The best punk guitarists of all time
1. Johnny Ramone
Every new electric guitarist should learn a Ramones song, but some people mistakenly think this means his style is easily replicated. Few realise Johnny produced that tirade of powerchords using all downstrokes – even live, when the Ramones often played at adrenalin- (or substance-) fuelled tempos far in excess of their albums.
The sound is wildly aggressive in a way that down-up alternate strumming can’t match, and it directly inspired the rhythm styles of '80s thrash and '90s pop-punk, and any song that makes use of a regular eighth-note powerchord part carries Ramones DNA.
2. Steve Jones
Some of Steve’s best playing with the Sex Pistols was on debut single Anarchy in the UK. In 2012, Steve told TG...
“We banged it out in rehearsal while John was in the corner figuring out the words. I like the fact that it has two guitar solos. Out of all of the Pistols singles, that was the slowest. If you wanted to attach ‘punk’ to it, it’s not a fast track; it’s laid-back, almost like Booker T & The MGs.
“There are loads of [guitar] tracks on that – I don’t even remember how many. I used one of those MXR Phase 90s on one of the rhythms as well. At the time, [producer] Chris Thomas kept telling me to tune up and it drove me mad, but looking back I’m glad he did and I’m glad we spent time on it. I think that’s what makes the Pistols album different from The Clash or The Damned. We didn’t just go in and crash, bang, wallop.”
3. Mick Jones
A punk-rock innovator who refused to be painted into a corner
Punk guitar solos, like punk songs, have to walk a fine line: they need to be melodic and simple without being cheesy, and they need to have teeth. Many punks eschew them altogether, but Jones’s tough Les Paul licks kept a place for string bending in the synth-dominated early '80s.
He drew on Carl Perkins’ rockabilly trickbag but also soaked himself in ska and reggae, making way for future genre crossovers. With The Clash, he expanded the boundaries of punk to help make room for the post-punk scene, and then continued to explore new territory with Big Audio Dynamite.
4. Ian MacKaye & Guy Pucciotto
The Fugazi guitarists inspired one of most dedicated fanbases in the world. Many punks talked the DIY talk, but these two lived their principles. When Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun offered them a blank cheque to sign the band, they told him where to go, instead reaching arena status on their own terms and keeping ticket prices to a target $5.
This complete lack of pretension translates to their guitar playing, which has the kind of tightness and anger that only comes from playing 1000 toilet-circuit gigs. Every upcoming punk band draws on the Fugazi sound and ethos.
5. Billie Joe Armstrong
Keeping punk alive for the masses to this day
Billie Joe Armstrong sure knows how to make guitars sound big! Even shred god Paul Gilbert described him as one of the best guitarists in the world for his blistering downpicking, and his mastery of palm-muting and powerchord riffing rivals even thrash-metal giant James Hetfield.
A couple of picking and fretting tricks will help you play like the pop-punk great - see below.
Billie holds his pick at an angle between his thumb and index finger, not quite flat on the pad nor on the side. Attacking the strings at about 30 degrees gives Billie an aggressive tone and reduces resistance so he can play faster.
When fretting octave shapes with their roots on the fifth string, the tip of Billie’s index finger brushes (or ‘stubs’) the sixth and fourth strings just enough to mute them. Perfect for solos like American Idiot.
Also in the running…
He formed the Stooges with Iggy Pop, giving him a better claim than most to having invented punk.
Jett’s power chords and anthemic songwriting paved the way for women in punk rock.
‘Punk virtuoso’ might sound like an oxymoron, but Television’s frontman incorporated avant garde influences to prove punks could play.
Black Flag’s founder was pivotal to developing hardcore and post-hardcore, bringing to punk jazz influences, breakbeats and, most shockingly, playing slowly.
Not many people can say they influenced The Smiths, Guns n’ Roses and The Sex Pistols, but Thunders can.
Blondie’s six-stringer expanded his palate by drawing on reggae, disco and punk simultaneously.
Talking Heads were so experimental there was barely a sound they didn’t try, starting new wave in the process.
Equally a hero to the metal and industrial genres, Geordie gave Killing Joke haunting arpeggios and remains a cult figure.
Rowland S. Howard
The goth genre might never have been born without this top Jazzmaster exponent and his band, The Birthday Party.
McGeoch’s un-guitarlike sound landed him gigs with Magazine, PIL and more.
The Gang of Four founder’s influence dwarves his sales. REM, Nirvana, RHCP and Franz Ferdinand owe him a great debt.