Alice in Chains’ debut album, Facelift, turns 30 this week. Needless to say, the anniversary has us waxing nostalgic about the legendary grunge band. Before the rise of Nirvana and the genre’s ubiquitous mainstream surge throughout the early ’90s, Alice in Chains already had a major label deal. They were one of the first major Seattle bands to achieve such heights. The term “grunge” wasn’t a thing. Bands like Green River, Mother Love Bone, and the Melvins had laid the groundwork, combining the sonic textures of metal, the ethos of punk, and the honesty of what was then called “alternative” music. Alice in Chains, maturing from their sincere glam metal origins, seemed to perfectly align these factors. Facelift would achieve widespread college radio airplay as well as mainstream chart success, a crossover few have achieved with such a flourish.
In the three decades since Facelift, the history of Alice in Chains has been the subject of dubious conjecture, mystery, and sensationalism (a la Rolling Stones’ infamous Layne Staley cover). The iconoclastic backstory of the band, notoriously private, and its late founding frontman, Staley, threatens to overshadow the true essence of their art. The core of early Alice in Chains is Jerry Cantrell’s soulful guitar playing and Staley’s darkly impressionistic lyrics — fueled by a fierce rhythm section of Sean Kinney and bassists Mike Starr and Mike Inez. With current frontman William DuVall, they have continued that high level of creativity. They are an intensely musical band, as proven by their ability to swing effortlessly from heavy metal to slow, acoustic material.
For this piece, we decided to hone in on Cantrell’s under-appreciated riff work. Not every Alice in Chains song contains a riff — as the band shifted toward murkier musical territories in the mid ’90s, embracing other atmospheres and textures. But Cantrell can riff with the best, cutting his teeth on ’80s metal during his formative, pre-Alice years. His mastery lies in his ability to inject those riffs with melody, rendered through glorious tones that remain the pinnacle of recorded guitar production.
Travel back with us as we revisit Cantrell’s 10 best Alice in Chains riffs.
10. “What the Hell Have I” (1993)
Although there are a few Eastern-inspired guitar riffs in the Alice in Chains catalog worthy of inclusion here, “What the Hell Have I” narrowly edges “Dirt” for the best. A non-album track, “What the Hell Have I” was originally issued as a single and released on the Last Action Hero soundtrack before appearing on the Music Bank collection. Because of its elusiveness, it’s a track that even a few Alice in Chains fans may not have heard, which is unfortunate. Cantrell’s evocative opening riff sets up a low-key burner that erupts with one of Staley’s catchiest hooks, seemingly out of nowhere.
09. “It Ain’t Like That” (1990)
Cantrell and company had shed most of their glam metal leanings by the time they began working with producer Dave Jerden on Facelift in 1989. However, the final vestiges of that sound were still prevalent in mainstream contemporaries like Skid Row and Guns N’ Roses. You can faintly hear that influence on parts of Facelift, particularly on “It Ain’t Like That” — right down to its GNR-esque song title. But there’s no denying Cantrell’s airtight central riff. If released even a year prior, it could have been an MTV hit.
08. “Got Me Wrong” (1992)
The only true oddball choice on this list, considering it technically isn’t a riff in the literal sense. “Got Me Wrong” is rather a pattern of chords played with the tightness and bounciness of a riff. It makes for one of the most memorable opening guitar parts of the ’90s, immortalized as the music that plays when Dante opens the Quick Stop in Clerks. The MTV Unplugged version would also receive FM airplay, the breeziness of the song winning over those too sensitive for the era’s typically heavy guitars.
07. “Heaven Beside You” (1995)
Arguably the strongest riff of any of Alice in Chains’ acoustic-based songs, “Heaven Beside You” is classic Cantrell. The picked arpeggios and calculated string bends flow with a smooth ease that evokes the lyrical images of the song: the winter wind, somber reflection, and the passage of time and how it changes us. The MTV Unplugged version is arguably the definitive performance of this song; however, the studio version does tout some notable metal shredding during the bridge, which includes a slightly deranged riff of its own.
06. “Check My Brain” (2009)
Symbolically, “Check My Brain” stands as a pivotal song in the band’s career. Released as a single for 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue, the track gained radio traction and signaled the return of Alice in Chains to realm of mainstream rock. The riff here is delightfully bent in that twisted Alice in Chains way, ostensibly via a whammy bar. Cantrell’s tone is so massive, it sounds like even the mastering engineer couldn’t rein it in. There’s almost a noise-rock aspect to it. The riff crushes the speakers, quite literally. It also quelled the apprehensions of many AiC fans.
Click ahead for more sick Jerry Cantrell riffs…
05. “Grind” (1995)
The opening track of Alice in Chains’ grim 1995 self-titled LP (aka Tripod) sounds like a literal grind. A repetitive pattern is strummed into sonic submission, seeped in fuzzed-out distortion. Staley’s voice comes in like an intercom transmission inside an industrial factory: “In the darkest hole, you’d be well advised…” The track sets an unrelenting mood of bleakness and doom that permeates Tripod — though the album’s atmosphere often called for less obvious riffing than Facelift and Dirt, “Grind” being the exception.
04. “Rotten Apple” (1994)
The guitar blend on Jar of Flies opener “Rotten Apple” is the closest Alice in Chains got to art-rock mastery. Producer Toby Wright captured this shimmering spectacle on analog tape, for which we are all the fortunate witnesses of its sublime guitar work and mixing (not to mention arguably the most well-applied use of the talkbox in rock history). Mike Inez’s bass curls around Cantrell’s arpeggios and scales. The melodic lines intermingle in a warm bath of acoustic beauty. The song and EP are a gold-standard achievement of acoustic guitar production, rivaling Terry Manning’s work with Gimmer Nicholson, Big Star, and Led Zeppelin nearly three decades earlier.
03. “Died” (1999)
The final Alice in Chains song recorded with Layne Staley happens to house one of Cantrell’s most dynamic and memorable riffs. Evoking the spirit of Black Sabbath, Cantrell lays down a barrage of chunky, churning stoner riffage that would have fit snuggly on his 1998 solo debut, Boggy Depot. “Died” was recorded in 1999 along with “Get Born Again”, again with Toby Wright producing. The tracks were included on Music Back and finally issued as a limited edition 7″ single for Record Store Day in 2017.
02. “Them Bones” (1992)
The chugging palm muted opening riff of “Them Bones” is pure metal. And as the opening track on the band’s iconic 1992 album, Dirt, it served as the defacto introduction to Alice in Chains for many. It’s credited solely to Cantrell, but Staley apparently improvised the song’s opening screams of “Ah!”, timed to the first note in each bar of Cantrell’s riff. It’s hard to imagine the song — or the riff — without those vocalizations. Nevertheless, it’s a crushing piece of alternative metal and one of Alice in Chains’ heaviest compositions.
01. “Man in the Box” (1990)
The song that launched Alice in Chains to stardom. The importance of “Man in the Box” can’t be overstated, and Jerry Cantrell’s opening riff is not just his best, but one of the best by anyone ever. The subtle rhythmic variation and an impeccably well-timed hammer-on fill make a perfect bed for Staley’s wordless hook. It sealed the deal. When MTV saw the video, they chose it for the “Buzz Bin” rotation, and Alice in Chains became a household name overnight. As a result, Facelift shot from No. 166 to 42 on the Billboard charts. “Man in the Box” continues to permeate FM airwaves to this day. And it never gets old.