We were not ready for the first decade of the 21st century, at least in terms of what to call it. It had came and gone and still no one could decide whether it was the noughties, the noughts, the 2000s, or what. But one thing is for sure, it produced some groundbreaking guitar.
Having brought you the best guitar albums by decade, starting with the ‘60s, then moving through the ‘70s, the "hello hair-metal" ‘80s and through the grunge-tinged electric guitar paradigm shift of the ‘90s it is time to tackle the the noughties, the noughts, the 2000s… Whatever!
These albums, chosen by you in your thousands, demonstrated once more that the art of playing the guitar is never settled; there is always a new sound, a new technique. That’s what keeps us playing.
10. Muse – Black Holes And Revelations (2006)
More eclectic than any Muse album before it, especially in terms of themes, instrumentation and layers, Black Holes And Revelations is a potently cohesive twist of rock and electronic music that in truth no other band could deliver with such fierce bravado.
Matt Bellamy was using Manson guitars through Marshall, Vox and Diezel amps, along with an array of pedals including his Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, DigiTech Whammy, Keeley Compressor and Boss OC-2. Bellamy’s tones feel gargantuan throughout – especially on the album’s lead single Supermassive Black Hole and epic closing track Knights Of Cydonia.
9. Avenged Sevenfold – City Of Evil (2005)
The new wave of American heavy metal bands that flourished at the turn of the millennium featured some truly exceptional guitarists. Avenged Sevenfold’s Synyster Gates remains, however, in a class of his own – serving up rhythmic crunch to match any of his contemporaries, but with the added firepower of jaw-dropping shredder acrobatics.
The finger-twisting solos on City Of Evil are among his finest and, according to the man himself, his trickiest. He recently confessed that relearning the track M.I.A. was proving to be “really tough”, adding: “I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking there!”
8. Queens Of The Stone Age – Songs For The Deaf (2002)
2000 album Rated R gave QOTSA their commercial breakthrough, but Songs For The Deaf, with Dave Grohl on drums, turned them into major stars.
Josh Homme has remained tight-lipped about his studio tools, but Eric Valentine, this album’s co-producer, revealed: “There was a huge amount of midrange at every stage – whether it’s a setting on the amp, pedal or console.”
He also confirmed a lot of the tones came from Homme’s Ovation electric guitar, a Foxx Octave Fuzz belonging to Alain Johannes, and mixing Peavey solid-states with an Ampeg VT40 and the Tube Works head he used in Kyuss.
7. System Of A Down – Toxicity (2001)
Mixing metallic dirge with bombastic energy, System Of A Down’s self-titled debut album made them cult heroes, but it was second album Toxicity that moved them up into the big leagues, hitting number one in the US, powered by the anthemic single Chop Suey! – written by guitarist Daron Malakian as he jammed in the back of an RV motorhome as the band traveled between gigs.
Other key tracks such as Needle, Deer Dance and Shimmy would define Malakian’s style at its most bludgeoning, using the minor second (first fret) and tritone (sixth fret) intervals against his open drop C for maximum dissonance.
6. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Stadium Arcadium (2006)
On this expansive double album, guitarist John Frusciante was reinventing himself. Having generally stuck with a more minimalist approach after 1989’s Mother’s Milk, Frusciante spread his wings on Stadium Arcadium – cranking up the fuzz in the right places for thicker chords and tastefully improvised leads. And his funk chops certainly hadn’t diminished, either.
As Cory Wong tells TG: “There’s a song called Hump De Bump that’s seriously underrated. It has such a sick pocket, feel and groove. I love the way John uses all aspects of [his] Strat and all the pickup positions to get such a variety of tones.”
5. Audioslave – Audioslave (2002)
Supergroups rarely add up to the sum of their parts, but Audioslave did. And what an equation it was, with the musicians from Rage Against The Machine providing the perfect bedrock for Chris Cornell’s vocal power.
While debut track Cochise felt typically explosive for guitarist Tom Morello, songs such as Show Me How To Live brought more melodic ideas to the fore via his new weapon of choice – a modded black Strat with Soul Power written across its top. “I was looking for a new sound for a new phase in my career,” he said.
4. Tool – Lateralus (2001)
The four members of Tool may look back on the recording process for their third album as a turbulent time for the band, as famously referenced by singer Maynard James Keenan in the lyrics to lead single Schism. But what they managed to piece together was an unimpeachable masterpiece.
Lateralus is a magnum opus of seemingly infinite layers, in which the band fused their alternative rock roots with more metallic and progressive influences and shifting time signatures – all of this in ways that no-one had ever braved before.
Guitarist Adam Jones dialled in those monstrous tones by feeding his Gibson Les Paul Custom Silverburst through his Blueface Diezel VH4, 1976 Marshall Super Bass and Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier heads.
3. Andy McKee – Art Of Motion (2005)
One of the most influential modern fingerstyle players, American acoustic wizard Andy McKee built his name by turning one unaccompanied instrument into something hypnotically profound, exploring a rich timbre of tones and techniques to cover a vast amount of sonic ground at any given moment.
This third solo album saw him going viral at a time when such terms were still relatively new, which is why the live performances of key tracks Drifting and Rylynn have now clocked over 60 million and 34 million YouTube views respectively.
In 2012, an amazing opportunity arrived when McKee joined Prince’s band on the Welcome 2 Australia tour. As McKee later recalled: “We even talked about doing an instrumental album after that tour, which never happened, sadly.”
2. John Mayer – Continuum (2006)
He may have started out as more of an acoustic player on 2001 debut Room For Squares, but on Continuum, his third album, John Mayer redefined himself as the electric champion we know today, now standing as one of the most respected blues players on the planet.
More simplified and soulful than anything he’d released before, with glassy single-coil leads that were every bit as lyrical as his voice, Continuum attracted a new audience outside of the mainstream charts, now arguably his core fanbase.
Although it wasn’t chosen as one of the singles, Slow Dancing In A Burning Room quickly became one of Mayer’s signature anthems, with countless covers and backing tracks surfacing online. The song also played a big part in inspiring the neo-soul movement thriving today.
Mayer famously switched to PRS guitars in 2014, but the main guitars on Continuum included his then-recently acquired 1964 sunburst Strat, the 2004 Black One Strat made by Custom Shop master-builder John Cruz (heard on third single Gravity) and his Gold Leaf Strat for the track Vultures.
“The Gold Leaf is what I wrote the song on,” he explained to Total Guitar at the time. “It’s got that incredible second position – what do they call it, the quack? That’s the quackiest Strat of all time! Vultures does not work on another guitar. That weird, hollowed-out, out-of-phasey-type sound. I’ve never taken that gold Strat and played any other tune on it than Vultures.”
1. Alter Bridge – Blackbird (2007)
It was the album that paved the way for Alter Bridge to become the arena-conquering giants we know today. But when guitarist Mark Tremonti recalls the making of Blackbird, he refers to this period as the group’s “darkest moment”, and perhaps the only time it felt like their future was truly in question.
“We honestly didn’t know if we’d survive as a band back then,” he says. “We fought with our initial label and had to argue to get out of the deal when we felt we weren’t getting the support we needed. We were without management or a label, so it was a very in-between phase, just four guys trying to hang on to their career. We were desperate to continue, and luckily we had all the time in the world to write and prepare.”
For this, the band’s second album, they chose to partner up with producer Michael ‘Elvis’ Baskette for the very first time. The creative chemistry was so strong that he would go on to produce every Alter Bridge album thereafter, as well as all of the solo releases from both Tremonti and AB frontman Myles Kennedy.
Recalling the Blackbird sessions, Mark describes the producer as something of a mad scientist, working from within a jungle of chaos, surrounded by towers of pedals and amp heads in the control room, with no shortage of equipment to help bring their ideas to life.
“When we had something like a whammy bar dive,” Mark says, “he’d find the coolest tones by mixing all these crazy pedals to make it roar.”
After tracking drums at Blackbird Studios in Nashville, the group ended up recording the bulk of the album at a house on Virginia Beach – a good 40-minute drive away from the distractions of local bars and restaurants. The isolation did them wonders...
“The control room was the family room and I was in the bedroom right next to it,” Mark recalls. “I remember writing some of the solos as the bass was getting tracked. It felt a very real moment – we were all together, locked away and fighting for survival.
“Looking back now, it’s one of the best records I’ve ever been part of. The fingerpicked verse in the title track is probably my favourite guitar moment on the record. When I pick up a guitar to test my clean tone, nine times out of 10 I’ll be playing that. It just sounds and feels good. I had that part lying around for a few years and wanted to use it in a song... I finally got my chance!
“I grew up listening to Metallica and learning stuff like The Call Of Ktulu, so that’s where it all came from. And I didn’t know it at the time but Myles pointed this out, Frank Hannon from (Californian band) Tesla ended up being a huge factor in that stuff, too. Those influences are where a lot of those fingerstyle intros came from.”
The solo section from the title track is also one of Tremonti’s proudest achievements. The leads start with Kennedy before Tremonti takes over for the second half, both of them sticking with tasteful bluesy lines from the F# minor pentatonic scale. The song is one of the band’s most enduring anthems, and it’s the duality between the two very different players that exemplifies the power of their partnership.
“The Blackbird solo was the last one I wrote right as the album was being made, so the pressure was on!” Mark laughs. “I knew it needed an extra-good lead and I think what I played really ended up serving its purpose. I didn’t want to fail that song because I always knew it was going to be important.
“Brand New Start is another one I love. I’m really into leads that start half-clean with a slightly overdriven sound that gets boosted as the solo goes. It tells a story rather than just blasting you from beginning to end; it’s more of a journey. And actually the track as a whole is one of my favourite Alter Bridge songs in general.
“Wayward One is also a favourite. The guitar solo has a lot of emotion. I remember doing a playthrough of it on Instagram, and a lot of people said it was their favourite solo from that record.”
In the studio, Tremonti’s main axe of choice was his signature PRS in Charcoal Burst, which, unlike most Les Paul-inspired singlecuts, also featured a tremolo bridge. As the group started tuning lower on later albums, it eventually got phased out of rotation.
“We were mainly playing half a step down on Blackbird,” Mark says. “Either in standard or dropped D, with only a couple of songs in drop B – and what I mean by that is only the sixth string tuned down; the rest are still just a semitone below concert pitch. That Charcoal Burst was good for that record, but on other records we started tuning even lower and the floating bridge didn’t work too well.”
The Charcoal Burst PRS was fed into an open-back Fender Twin for the clean sounds, a Bogner Uberschall and Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier for the rhythms and a Bogner Ecstasy for the leads. If the tones sound expensive, that’s because they were.
“Though I still have it, the Ecstasy doesn’t really suit my playing these days,” admits Tremonti, who released his own signature, the MT 15, through PRS in 2018. “I prefer a bit more of a modern palm-mute chug sound. It’s a great amp for what it is, but I need an amp that sounds like it’s a bully, something that just ruins all the other amplifiers! The Ecstasy is more of an elegant thing.
“As for the rhythm tracks, my Uberschall got mixed with my ‘Rev G’ Dual Rectifier – which is one of the most common from the ’90s era ones. It’s what I played back in the Creed days. I don’t think I’d found my ‘Rev F’ yet – I got one of those later and they’re like the holy grail of Dual Rectifiers. I’ve watched them go from $1,800 to $4,000 to whatever anyone wants to ask these days. If you find a decent-priced one, grab it! Those things are awesome.
“And then it was a ’65 Fender Twin reissue for the cleans, which has always been my favourite clean tone since I was young. It’s very hard to replicate the sort of sound you get from an open-back Twin, but I think we got there on the new MT-100s which will be coming out soon. I’d go as far as saying it has the best clean channel I’ve ever heard on a higher-gain head.”
The Blackbird album was also notable for the group finding their “secret weapon” for the studio in the form of a pink Kramer bass with active pickups, which was used to mirror the riffs somewhere in between Tremonti and Kennedy’s guitars and Brian Marshall’s bass guitar. It remains in their sonic arsenal to this day.
“My guitar tech Ernie [Hudson] got hold of that pink Kramer bass,” Mark explains. “We put it through all kinds of fuzz and octave pedals after tracking twice with me and twice again with Myles. We’d do single line runs underneath our guitars to make the riffs sound even bigger.
“I remember after making the record, the person who owned the bass wanted it back, but we managed to talk him out of it. And just recently while we were making our new record Pawns & Kings, it was still there in the studio... we had to hang on to that thing!”