When discussing the greatest rock guitarists in history, names like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eddie Van Halen are frequently found at the top of the list. However, there exists a number of excellent guitarists from all different decades. One of them is lead guitarist, founder, co-lead vocalist, and songwriter Jerry Cantrell, of Alice in Chains.
Many will agree that Cantrell was and is the backbone of the popular grunge/metal band, and that the group's success was largely based on the strength of Cantrell's musicality. In addition to his vocals, which matched perfectly with late Alice in Chains front man Layne Staley, Cantrell's deep, dark, bellowing guitar playing was undoubtedly an enormous factor in the band's popularity. Since Staley's death in 2002, Cantrell has finally been receiving the credit he deserves for keeping the band afloat and fresh.
Cantrell usually isn't a name that gets tossed around very often when discussing guitar gods, but he is undoubtedly among the most underrated guitarists and song writers of all time. In honor of Jerry Cantrell's 51st birthday, we're ranking the top 5 riffs by the underappreciated musician.
5. Heaven Beside You
"Heaven Beside You" was released as the fourth track from the band's self-titled 1995 album (known as The Dog Album) and was written and sung entirely by Cantrell himself, aside from the chorus, where Layne Staley comes in to harmonize.
The relatively soft guitar in the song contrasts well with the remainder of The Dog Album, which is more characteristic of Alice in Chains' heavy musicality. Ned Raggett, writer for AllMusic, stated that "Cantrell's electric work is some of his best, moving beyond the admittedly powerful blasts of feedback he was known for to find a new, textured approach that balanced volume with a richer, less oppressive feel."
Cantrell himself has stated that the lyrics of the song refer to the break-up between Cantrell and his girlfriend of seven years whom he was unable to remain faithful to despite describing her as "the most beautiful girl I've ever seen in my life." In the liner notes of Alice in Chains' 1999 Music Bank compilation, Cantrell wrote that "Heaven Beside You" is "another attempt to reconcile the fact that my life and paths are tearing me apart from the person I love" and "a way for me to maybe speak to her, express things I could never express."
In 1996, "Heaven Beside You" charted at number 52 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song also peaked at number three on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and at number six on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.
4. Rain When I Die
In 1992, Alice in Chains released "Rain When I Die" as the third track on the band's second studio album Dirt. The song features heavy use of the wah-wah type riffs that Cantrell relied on for most of Alice in Chains' hard songs and it accompanies the late Mike Starr's neck-breaking bass line extremely well.
Cantrell has never really gone in-depth about the composition or meaning of "Rain When I Die" specifically, but he does note that the album the track first appeared on was heavily influenced by the idea of drug addiction, death, and mortality.
Although "Rain When I Die" never charted, the song's face-melting riff has been described as "a soul's dying scream." If that's not rock and roll, we don't know what is.
3. Them Bones
First appearing as the second single on Alice in Chain's acclaimed 1992 album Dirt, "Them Bones" is one of the earliest mainstream examples of Cantrell's knack for blending odd time signatures, as the majority of the tune is played in a time signature of 7/8, while the chorus is played in 4/4.
In a 1998 interview with Guitar World magazine, Cantrell discussed the mixed signature of this song and others. "I really don't know where that comes from; it just comes naturally to me," he said. "I could sit down and figure it out, but what's the use? Off-time stuff is just more exciting." Cantrell claims that the lyrics of the song are about mortality and the romantic notion that "one of these days we'll all end up a pile of bones."
"Them Bones" is one of Alice in Chains' most well-known songs despite it never truly blowing up the charts. The song peaked at number 24 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and at number 30 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart in 1992.
2. Dam That River
"Dam That River" was released as the second track on 1992's Dirt. If the song sounds as if it was written while Cantrell was seething with anger, that's because it was. According to the guitarist, the song was written following a fight that Cantrell had with drummer Sean Kinney, in which Kinney allegedly broke a table over Cantrell's head.
"Dam That River" features a hard-hitting Drop D groove accompanied by a grinding riff which does well to show off Cantrell's emotional playing style.
"Dam That River" never did chart, but it remains a a prime example of Cantrell's talent for finding the perfect riff to match the main rhythm of his many head-banging jams.
1. Man in the Box
As if the number one spot could be claimed by anything else. "Man in the Box" was first introduced to the world as the second track on Alice in Chains' debut album Facelift in 1990, and later, as a single in 1991.
The song's iconic opening rhythm is carried by Cantrell playing a thrashing riff. Soon, Cantrell makes use of a talk box to create the unique guitar distortion sound effects. Later, Cantrell joins Staley in co-singing the aggressive lyrics for one of the most hard-striking grunge songs ever written.
In the liner notes of the band's 1999 Music Bank box set, Cantrell said that the "whole beat and grind of ['Man in the Box'] is when we started to find ourselves; it helped Alice become what it was."
In an interview with MuchMusic USA, Jerry Cantrell claimed that the song's aggressive lyrics are a call-out to censorship in the mass media and the crippling effect it has on creativity. Ironically, the lyrics "shove my nose in sh*t" were later edited to say "shove my nose in spit," much to the dismay of the band.
Interestingly, the music video for the song earns the distinct moniker of being the first grunge video ever to receive massive airplay on MTV, coming out nearly a full year before the video for Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which usually receives credit for bringing grunge mainstream. This badge of honor is debatable however, as many fans believe that Alice in Chains musical work on Facelift more closely resembled heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath than grunge giants like Nirvana and Soundgarden.
Despite peaking at number 18 on on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart at the time of its release, the song is considered Alice in Chains and Jerry Cantrell's signature tune, and the song was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1992.
Although Alice in Chains found themselves in a bit of a rut after the untimely passing of Layne Staley from drug addiction in 2002, it was Jerry Cantrell who was able to pull his band out of the shadows with the release of the albums Black Gives Way To Blue (2009) and The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013) featuring new lead singer William DuVall.
We do hope you enjoyed our ranking of the five best Jerry Cantrell riffs and will join us in wishing the underrated guitarist a happy 51st birthday. If you want to play like Jerry, you'll need the best acoustic electric guitar and many years of practice.