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“Entertaining the Previously Unthinkable Proposition That Mike Einziger is the Best Guitarist of the 1990s”

I remember it clear as day: I was sitting in my Freshman year high school Spanish class in probably the winter or spring of 1999. A friend and I got into a discussion about what the best decades of the 20th century were in music and we both agreed that the best was the ’60s and the second-best was the ’90s. Of course, we were obviously a little biased, and this was also coming from me who was sure Eminem was overrated after I heard “My Name is” and only that. But that caterwauling bark from my teacher of “NINETIES??!!??”… was that really necessary? Was it even valid? Where was this rancor coming from?

So forgive me for absorbing this corny, menial little victory but to see the words “The 90s was a great decade for music” in a CleveRock.com interview with Third Eye Blind bassist Arion Salazar kind of meant something to me — way more than it had any right meaning, anyway. And sure, it’s coming from someone embedded in the 20-teens, which were like the musical equivalent of the inside of an elephant’s digestive system. Still, this simple statement resonated with me as it was a decade in which I grew up and fell in love with a lot of CD’s, from Hootie & the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View to 2pac’s Greatest Hits, to Everclear’s So Much for the Afterglow and yes of course our beloved Eminem, I must confess. 

Incubus’ Make Yourself was always a CD I’d tote around and give a decent amount of spinning to but kind of just answer with a “Yeh, it’s pretty good,” to surrounding questioners. It was never my favorite CD of them all — I never really raved about it to anyone and really never even had the aspiration of seeing them live, to be honest. Here’s a pretty ironic tidbit though — I was in this cover band my Junior year with a bunch of hippies, dudes who would thumb their noses at my “punk” selections like The Suicide Machines and Goldfinger, and we actually ended up covering Incubus’ “Drive” at our show, through not even any devising of my own, at least that I remember. This ubiquity across zeitgeists, or “scenes,” if you will, should give you some sense of how unavoidable Make Yourself really is in at least the late-’90s rock discussion. 

The other lathe in the plotting of cementing this band’s greatness would of course be just purely how hated they are among people who are for whatever reason made uncomfortable by them — I have to admit sometimes Brandon Boyd’s earnest delivery strikes me as just a bit ham-handed and they certainly took themselves pretty danged seriously. But he really wrote some pretty sweet lyrics, anyway, like “Say what you will / Say what you mean / You could never offend / Your dirty words come out clean”, and they had the sound to back up their cocky arena-rock shtick. The reason, in short, would be guitarist Mike Einziger, who like Third Eye Blind’s Kevin Cadogan took on the otherworldly task of being the only guitarist in a mainstream alternative rock band, one of course with ambitions of filling stadiums both with fans and with their sound itself. What’s even more interesting about Incubus is that they were a quintet, to Third Eye Blind’s quartet, at still only enlisted one person on the axe. This would be contrasted, of course, ironically, against a Collective Soul, who also a quintet credits three different guys to guitar playing on their self-titled album from 1995, probably a superior album to Make Yourself, in all honesty (but… ahem… another band that seems to make a lot of people uncomfortable, namely the “critics” in this case, people whose pulses are only measurable with a seismograph, in my humble opinion). 

Now, was the 1990s a short decade for guitarists? Um… er… yeah probably and I’m probably implying that by the very nature of this post. I mean the ’60s had Hendrix, the ’70s had Jimmy Page [1] and the ’80s had Eddie Van Halen. I would take these to be the fairly undeniable selections from each respective decade. I’m not really sure who the “obvious” choice of the ’90s would be and I’m almost positive there even isn’t one at all because for how universally adored Nirvana is it seems Kurt Cobain is just as universally beheaded for what’s perceived as his ineptitude on his instrument [2]. 

To think of the guitar “virtuosos” of the world like say Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, I would probably tab them as misanthropic show-offs who see more value in doodling on an instrument than in writing a meaningful song, rocking a show or getting behind some anti-AIDS issue, something a lot of my rock heroes were into within the decade at hand. Is there a chance Kurt Cobain’s better than Mike Einziger? Sure, probably. But it’s not definite — you surely can’t give me an objective syllogism to prove it. Plus, we’re talking about this time being an era when even mainstream was plagued by the punk ethos which dictated, as Mark Arm of Mudhoney brilliantly put it, that “You almost have to be good in spite of your technical skill.” 

Grunge? Meh? Some would say Kim Thayil of Soundgarden… I’m a little inclined to say he’s overrated on two counts. One is that abysmal solo in the Hype! version of “Searching with My Good Eye Closed” and the other is that in my opinion Soundgarden didn’t really become a good band until Chris Cornell started shooting up and they started writing really catchy songs that would grace the Billboard Top 200. They were never really a band that operated within genre — not to necessarily say Incubus was… I mean it’s alt-rock vs. grunge so it’s six of one vs. half a dozen of the other. Again, this is all debatable. Some would probably say Jerry Cantrell and he makes a pretty decent case for best grunge guitarist ever along with in my opinion Mike McCready, who stakes a strong claim to best guitar soloist of the 1990s at large, an epithet I wouldn’t have a problem doling to him right now, truth be told. 

But I don’t think any of these guys matches Incubus in sound and general, blistering and distinct opaque aural fury. Larry Lalonde is ruled out by the fact of Les Claypool inviting Jerry Cantrell on stage to solo with Primus during their Woodstock ’94 set (poor Lalonde was left to stand idly by the side of the stage… then again I guess playing guitar in Primus isn’t the worst gig even in light of minor indignities like this). 

There are two names that in this discussion are unavoidable and, maybe not ironically but perhaps surprisingly to some, actually get us stylistically closer to Incubus and this rogueish Mr. Einziger I keep mentioning in esoteric passing, but who I assure you does have that Jimi Hendrix hair of looking like he just stuck his instrument in a light socket. These would be, respectively, Adam Jones of TOOL and Daron Malakian of System of a Down. Yes, it’s the metalheads who hate Incubus the most, because it’s they who carry the greatest justified fear that their girlfriend with septum ring and the Amon Amarth t shirt might actually start nodding along to “Megalomaniac.”

It would be very hard to disprove Adam Jones from sitting atop the list and I guess to an extent I shouldn’t even try, other than the fact that I wouldn’t say he carried as much of a LOAD within the band as Einziger did. TOOL has a drummer that’s completely inhuman, that is, in Danny Carey, and a lead vocalist who completely revolutionized the art with an unprecedentedly apocalyptic and lacerating approach to analyzing humanity (sadly but inevitably something for which the ’90s probably became pretty well-known for). So it’s possible that Jones never lived up to his potential but with things the way they are I can’t distinctly think of a guitar part in a TOOL song that just digs into my skin the way the intro to Incubus’ “Clean” does, when we’ve progressed through that percussion part and Einziger is stabbing in with those ear-piercing power chords. 

Daron Malakian is certainly a rubber-fingered madman capable of playing really fast, of coordinating himself in lockstep with his band’s frenetic and uncompromising groove. System of a Down bashed out heavy metal that was ferocious, original and true to the style, never selling out. But I’m just not noticing a wealth of the DYNAMIC with him — it’s always overdrive, always the highest gear, all the time, lacking maybe somewhat in finesse. And I’m not necessarily saying this constant ear-bludgeoning makes for lesser music — I think we’ve all craved this type of thing before. But it does take away from his achievements and his stature in being named the absolute elite guitarist, when you pretty much know ahead of time the exact sound you’re going to hear from him. 

Actually, it was funny, but just listening to the start of “Eulogy” a second ago by TOOL I rediscovered this really fragile, thin and trippy guitar tone in the song’s introduction that reminded me of something the Incubus guitarist might have pulled off, in one of their softer numbers like “Stellar” or “11 am.” This phenomenon alone typifies the dizzying and almost disorienting range that these two guys have, who, amazingly, just like Malakian, both hail from Southern California.

Oh and then there’s that dude Noodles from The Offspring… they let you in here? A flunkie reject punk who lives and breathes on palm-muted power chords? The speed and sheer mania of “Bad Habit” warrant at least a listen toward finalization of this discussion.

Anyway, I think I’ve narrowed the race down to these last four (Noodles amazingly being from LA too… I thought these surfer dudes never practiced!) and really I’d say the only two classic albums to have emanated out of this main corps would be The Offspring’s Smash and Incubus’ Make Yourself. And yes I am kind of a punker by trade so I’m a tad bit biased here. Hey, at least you know I’m used to not getting along with metalheads. 

Smash gets by, anyway, so stridently on songwriting — “Come out and Play” and “Self-Esteem” could have been sung by Mini Me and turned into huge radio hits. And sure, Noodles unleashes that palm-muting that makes you sure he’s like a dude whose limbs have been plugged into a VCR and funneled through a “fast-forward” mode, but again, like with System of a Down, there just isn’t the range of sounds, the range of moods and approaches that we get with an Incubus. To sit back and behold Einziger’s sheer sonic tapestry on Make Yourself opener “Privilege” is to indulge in complete rock euphoria, like listening to Kevin Cadogan tickling your ears with the “God of Wine” riff or Dean DeLeo bludgeoning the mix on “Down.” It’s just absolute alternative rock perfection — and of course the metalheads would say it’s “pu**y,” ’cause, ya know, the lead singer is good looking and they wrote songs that anybody would ever sing along to. But it seems like after Incubus nobody even tried to do this sh** — we graduated to the empty patriotism of Three Doors Down and the frat-boy rap of The Bloodhound Gang. There was no outdoing Mr. Einziger.

Earlier I allude to the admirable versatility the Incubus guitarist had in his oeuvre and the trippy way he had of making it seem like two different bands entirely from song to song. This flair for versatility he has certainly adds to his credential. Then, though, there’s the otherworldly beast that is “When it Comes,” which simply cannot be described with words. “When it Comes” contains a guitar sound very closely akin to a violent attack rendered in the brain. It’s metallic, unruly and absolutely obscene — every inch of the sound waves bleeds heavy, grating catharsis. What’s more, it’s done entirely without feedback — Einziger just warps and skews the strings into something that tickles a part of our brain of which nothing else is capable. In an interview with ultimate-guitar.com Einziger is maddeningly indolent, saying in so many words that he doesn’t like to talk about the technical aspects of guitar like gear and equipment. Part of his point is that the guitarists he looked up to had distinct styles that you could spot right away without being notified of their identities. One of the guitarists he cites in this enterprise is Frank Zappa, which I have to say certainly contributes to his credibility on the subject and on ’90s guitar in general. I must, however, clash with his discourse here slightly and say that “When it Comes” is simply a staggering achievement in guitar TEXTURE, the likes of which I’d never encountered before, and which could have been played by the dude in Imagine Dragons and still sounded great. What’s more, it’s the way Einziger PERFECTED that alternative rock sound, thick enough to be called “metal” by some journals and press outlets but approachable enough to play infinitely on rock radio, that really earmarks his expertise. These songs are meaningful because they’re cathartic and raw but also palatable, approachable enough to grace MTV and Little Nicky with Adam Sandler. In truth, Einziger in his reluctance to refer to his specific pedals and exact means of construing the sound he conveys might come on the part of not wanting to give it away, and with the unscrupulous ravenousness with which we today devour this music on streaming, can you really blame him? 

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[1] Anybody who says Tony Iommi is getting pistol-whipped… you’re talking about a guy who tried out for Jethro Tull and got rejected. 

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[2] Just for the record I think this is a retarded opinion and the simplicity of many of Cobain’s Nirvana runs should not be mistaken for the technical inability to play something more complex — it’s just he wrote songs that were infectious enough in their basic formats to reach billions of ears.

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