John McGeoch’s playing style to me, encompasses the very modernism that a guitar like the Yamaha SG series symbolises.
Originally born in Greenock in Scotland. McGeoch moved to London as a kid and grew up playing guitar. Influenced by the blues rock music of the time. He emulated the players of the era like Hendrix & Clapton.
After attending Art college in Manchester. McGeoch was by chance introduced to Buzzcocks singer Howard Devoto. McGeoch suddenly became the guitarist in his next project Magazine. Magazine’s debut single Shot by Both Sides. Featured an amazing showy anthemic Vic Flick-esque guitar riff that set the track off perfectly.
After playing on the first three Magazine albums, but frustrated by their lack of success. McGeoch then worked with Visage on their Fade To Grey album. Having a massive hit, before being asked to join the Banshees.
Siouxsie & The Banshees
Siouxie & The Banshees however was where McGeoch made his name. Adding spiky atmospheric textural guitars to the Banshees tribal influences. McGeoch integrated himself perfectly, abandoning his blues rock origins totally and forged himself a new voice. His dissonant melodies, sound collages & use of FX, placed him firmly as a bold new voice, the enfant terrible of the electric guitar. One critic later described him as “Johnny Marr before Johnny Marr” or “the post Punk Jimmy Page”.
The key recordings with the Banshees are Kaleidoscope, Ju Ju, and a A Kiss In The Dreamhouse. Here McGeoch is on fire. Using the guitar as a paintbrush to serve the music in a conceptual way. Rather than take a traditional blues based approach. My personal favourite is Headcut from Ju Ju. In which the guitar takes on a sinister character of its own. While Budgie and Sevrin builds a manic African rhythm behind him .
The Armoury Show
After intense touring took its toll on his mental health. McGeoch found himself out of the Banshees & formed The Armoury Show with ex Skids frontman Richard Jobson.
The Armoury show album, although blighted by a rather dated mid 80’s production, shows McGeoch front and centre in more of a traditional guitar hero role. Here is playing is big and anthemic. But still unmistakably him, still serving the song.
Interviewed by Guitarist magazine in 1985. With regard to his equipment, McGeoch had clearly reached peak Japanese guitar.
Besides his well worn customary pair of Yamaha SG1000’s he also ran an Ibanez AE10 electro-acoustic & a pair of JV Squier 57 Strat re-issues. After using a vintage Strat on the Armoury Show record & its owner not wanting to sell it to him.
Later in P.I.L he would swap out the Yamaha’s for a Washburn T type with twin humbuckers and a locking tremelo. Then by 1989 he’d switched over to Carvin DC400 Superstrats with neck thru bodies, Floyd Rose tremolos & active electronics.
Amplification from 83 onwards was always a Marshall. Either a 100 watt JCM 800 Stack or, later a 50 watt 2×12 combo paired with a Roland JC120 combo running in stereo. His effects system was a series of various MXR & Ibanez pedals, re mounted into a switching system by Quark. Coupled with a couple of early rack mounted Ibanez Delay/Harmonisers. This combination of wet/dry stereo Rig always made him sound huge. In his Banshees days he’d made explicit use of an MXR flanger mounted directly to the mikestand so he could control it.
In 1986 after joining John Lydon’s P.I.L McGeoch seemed settled and made three albums with them. As a musician Lydon needed a man who could emulate Steve Vai guitarlines as much as Keith Levines. My choice cut from the PIL canon is the wonderfully atmospheric U.S.L.S.1 off the “9” album.
After P.I.L’s commercially disappointing album That What Is Not. Lydon disbanded PIL. McGeoch dissapeared from view. After a session with Icelandic alternative band The Sugarcubes in 1992. He tried to get various projects off the ground to no avail. Before passing away in March 2004.
One of my great regrets is that McGeoch is the only one of my guitar heroes that I’ve never seen live. I had tickets to see P.I.L on the Happy tour. But bassist Alan Dias broke his wrist & the date was cancelled.
In 2005, the BBC made a radio documentary about his life and legacy Spellbound.
In a world where lazy journalists are keen to place endless superlatives on any Johnny come lately. I’d recommend McGeoch’s dramatic, innovative & downright clever playing style to anyone wanting a starting off point to something new. He is truly a guitarists guitarist.