OK Computer is 20, part 2 – Guitars

At bottom, the approach to arrangement that Radiohead’s three guitarists developed during the making of The Bends and perfected while recording OK Computer was simply a matter of listening to what each player was doing and then taking a contrasting approach. Jonny’s playing a distorted riff on the low E string? Then Ed plays a high-pitched melody with a clean tone. Neither Ed nor Jonny are strumming chords? Thom can do that, then.

It sure sounds simple, but rock music has seldom been all that big on this method of arrangement, as it requires the restraint to sometimes play nothing, or very little, if one of your colleagues has already filled all the space with a part that works. Far more tempting to join in, to try to create a bigger sound – and in the 1990s, that was the done thing. The era of Nevermind, Dirt, Copper Blue, Loveless and Siamese Dream was the era of the big guitar sound. On Pablo Honey, Radiohead tried to do this too, but as always happens when it’s not done well, the failed attempt to create a big sound resulted in a small sound.

Far better, if you have three good players and the ambition to try to use them, is to abandon that idea of multi-tracking lots of versions of the same thing, and instead craft guitar parts that complement and contrast. Hence Airbag, Paranoid Android and the beautiful overlapping, cascading guitars on Let Down, one of the best recordings that Radiohead have made, on which the combination of melodies and textures was astonishingly rich.

One of the results of this new approach was a greater visibility for Ed O’Brien (his work on, for example, No Surprises – the high-register arpeggio riff that plays throughout, and contrasting stuff in the middle-8 instrumental section – is absolutely gorgeous) but it takes nothing away from him to say that Radiohead’s strongest weapon remained Jonny Greenwood’s trademark squonky lead guitar – the stuff that made so many guitarists of my generation into lifelong worshippers at the church of Jonny. The Bends is probably still the go-to album if your interest in Radiohead derives mainly from a love of Greenwood’s guitar mangling, but there’s lots to get stuck into on OK Computer, too.

I’ve written before about The Tourist, the closing track. I still absolutely love it. When Greenwood’s raging guitar solo shatters the uneasy calm of the song’s previous three and a half minutes, it’s a moment as raw and exciting as his infamous muted grunts just before the chorus of Creep. It’s often said by folks who dislike fast guitar playing that if you can’t sing along to it, then it’s not a good solo. They’re definitely on to something, but how to account for a solo that’s primarily about texture? You couldn’t sing along to Greenwood’s playing on The Tourist, yet it’s a great solo. It’s not that it’s devoid of melody; it’s that the importance it places on being singable is way below that which it places on noise, on jaggedness and on impurity of form as sonic metaphor for emotion (remember that The Tourist mixes up bars of 12/8 and 9/8, so the song’s very metre resists the deployment of easy riffs and phrases). It’s like some sort of unstoppable eruption.

As are the two solos on Paranoid Android. The first deploys rapid tremolo picking and that old faithful lead technique, the oblique bend, to ear-grabbing effect, while the latter sounds like Greenwood’s envelope filter pedal has grabbed the guitar off him and started playing itself.

To pick just one more example of cool Jonny stuff, the chorus of Lucky sees Greenwood playing a soaring, swooping melody underneath Yorke’s vocal. The similarities between his approach to lead guitar and that of violin player have been pointed out often enough, but this is another one of those songs that reminds us that Greenwood’s training came from playing viola in school orchestras, and that, coupled with his lack of interest in traditional blues-derived lead guitar, does much to explain his singular style. Full marks, too, for Ed O’Brien’s super creative work on the song, which sees him strumming the strings behind the nut while using delay and modulation to create that pulsing/wooshing noise that runs underneath the intro and verses.

Next time, we look at Colin, again, and Thom Yorke’s bits and bobs.

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Got enough pedals, Ed?

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