Indie music and guitars are a match made in heaven. The guitar is a varied and versatile instrument that can be strummed, picked, shredded, fretted, re-tuned, capoed, distorted, reverbed, amplified and more. Better still, indie writers have no rules to live up to – indeed, they often manage themselves and produce their own records, allowing them more musical freedom than other artists.
But it takes a lot of hard work to become an icon, and budding musicians can learn a thing or two from the people who went before them. No musician is an island, and everything is influenced by everything that came before it.
With that in mind, here are a few of the most interesting indie guitar heroes – as well as the lessons that they can teach to new guitarists.
Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys):
It’s easy to dismiss Turner as more of a frontman than a lead guitarist, and yet he performs both roles – as well as the role of songwriter – for the seven-time Brit Award winners. What makes Turner interesting is the way he’s able to mix jangly chords with stonking riffs to come up with indie crowd-pleasers that never go out of fashion. He’s also one of the few indie guitar heroes who’s also a lead vocalist.
The lesson: Mixing riffs with chords can create catchy tunes that will stick around in listeners’ heads.
Johnny Marr (The Smiths):
Marr is mostly on this list because he was one of the earliest examples of an indie guitar hero. Of course, it helps that he’s world-class at what he does, but he’s also notable for redefining the way that a guitar should sound at a time when everyone else had big hair and leotards. In 2013, Marr was honoured by NME with its “Godlike Genius” award, and he was voted the fourth best guitarist of the last thirty years in a 2010 BBC poll.
The lesson: Be good at what you do and get there earlier than anyone else.
Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead):
Greenwood earned his way onto the list because he’s understated and modest with his approach to the guitar. While Thom Yorke steals the limelight (whether he wants to or not), Greenwood takes everything in his stride, whether he’s laying down haunting chord progressions or whether he’s accompanying electronica and orchestrating film soundtracks.
The lesson: Be versatile and play in multiple genres.
Graham Coxon (Blur):
Like Greenwood, Coxon is notable for his lack of ego. While he’s since embarked on a solo career, Coxon’s stint with Blur allowed him to focus on what he did best – providing a solid basis for a strong group. It’s particularly interesting to note the simplicity of some of his guitar work and the way that he resisted the temptation to show off like more ‘macho’ guitarists from metal bands and heavy rock groups.
The lesson: Sometimes less is more – don’t overcomplicate your playing for the sake of it.
Matt Bellamy (Muse):
Bellamy’s signature guitar riffs have catapulted Muse to international fame, and they achieve an impressively complex sound for a band with three musicians. Acting as the group’s lead guitarist, frontman and principal songwriter, Bellamy is notable for his vocal ability and his skill with the guitar, as well as for being a multi-instrumentalist.
The lesson: Learning to play other instruments can make you a better guitarist.
Jack White (The White Stripes):
If Bellamy is notable for achieving a complex sound with just three musicians, Jack White deserves bonus points for doing it with two. White is a difficult guitarist to imitate because he draws influence from such a wide range of sources, but it’s blues in particular that influences many of his licks and guitar solos. Blues is easy to start with but difficult to master, and learning to play blues guitar can be a great introduction to scales and improvisation for budding guitarists.
The lesson: Study blues music. You’d be surprised at how many other genres it influences.
Indie music comes from the heart and the soul, as well as from inside the head. That’s why one of the best ways to emulate your heroes is to walk a mile in their shoes. Listen to the music they like, read the books that they read and watch the movies they watch. Try to find out what makes them tick.
Once you’ve done that, forget everything you’ve learned and start again. Indie musicians don’t follow a formula – they make a name for themselves by doing things in their own way. Emulate their approach to creativity, perhaps, but don’t just steal their style and pass it off as your own.
With a bit of luck (and a lot of practice), you’ll end up rubbing shoulders with your indie heroes. And who knows? Perhaps you could even become one yourself.