Few bands employ the guitar as inventively as Radiohead. Starting life as a raucous troupe of grunge-enthralled uni lads fuelled by heartbreak and pent-up frustration, Radiohead has grown into one of the most important British bands of the past 30 years. Gradually widening their scope via earth-shaking records like the century-capping OK Computer, genre-exploding Kid A and 21st-century masterpiece In Rainbows, the band have long been at the crest of the industry’s ever-shifting waves.
Once the very foreground of their sound but now more of a textural accompaniment, the guitar plays an important role in Radiohead. The band would still be worth talking about if its guitar work was defined solely by the shrieking of Jonny Greenwood, the supple textures of Ed O’Brien, or the inspired chordal choices of Thom Yorke – but with all three in play, there’s an embarrassment of gems to enjoy here.
Which makes highlighting just 10 tracks extremely tough. Here, we’re not opting for the ‘heaviest’ or most technically adept work, but have instead chosen the tracks that best demonstrate Radiohead’s breadth and brilliance.
10. Knives Out (Amnesiac, 2000)
Led by a descending, plaintive riff, Amnesiac’s second single was a notable retreat back to a more conventional guitar-led sound, especially amid the album’s more sonically dense bedfellows. Inspired by Johnny Marr’s frequent tunnelling around chordal nooks and crannies in The Smiths, Knives Out pulses with regret, heartbreak and a yearning for romantic resolution. Originating during 1999’s Kid A sessions, the band took their time getting the track together. Greenwood’s evolving guitar lines find new forms with each verse.
9. How to Disappear Completely (Kid A, 2000)
A lesson in the value of musical economy, this haunting Kid A highlight ejects its parent album’s colourful approach to arrangement-building and instead roots itself in a gorgeous acoustic chord sequence. Yorke’s continual descents from a bright D chord into F♯m (actually played with a capo on the second fret) take the wind out of the listener. Nuanced augmentation peppers the track with ghostly swoops, emotional strings recorded at a 12th-century church and the subtle suggestion of choir, all of which serve to underline the effectiveness of the song’s architecture. Yorke would later describe the song as “the most beautiful thing we ever did”.
8. Street Spirit (Fade Out) (The Bends, 1995)
Wrapping up Radiohead’s vibrant second album on a trepidatious note, Street Spirit (Fade Out) is built around a clock-like arpeggiated pattern, played by Ed O’Brien using his custom-built ‘Plank’ guitar. The track undulates its way around A and E minor but balances them with tension and grace. As Yorke delivers a lyric dripping in mortal anguish, O’Brien’s measured playing keeps the arrangement hinged on his ominous movement. High and bright in the mix, O’Brien’s controlled picking pattern is the song’s focal point. It took a long time to get right in the studio but the final haunting studio version quickly became a favourite. It was Radiohead’s biggest-selling single until Paranoid Android in 1997.
7. Present Tense (A Moon Shaped Pool, 2016)
This beauty finds Greenwood coating glistening acoustic arpeggiations atop a rippling bossa nova time signature. Incorporating a percussive playing technique that he first trialled on his solo track Loop, Greenwood gently taps his guitar between notes, hitting the next in the flowing arpeggio sequence on his way back up. The result is that his playing is tightly locked in with the groove. Coated in reverb and echo, Greenwood’s implacable picking through the songs’ wary chord sequence underscores Radiohead’s continuing mastery of using the guitar as a delicate, surgical instrument that cuts deep into the emotions of the listener.
6. There There (Hail to the Thief, 2003)
Smearing itself across Selway and Colin Greenwood’s tribal rhythmic centre, Yorke’s sludgy guitar sound (conjured by his particular feedback-prone hollow-body Gibson ES-125T) accentuates the unnerving vibe of Hail to the Thief’s lead single, before Greenwood leaps into the fray, unleashing a fuzz-soaked anxiety attack of a riff near the song’s climax. Taking their cues from experimental pioneers Can, the pressure keeps building through successive, chorus-free verses, all of which makes Greenwood’s intrusive buzzsaw riff all the more affecting. After taking years to get right, the final mix famously brought Thom Yorke to tears upon first listen. “What [Nigel Godrich] did with the guitar sound and the way he mixed it… it’s really jubilant to me.” Yorke said on the album’s interview CD.
5. Just (The Bends, 1995)
Ripping through a Smells Like Teen Spirit-esque chord progression in a fiery streak, Just’s rising series of notes conjures a ferocity that is abruptly cut off by a hard swing into the low-key, Creep-recalling verse. As the song’s principal architect, Jonny Greenwood adds melodic ornamentation and vocal-melody aping hooks to the arrangement with his Telecaster Plus, eliciting an precarious, macabre mood, before the explosive detonation of the chorus leads us back into that riff-hurricane. A guitar tour-de-force, Just reaches its absolute pinnacle with a magnificent multi-sectioned solo, which is quite the most dazzling piece of guitar work on Radiohead’s second album. Written as an attempt to pile as many chords as possible into one song, Just is an early indicator of Radiohead’s unchained ambition, while also keeping feet planted in both melody and mood.
4. Let Down (OK Computer, 1997)
The sumptuous gem at the heart of OK Computer, Let Down’s heartbeat-pump bass line, crashing cymbals, and impassioned Thom Yorke vocal performance are just a few of the elements that make the song a standout on Radiohead’s masterpiece. But for our money, it’s the elegance of its (oddly-picked), polyrhythmic central riff, which glistens throughout the song’s runtime like raindrops, that is the crucial ingredient. The unconventional chimes of Greenwood’s 5/4 arpeggio run adds to song’s theme of momentum (‘transport, motorways and tramlines’) but aligns brilliantly with the grounded 4/4 drive of the A, E, F♯m, E progression that rotates throughout the verse. Greenwood weaves a consistently pedalled C♯ and D, while switching up the sequence’s highest note from an A, an open E to a mournful G♯. It’s a hymn to the discombobulation of modern human life that lodges itself forever in your memory.
3. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi (In Rainbows, 2007)
Responding to Philip Selway’s taut 4/4 rhythm, Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’s intricate guitar parts lean into their own 3/4 groove, creating a ‘hemiola’ effect that heightens the pulse of this In Rainbows high-point. Arpeggiating across a four-chord cycle (Em7/F♯m7/A/Gmaj7) Ed O’Brien kicks off what becomes a dense three-way layering of guitar, as Thom and Jonny follow suit over subsequent verses. Subtly switching accents and direction of movement with their complementary, harmonised arpeggios, Radiohead’s three guitar-men patiently construct a bewitching piece of music. In an interview with The Face, Ed O’Brien cited Weird Fishes as his favourite Radiohead song, saying; “Without fail whenever we play it live, I get this feeling… There’s an emotion that just sits there. I really connect with that.”
2. 2 + 2 = 5 (Hail to the Thief, 2003)
Triggered by the sound of Greenwood plugging in his guitar, Radiohead’s most politically charged record to date whirs to life with one of its most violent songs. 2 + 2 = 5 is a through-composed piece in four distinct sections, meaning that its musical parts never re-emerge later in the song’s runtime – a pretty unusual structure for western popular music. Beginning with a drop D picking pattern (in 7/4) over a robotic drum-machine, the song’s form is continually growing. From the opening section’s ominous melancholy, into the ghoulish lead riffs that lead up to the mid-section explosion of hammering double-note mania. Before the track is through, it swerves into The Bends-era recalling power chord wallops, intermingled with high register squalls. Coming after the more restrained sonic technicolour of Kid A and Amnesiac, 2 + 2 = 5 was a welcome jolt for those Radiohead fans craving the return of more overt guitar energy.
1. Paranoid Android (OK Computer, 1997)
Not just one of the band’s most revered songs, but a full-blown mini-odyssey that stretches the very concept of genre, Paranoid Android found Greenwood, O’Brien and Yorke crafting a piece that defined its time like few others. This futurist anthem is built around superb combinations of acoustic chords during the verse section from Thom, child-like, descending melodies and phased micro-hooks (harnessing a EHX Small Stone pedal) and, to cap it all, Greenwood’s chunky riff, leading up to a zany whammy-pedalled freakout. Taking their cues from The Beatles’ ‘White Album’-era patchwork compositions (namely Lennon’s Happiness is a Warm Gun), Paranoid Android fuses a few distinct parts, each dramatically different yet coalescing into a perfect whole via some elegant key changes. “We did most of the working out of the song in rehearsal.” O’Brien told NPR, “We basically had three and a half songs and we wanted to put them into one song. We did a condensed six and a half minute version of it and… you know, it’s basically really three parts.” The A major riff is among Radiohead’s heaviest ever moments, and the delirious joy of its solo’s intrepid, and free-flowing chaos has surely inspired many to pick up a Digitech Whammy. Bold, adventurous and utterly magnificent.
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