to The Seahorses, recording Do it Yourself in 1997. These days, Squire focuses on his artwork, but he occasionally pops up for air on the musical side of things as he sees fit.

3. Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead)

Never afraid to adapt his style as the musical situation sees fit, Johnny Greenwood has long been heralded as one of the finest players of his generation. As the de facto lead guitarist of Radiohead – a mantle he sometimes shares with Ed O'Brien – Greenwood is responsible for some of the group's fiercest guitar-driven moments, as well as many of its most off-the-beaten-path compositions.

While records such as The Bends (1995) and OK Computer (1997) paint a picture of an iconic guitar god, Greenwood's work on Kid A (2000) and In Rainbows (2007) reflect a restless virtuoso entirely unwilling to stagnate. 

Radiohead have been quiet of late, but lately, Greenwood's focus has been on crafting new material with Thom Yorke in The Smile, as well as composing movie scores. For the curious, the soundtrack to 2007 flick There Will Be Blood is just one of many standout moments in Greenwood's ever-evolving career.

2. Noel Gallagher (Oasis)

By no means a virtuoso, the era's most prolific songwriter is an able guitarist in his own right. Gallagher made up for it, though, with brazen swagger, a cocksure attitude, and a massive catalog of legendary songs left in his wake. 

Harboring an intuitive ability to untether lyrical solos seemingly on a dime, Gallagher's Union Jack Epiphone Supernova was never louder than on Definitely Maybe (1994), (What's the Story) Morning Glory (1995), and 1997's cocaine-fueled oeuvre Be Here Now.

Though Oasis ended in an explosive ball of fury in 2009, leaving fans forever “mad fer it”, The Chief is still at it with his High Flying Birds. From both a musical and aesthetic perspective, Gallagher was a tour de force that quite literally defined '90s era Britpop. While he will never be mistaken for the era's most gifted axe-slinger, when it comes to songwriting, Noel Gallagher has no equal.

1. Graham Coxon (Blur)

A profoundly dexterous multi-instrumentalist, Coxon was initially thrust into the role of Blur's guitarist purely out of need. Coxon's lo-fi approach fashioned a musical mosaic laden with chimes of shimmering six-string bells, noisy flourishes, and downright weird bursts of angular art-rock. 

While unafraid to take a solo, don't expect conventional tropes: no, Coxon uses his time in the limelight to induce over-amplified colorways of disruptive pandemonium.

Partially responsible for some of the most exotic records of the Britpop era in Modern Life is Rubbish (1993), Parklife (1994), and The Great Escape (1995), Coxon is dissimilar to his contemporaries in aptitude and temperament. Blur reformed in 2009, and in addition to his art and solo work, Coxon continues to imprint his brand of Telecaster-bred whimsy on the group to this day.

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Andrew Daly

Andrew Daly is a contributing writer at Guitar World, a staff writer for Copper and Rock Candy Magazine, and a steady contributor for Goldmine Magazine. In 2019, Andrew founded VWMusic, a successful outlet that covers music in all its forms. A guitar junkie at heart, Andrew is proud to have interviewed favorites including Joe Perry, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Steve Vai, Richie Ranno, Brian May, and many more. Some of his favorite bands are KISS, Oasis, Spread Eagle, and Starz.