Extra-Terrestrial Tourism: A 20th-Anniversary Tribute to the Inventive, Otherworldly Guitar Work on Radiohead's OK Computer

By Demasi, Vinnie | Guitar Player, July 2017 | Go to article overview

Extra-Terrestrial Tourism: A 20th-Anniversary Tribute to the Inventive, Otherworldly Guitar Work on Radiohead's OK Computer


Demasi, Vinnie, Guitar Player


WHEN RADIOHEAD FIRST MADE WAVES with its 1993 debut single, "Creep," a song built around a repeating four-chord vamp featuring self-loathing lyrics, noisy guitars, and dramatic dynamic and textural contrasts between its sections, there was little to distinguish the band from other post-grunge ensembles of the day. The Oxfordshire, England, quintet, however, took a sonic quantum leap forward on their follow-up recording, The Bends, with its atmospheric soundscapes, lush layered guitars, crafty song arrangements, and literary inspired lyrical themes. And by the time the band released its 1997 masterpiece, OK Computer, it was clear that Radiohead had broken free of the pack and would become one of rock's pace-setters at the dawn of the new millennium.

Like the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, OK Computer became a benchmark of aural achievement for its era. The band had perfected a three-guitar formula that saw Jonny Greenwood delivering jagged, Fripp-inspired lines, lead singer Thorn Yorke providing acoustic anti-folk rhythm slashes, and Ed O'Brien layering chimey atmospheric arpeggios. Despite a futuristic concept and impression, the varied and nuanced guitar tones on OK Computer relied heavily on old-school analog equipment: Vox and Fender amps, various MXR and Electro-Harmonix phase shifters and envelope filters, and vintage Roland RE-201 Space Echo units. Texturally, OK Computer was influenced by the early jazz-fusion of Miles Davis and the film soundtrack recordings of Ennio Morricone, and it also borrowed heavily from prog-rock by incorporating multi-part suite forms, odd meters, and jarring polyrhythms. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of this milestone opus and creative achievement, let's examine some of its most inspired moments.

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Ex.1a demonstrates Greenwood's modally mixed, low E-string riff to "Airbag," the album's insurgent lead-off track. In live performances of the song, Greenwood is usually seen aggressively attacking his Lace Sensor-loaded Telecaster Plus with slashing upstrokes, muting the adjacent unused strings with his fret hand. On the riff's repeat, be sure to the substitute the octave-higher F note at the 13th fret, as indicated. Starting in bar 4 of the main theme, O'Brien chimes in with Ex. …

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