20+ grunge guitar heroes who took the instrument in a raw, heavy new direction

Grunge guitarists
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The proverbial bullet to the gut of hair metal? Or a drastic musical shakeup that rock music so badly needed? Three decades on after the release of Nirvana's Nevermind, fans and critics alike are still posing those questions.

Sure, everyone has an opinion, but ultimately, the answer is subjective and, in many ways, meaningless under the lens of retrospection. Say what you will, but grunge changed the game in every way imaginable. Gone were the days of pouty lipstick-caked faces, rosy cheeks, and empty cans of Aqua Net, and in were combat boots, dark glasses, and swathes of flannel.

Perspective is everything, and there's no doubt that '80s rock soldiers probably hated watching their careers hit a brick wall. But the grunge movement provided much-needed emotive dissonance to a superficial music scene. Or maybe the world was waiting for something to give them an excuse to swap uncomfortable fishnets and spandex for more reasonable jeans and flannel shirts.

Jokes aside, music is cyclical, and you can't blame the cast of characters who carried grunge out for taking their ride on the rock 'n' roll carousel. In many ways, the '80s was the most colorful era in rock history, defined by guitar gymnastics, stunting wizardry, and presto pick work.

But in the '90s, guitarists hung on to their hearts' desires, creating soundscapes that would make any glam rock veteran flush with indignation.

As with any era, the decade of supposed depression and disillusionment harbored its fair share of golden guitar talent. What follows are 20-plus – plus, because there are plenty of guitar duos to follow – '90s guitar heroes who set the stage for grunge rock.

20. Kerry Green (Dickless)

Abrasive in nature but sporadic in output, Dickless managed to put out a handful of singles and appear on several Sub Pop compilations in the '90s.

An inspiration to would-be female six-stringers and a purveyor of the riot grrrl movement, Green's snarling licks are essential, potent and poignant.

19. Clark Vogeler (Toadies)

Clark Vogeler's muscular yet hooky energy didn't enter the Toadies fold until 1996, and played a significant role in 2001's financial fiasco turned cult classic Hell Below/Stars Above

After their 2001 breakup, Toadies reunited in 2006, and Vogeler has hung around ever since. Known for his black Fender Jaguar, Vogler is an energetic live performer and is about as solid as it gets when it comes to tried and true grunge guitar.

18. Stefanie Sargent (7 Year Bitch)

Many of grunge rock's greatest heroes are sad cases of being gone too soon, and Stefanie Sargent is no exception. As not only a founding member of 7 Year Bitch, aka Seattle's nastiest all-girl group, Sargent also proved pivotal to their debut, Sick 'Em

Sargent deployed a distinctly primal approach to the guitar. Sadly, she would overdose before the release of Sick' Em, but her legacy lives on through a sound she aided in creating.

17. Kevin Whitworth (Love Battery)

Known for his love of the Fender Jaguar, Kevin Whitworth's blending of indie, psych, and alt-rock found Love Battery as relative early comers to a burgeoning grunge rock scene. 

Many fans will cite 1992's Dayglo as the Sub Pop staples' finest hour, but the headbanging Between the Eyes is the best entry point for the adventurous. If you love gut-punching guitar that leans oddly psychedelic, Whitworth is one to become familiar with.

16. Kat Bjelland (Babes in Toyland)

With a Rickenbacker 425 in hand, Kat Bjelland rode Babes in Toyland to grunge infamy in the '90s. Known for an unusual vocal style, including shrill screams, huffing whispers, and speaking in tongues, Bjelland's approach to the guitar also set her apart from the pack.

Anyone who has heard Spanking Machine (1990) or Fontanelle (1992) will recall the textural smorgasbords of broken-glass tones and piercing wails akin to a night spent in a psych ward. Bjelland was one of the '90s most singular six-stringers.

15. Gary Thorstensen/Tad Doyle (Tad)

Tad has long been a trendy pick for the "most underrated" grunge-era band, so the inclusion of the group's guitar duo, Gary Thorstensen and Tad Doyle, might not come with much shock and awe. And the pair was in lockstep with one another throughout the group's decade-long journey, with 1993's Inhaler perhaps punching in as their finest hour.

Combining elements of sludge, metal, and alt-rock to perfection, Tad's take on grunge was undoubtedly unique. But without Thorstensen and Doyle's hook-filled, pile-driving licks, none of that would have been possible. And we certainly wouldn't be remembering them with such ex-post facto fondness today.

14. Eric Erlandson/Courtney Love (Hole)

Courtney Love is an icon of the '90s grunge movement. With her Candy Apple Red Rickenbacker 360 lazily slung over her shoulder and her leg perpetually perched up top of the nearest amp, her stage presence is iconic.

Though willingly overshadowed, co-guitarist Eric Erlandson's Fender-powered licks will forever be remembered through the duality of Love's laconic glory versus her perpetual infamy.

13. Jack Endino (Skin Yard)

It would be too easy to boil Jack Endino's exploits down to his production work with the likes of Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and Nirvana. And while his work behind the boards is integral to the history of grunge, we'd be remiss if we didn't make light of his nimble fretwork as the guitarist of Skin Yard, too. 

Skin Yard are often forgotten within the genre's canon, and while all of their records are very good, their 1987 self-titled debut was great. Accented by Endino's sublime combination of art rock, post-punk, and neo-psych-inspired guitar, Skin Yard was a tour de force unlike any other. And without it, Endino might not have had the cache to enter the production world as he did.

12. Nigel Pulsford/Gavin Rossdale (Bush)

Grunge isn't often associated with the UK, but that didn't stop Wales native Nigel Pulsford from making his mark. Sporting an array of Gibsons and Fenders, Pulsford provided a profoundly melodic and brawny counterpart to Bush's heartthrob-with-a-dark-side frontman Gavin Rossdale.

As the co-author of some of the '90s most iconic albums, including the monumental Sixteen Stone (1994), Pulsford and Rossdale's distinctive tones proved that it wasn't just Seattle that could churn out hard-edged magic.

11. Gary Lee Conner (Screaming Trees)

Perched alongside legendary vocalist Mark Lanegan, Gary Lee Conner provided a touch of contemporay grunge context to the age-old singer/guitarist dynamic, parlaying his folk and neo-psych-inspired musings into a ball of kinetic fury that propelled Screaming Trees to new heights in the '90s.

Conner's daring musical journey with the Screaming Trees began with 1986's Clairvoyance and escalated through a kaleidoscope of genres, finally reaching its breaking point with the supernova of undying light, Dust (1996). Conner is a unique talent whose approach to guitar is intrinsically tied to his songwriting. As such, it's hard to account for one without appreciating the other.

10. Donita Sparks/Suzi Gardner (L7)

With links to the riot grrrl movement and steeped in punk feedback, the defiantly all-female quartet L7 served as one of the grunge era's most influential groups. With a shared ear for a sledgehammer riff, Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner's gender-neutral bombast left the competition with few words and pains in the gut.

From a stylistic perspective, Sparks and Gardner were raw and unforgiving, mixing punk and sludge to bone-crushing results.

9. Steve Turner/Mark Arm (Mudhoney)

Steve Turner and Mark Arm's importance to the Seattle grunge scene is unique in that it can be measured through their exploits in both Green River and Mudhoney. Along with few others, Turner is one of the earliest grunge traders, with Green River's 1985 EP Come on Down often considered the first grunge record. 

But Turner and Arm didn't stop there, and just a few short years later, their punk-inspired approach appeared with Mudhoney on their uber-influential debut Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988), named after the pedals the pair used to craft their scuzzed-up sonic bombast.

8. Stone Gossard (Green River/Mother Love Bone/Pearl Jam)

The lion's share of the credit for Pearl Jam's guitar success is heaped upon the shoulders of Stone Gossard's counterpart Mike McCready. And while McCready is great (we'll cover him later), Gossard provides the bedrock and songsmith for grunge's greatest band. But before he was a member of Pearl Jam, Gossard was an integral part of Seattle staples Green River and Mother Love Bone. 

As a founding father of grunge and all it stands for, Gossard is a pillar of the genre. His approach to the guitar is tribal and rhythmic, but it's his quintessential songwriting chops that make him iconic.

7. Billy Corgan/James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins)

One part voice box, one part shred-head, Billy Corgan combined Van Halen worship and indie rock obsession, presenting them as a brazen ball of violent anger known as the Smashing Pumpkins. With a propensity to leave himself vulnerable through bouts of volatility, Corgan's guitar buddy James Iha was essential. Iha aided the mad scientist in making his rage-filled solos possible by laying down a steady rhythm. 

Still, Corgan claims that Iha played "very little guitar" on records like Gish (1991) and Siamese Dream (1993), so it's hard to measure his studio contributions. But one thing is for sure: Corgan couldn't have carried out his grand vision in the '90s live setting without James Iha.

6. Buzz Osborne (Melvins)

It's easy to misconstrue Buzz Osborne's aloof nature and chippy attitude as an aversion to commercial success. Truth be told, Osborne and his band, the Melvins, had all the talent in the world but no interest in the sameness that the MTV era afforded.

Sure, Osborne had his moment(s) in the mainstream limelight with Houdini (1993), Stoner Witch (1994), and Stag (1996), and make no mistake, those records are essential. But since then, the crazy-haired axe-slinger has spent his time delivering bullet-to-the-heart daggers via amplified indifference. It takes a moment to "get" Osborne's off-kilter approach, but we promise you'll love him forever once you do.

5. Dean DeLeo (Stone Temple Pilots)

It's a fact that Dean DeLeo is the co-author of two of the greatest guitar records of all time, Core (1992) and Purple (1994). And if DeLeo had stopped there, he would have scrawled his name in red ink across grunge folklore. 

But over the last 30-odd years, his Les Paul-toting ways have seen him log many miles as a dyed-in-the-wool guitar god. Yes, the Stone Temple Pilots are one of grunge's more divisive bands, but with DeLeo's '70s-inspired heroics, their music is nothing short of memorable.

4. Mike McCready (Pearl Jam, Mad Season)

In an era that's not defined by 'traditional' guitar heroes, Pearl Jam's Mike McCready is a throwback. Unafraid to wear his classic rock influences on his sleeve (oh, hello, Ace Frehley), McCready's soulful yet frenetic reflections are a thing of captivating beauty. 

On the flip side of that coin, McCready stretched out for one glorious record of jazz and arena rock-influenced mastery with Mad Season. Looking back, it's undeniable that many – if not most – of the era's many iconic solos were executed by McCready. If that's not a testament to his staying power, then we don't know what is.

3. Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains)

The rarified air that Alice in Chains founder Jerry Cantrell resides in is only rivaled by the splendor of the music he created. As one of the grunge era's most recognizable characters, Cantrell formed a deep musical bond with troubled frontman Layne Stayley.

A champion of heavy metal and classic rock, Cantrell made no bones about infusing those influences into his music. And his use of wah-wah pedals, odd time signatures and heavier-than-heavy down-tuned riffs took those influences into a different realm.

2. Kim Thayil/Chris Cornell (Soundgarden)

It goes without saying that as a guitarist/vocalist duo in the grunge era, Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell are unmatched. But fans often forget the importance of Cornell as a guitarist in Soundgarden's music. Without his ingenious chord progressions and off-kilter riffs, Thayil wouldn't have been able to leave the masses bending to his will as his solos often did.

We hardly need sing the praises of Thayil, as Soundgarden's music, laden with expressive solos, speaks for itself. As for Cornell, understanding the man and the music – in and out of Soundgarden – is to understand musical divination. Steeped in pain, turmoil, and demons, Cornell crafted restless anthems for a generation to ruminate over in their darkest hours.

1. Kurt Cobain (Nirvana)

Say what you will, but ultimately, calling Kurt Cobain "overrated" is an exercise in futility. Cobain's inherent ability to craft heaven-sent musical masterworks with regularity made him the voice – and guitarist – of his generation.

What made Cobain a genius was the immediate recognition that he didn't need to be. If you're still a non-believer, take a crash course via Bleach (1989), Nevermind (1991), and In Utero (1993). Awash with inspired chord progressions and frenzied, from-the-heart solos, they made a star of Cobain – whether he wanted to be or not.

Inspiring a generation of guitar players is one thing, but inspiring a generation of teenagers to become guitar players takes a rare, enduring talent – and that is Kurt Cobain's guitar epitaph.

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Andrew Daly

Andrew Daly is an iced-coffee-addicted, oddball Telecaster-playing, alfredo pasta-loving journalist from Long Island, NY, who, in addition to being a contributing writer for Guitar World, scribes for Rock Candy, Bass Player, Total Guitar, and Classic Rock History. Andrew has interviewed favorites like Ace Frehley, Johnny Marr, Vito Bratta, Bruce Kulick, Joe Perry, Brad Whitford, Rich Robinson, and Paul Stanley, while his all-time favorite (rhythm player), Keith Richards, continues to elude him.