This article originally appeared in the print version of She Shreds Issue #16, which was released in December 2018.
The killer opening riff of Janet Jackson’s 1990 chart-topper “Black Cat.” The brooding build-up of Madonna’s iconic 1998 hit “Ray of Light.” These are just two examples that might come to mind when reflecting on the long history of the guitar being used in pop music. It’s an instrument that has always been prevalent in chart-topping tracks, acting as foundation for countless hooks and choruses comprising the varied language of pop sounds. However, recent history has seen the guitar’s presence in mainstream pop dwindle. Luckily, outside the mainstream, independent pop artists are claiming the tradition of guitar-based pop sounds and morphing them into entirely new directions.
Take Shamir: an artist known for his unconventional approach to pop, who mixes dance, R&B, and hip hop into his catalogue, spanning from 2015’s cowbell club hit “On The Regular” (where he aptly tells us he “wanted a guitar before he wanted a bike”) to this year’s poignantly stripped-back “I Can’t Breathe.”
“I think there’s a lack of grungy distortion in pop music these days, like full-on chords and not just leads,” Shamir says. “The one thing I used in Revelations (Father/Daughter Records, 2017) that solidified my sound was the unapologetic use of super reverbed distortion on top of pop songs. The guitars in Ratchet (XL Recordings, 2015) were very minimal and I didn’t even play any of the guitar parts myself.”
Shamir explains that his use of guitar changes depending on the recording process: “One example is the use of pedals, and when to use which pedal on which part. Another example is in my song ‘I Can’t Breathe,’ where I decided to play the chords I wrote on guitar on the bass in the beginning and just had the guitar play a simple lead. I hope to see guitar and bass in pop music be more of a building block of production as opposed to an embellishment. Electronic music is so vast, but I think real innovation is made with limitations.”
Baltimore’s Sneaks—the musical project of Eva Moolchan—creates innovative pop with a defined set of instruments. When she started the project, Moolchan used little more than a bass, drum machine, and her deadpan vocals. This minimalist approach centers around the bass, fueling the backbone of her output and providing the basis for a lot of her vocal melodies. For instance, last year’s post-punk single, “Hair Slick Back,” offers a meditative, moody refrain, mainly through its prominent, chorus-led bass tone. Or consider her track “New Taste,” from 2016’s Gymnastics (Danger/Merge), which she says she wrote by “just following the rhythm of the bass line.”
“I’m really into rhythm, and there’s so much you can express through the guitar and the bass,” says Moolchan. “I’m always trying to filter down what I’m trying to say. To me, it is about attitude and using my environment as the number one tool to make music. Making really catchy songs has always been an important thing to me, and I love the bass for that. It’s an incredibly grounding instrument, and I think people also enjoy bass because of its groove and attitude. It’s in almost every song.”
Moolchan’s repetitive, hypnotic approach to her work signals the transformative effect the bass can have when pushed to the forefront, rather than just using it for embellishments. The instrument is her foundation, and an effective songwriting tool that enables her to craft repetitive pop qualities and rough textures, providing a guide to her vocals. The bass steers Moolchan’s effortless post-punk pop compositions, cementing it as the heart of her melodies—a driving, methodical force that spawns a myriad of sparse, moody tracks. And with her previous two albums, which together have a listening time of less than an hour, it’s her simple, blink-and-you’ll-miss it approach to production that cements Sneaks as one of the most intriguing pop artists in recent years.
Moolchan worked with sound engineer and co-producer Carlos Hernandez for her latest album, Highway Hypnosis, to be released in 2019 on Merge Records, and credits his ability to push her inspirations into poppier surroundings. For independent artists branching out into pop territory, it can be helpful to seek out collaborators who can assist steering their work into a more playful environment. And with credits including Nadine, Frankie Cosmos, and Ava Luna, Hernandez was an ideal teammate. Moolchan says their collaboration helped to steer her music into the pop sphere—for example, placing some of her bass melodies against trap beats .
Australian singer-songwriter Harriette Pilbeam, known as Hatchie, also credits producer and engineer John Castle as someone who has helped hone the sound of her recordings to date. On her debut EP, Sugar & Spice, released on Double Double Whammy earlier this year, Pilbeam crafts dreamy, shoegaze-inspired tracks that harness the airy, acoustic charm of Sixpence None the Richer and The Cranberries, with edgy hooks akin to the Cocteau Twins or Depeche Mode. Like Sneaks, she explains that it’s through her collaborative process with Castle that she’s able to craft her big, pop sound. When demoing, she’ll layer reverbed electric guitars and play with slightly different rhythms to make the mix “really big and wet.” This creates a wall of sound that Castle works into the final mix, stripping back one or two of the original guitar parts to add in cleaner, acoustic layers.
“A good example of this is ‘Sure’—the original demo was really loose, with a stack of electrics,” Pilbeam explains. “When we recorded it properly, John replaced most of those lines with super chorus-y acoustics to make it a bit cleaner while still maintaining the same jangly vibe. Our go-to for almost every song has been an ‘80s effect rack, usually with heaps of chorus on electric, acoustic, and bass.” Using this layered approach to her songwriting, Pilbeam’s pop still remains pensive and gentle. The swirling, soft dynamic teamed with her distinctive chorus effects makes Hatchie a compelling voice when it comes to crafting uplifting, effervescent tunes.
While it might take a collaborator to help switch things up or refine a sound during the recording process, for others, like Chicago’s Tasha, it often comes down to finding the perfect model of guitar. “It wasn’t until about two years ago when I bought the electric guitar I currently play—an Epiphone ES 339—that I started practicing and playing in a way the challenged me and was true to the kind of music I wanted to make,” says Tasha, who released her debut album, Alone at Last, on October 26th through Father/Daughter Records. She wrote a lot of the songs way before she had the chance to record them, refining them to the point where they stayed pretty much identical to the way she plays live. “I don’t have that many pedals, so being able to play around with different effects like reverb and distortion while recording was really exciting to me,” she says.
The guitar takes up less room on Tasha’s full-length, but it’s by no means an insignificant presence on the record. Lead single “Kind of Love” shows off decorative, chorus-peddled strums with romance and elegance. It’s a perfect example of using the guitar as the backbone in pop, where thunderous, whirling bass lines and sprinkled percussion can decorate and amplify without overwhelming the delicate intention of the song. The lovely guitar tone is permanently present, pulling each aspect closer together.
“I’m new to things, so I haven’t done as much experimenting, but the soft and unassuming presence of the guitar in my songs—not hidden behind much percussion or over instrumentation—feels very ‘Tasha’ to me,” she says. “A guitar that is neither tucked in the background or overwhelming, but holding hands with my vocal throughout.”
Playing around is exactly what made Jendayi Bonds, lead vocalist and guitarist in indie pop band Charlie Belle, fall in love with the guitar. Her parents insisted that she and her brother
Gyasi (Charlie Belle’s drummer) learn instruments from a young age, and like most kids, she found practicing a chore. It wasn’t until she realized that she could write her own original songs and techniques—namely, at Girls Rock Philly—that the guitar finally clicked. Charlie Belle released their first EP, Get To Know, in 2015 on Fanatic Records when Jendayi was just 16, and the band is currently gearing up to release their fourth, Looking for Magic, this spring. She’s also now working as a band counselor and songwriting teacher at Girls Rock Austin.
Bonds’ growing confidence with the guitar has allowed the band members to trust their instincts when it comes to new material. The result is an increasing smoothness to their sound and a clear, infectiously pure approach that encourages experimentation. You can actually hear the band having fun. When it came to recording their latest EP, Bonds describes how she would plug in four or five pedals at once for certain parts of a song, or how they would use the guitar as percussion—like an intentional slide across the frets or a muted strum here and there.
Now a college music student, Bonds is continuing to refine Charlie Belle’s blend of ‘80s inspired indie pop, creating catchy, strumming choruses that capture those exciting, youthful years. At school, she’s also learning the intricacies of pop: “It’s so genius to be able to write your truth in an accessible and transferable way, to express a complex idea in one simple line, and to somehow get almost everyone in the world to have your song stuck in their head all day,” Bonds says. “At college, we study pop songs and how they’re put together, and it really goes to show that there are so many more layers than the ones you notice when you’re just hearing the song and not listening to it.”
The presence of guitar in mainstream pop has significantly shifted from an imperative songwriting tool to more of an enhancement. Electronic dance music producers have steadily become sought-after collaborators, meaning that pop has morphed into a sort of dance music hybrid that pushes the guitar to the background.
However, there’s clearly no shortage of independent artists continuing to use the guitar as a powerful songwriting tool and transformative element in the pop realm. From the stripped-back candor of Sneaks to the enveloping sound of Hatchie, it’s the sincerity of these artists and their peers that enables them to forge a path into pop that doesn’t conform to any sort of authority. There’s a melting pot of inspirations and experimentation shaping an uncharted but exciting future that could see it bend, break, and snap into a thousand different variants. Independent artists are shaping the future of pop and proving that the guitar is still a trusted, exhilarating, and expansive songwriting tool.