Jonny Greenwood: Timely or Timeless?


Welcome to Just Riffing, a column where I pick out guitarists I admire and write about them. This week, Jonathan Richard Guy Greenwood. Could a name be any more British?

Jonny Greenwood is most well known for being the lead guitar player for Radiohead, which, again, is a band made up of extremely British-looking dudes. I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel like if you just look at a picture of them you’ll get where I’m coming from. Though he could have fooled me – or I fooled myself? – because I first knew Jonny Greenwood as the guy who did the scores for later period Paul Thomas Anderson films (yes he is my favorite filmmaker, yes I have painfully filmbro taste) including There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice, and Phantom Thread. I was bumping “House of Woodcock” from Phantom Thread on repeat long before I listened to a proper Radiohead album. Speaking of good old PTA, he made a short documentary called Junun, where he follows Greenwood’s process recording an album with Shye Ben Tzur and a group of Rajasthan musicians in a giant fort in India. It’s a beautiful musical experience, highly recommend. He also scored Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, which led me to googling “does Joaquin Phoenix like Radiohead?” I have not received an answer on that one, but I remain curious. Seems like it could be his vibe.

This tangent about his film work to say there is a huge classical influence on Greenwood. I was not expecting a dude still rocking a 90s emo haircut based on those scores. Much of that has come through in Radiohead’s work since 2000, which increasingly features his orchestral arrangements. “Burn the Witch” is pretty evocative of the percussive string work going on in There Will Be Blood. Not to mention he has composed straight up concert pieces for orchestras, like “48 Responses to Polymorphia.” You can see part of that here. This focus on classical is because he has engaged in it quite a lot outside of the band, and because I find it interesting. However, it shouldn’t detract from the huge range of Greenwood’s influences, everything from jazz to electronic to reggae. Along the same lines, I’m writing about guitar, but he is a true multi-instrumentalist. I was once watching a live performance and sent a snapchat of it that said, “this mf is playing a car battery.” I don’t know what it was, but it looked like an old telephone switchboard operators used or something.

On to the guitar. You can call Greenwoods playing style, uh, aggressive. My man is absolutely attacking those strings, and that comes through in his sound. It remains a constant, though it has evolved over time from their earlier, more traditional rock and guitar-driven albums, to the newer more ambient stuff. His guitar still cuts through the mix and makes you think, “how on earth is he making that sound?” Quite literally there’s a moment in the “In Rainbows – From the Basement” performance where he plays something inaudible and then loops it backward and plays over it on the spot. 

Having three guitar players in the band can be a daunting task, but he manages to carve out a singular space that can only be occupied by Jonny Greenwood. Whether it’s the relentlessly driven “My Iron Lung,” the feeling of drifting underwater in “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” or the futuristic, robotic sounds of “Paranoid Android” you always know who it is. I saw a Tiktok a while ago of a person playing a guitar with a bow and all the comments were asking why more people don’t do that. Let me tell you, Johnny Greenwood has done it, and he will break it out on stage.

Gear time. Jonny Greenwood is a huge Telecaster guy, and no disrespect to Teles but to me they feel very much like an old man guitar. He makes it cool though. More specifically, his guitar of choice is and Fender Telecaster Plus with Lace Sensor pickups. They’re single coils, but different. Lace Sensors surround the coil with metal barriers, reducing interference and concentrating the magnetic field. This means weaker magnets can be used, weaker magnets mean less string pull, and less string pull means better sustain and truer pitch. His other guitar of note is a ’75 Fender Starcaster. You don’t see that funky headstock every day. This is the one he’ll use a bow on during “Pyramid Song.” Then throw in the occasional Gretsch, Les Paul, or Rickenbacker too. As far as amps go, he’s used a ton. It seems he generally favors Fenders as a clean base for a variety of pedals. The early Radiohead signature distorted guitar sound is a product of a Fender Eighty-Five solid-state amp and a Marshall Shredmaster pedal. Here is an extensive list of his pedalboard setups throughout the years if you’re interested.

From festival stage to screen, Greenwood is somehow classical and innovative at the same time, combining the best of both worlds to create something timeless and otherworldly. 

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