Bernard Sumner became an instrumental figure in Joy Division, New Order, and Electronic, lending each band a distinctive sound. However, the frequent criticism of his guitar skills for over 4 decades now makes me wonder: Is Bernard Sumner a good guitarist?
Here is what I know from being a Sumner fan:
Despite his success, Bernard Sumner is not a great guitarist from a technical standpoint. However, he is excellent at writing riffs and chords that perfectly capture the mood of the lyrics and fit perfectly with New Order and his other bands’ sound.
Strong vocals may not be counted among Bernard’s major strengths, but the guy can hit marvelous chords on his guitar. He has significantly recorded some of the most memorable live concerts in history.
Drawing inspiration from Sex Pistols and Can, Bernard “Barney” Sumner produced minimalistic, simple, and melodic guitar tunes in the initials years of Joy Division.
However, after the band’s frontman Ian Curtis died in 1980, Sumner was keen on lending the newly formed band New Order a unique identity to help them escape the legacy that Ian had left behind.
That led to Sumner using complex electronic songs which were less guitar-driven and more focused on synthesizers and drum machines.
I am curious whether this ambitious dream to create a unique identity apart from Joy Division was the reason behind Sumner’s mediocre guitar skills. Is he that bad?
Let us work chord by chord and find out:
A Very Happy Birthday to English post-punk and new wave singer/songwriter, guitarist, producer and founding member of both Joy Division and New Order, Bernard Sumner, 62, born 4 January 1956 in Salford. pic.twitter.com/deRUiatV24
— CRAVE Guitars (@CRAVE_Guitars) January 4, 2018
What guitar does Bernard Sumner use now?
Sumner uses a Shergold Masquerader from his Joy Division days at most New Order gigs. But his other favorites also include a Vox Phantom, Gibson SG, and a Rickenbacker 360-12 string.
Here are Sumner’s most favorite guitars that he frequently uses:
Bernard’s most beloved guitar is from his Joy Division era. A classic custom Shergold Masquerader.
The solid-body guitar has helped Barney capture the essence of Rock’ n’ Roll, which is particularly apparent in She’s Lost Control. The guitar has been an essential gear in his collection from 1980 to 2019.
Vox Phantom Special VI:
Vox Phantom is another gem in Sumner’s collection. Specially picked after former band member Ian’s death, Sumner has used Vox Phantom Special VI frequently in New Order albums.
Adding the charm to his elaborate guitar collection, the legendary 12 string guitar Rickenbacker 360 is Sumner’s another widely used guitar. The guitar had helped him achieve the haunting melodic choruses that benchmarked the punk movement in the 1970s and 80s.
Gibson SG Standard Electric Guitar:
Sumner has also used Gibson SG Standard Electric Guitar to record various New Order and Joy Division segments. He recently played the Gibson SG live on stage for BT London at Hyde Park in Central London.
Fender Stratocaster Electric Guitar:
Another addition that sets Sumner’s unbloated prog-rock distorted sound different from others is the magic of his Fender Stratocaster Electric Guitar.
Here are some of the effect medals he uses:
- Melos Echo/Delay Unit
- Chorus/Flanger (the model name is unknown)
- MXR 10 band equalizer
- Altair PW-5 Power Attenuator
Bernard Sumner in his Joy Division days. Always liked those Shergold guitars. pic.twitter.com/6LvI88Z600
— Baz & The Tomorrow Band (@baztomorrowband) May 12, 2020
What guitar did Bernard Sumner play in Joy Division?
While in Joy Division, Bernard Sumner used a Gibson SG and a custom-made Shergold Masquerader as his main guitars.
It’s also worth noting that following Joy Division’s disbandment, he also used Curtis’s Vox Phantom Special VI from 1980-2002.
Sumner used Shergold Masquerader and Gibson SG to draw soft, melodic, and angular strumming that resembled Sex Pistols. In contrast, Ian used a Vox Phantom on Unknown Pleasures, the first Joy Division album.
He uses the guitar in She’s Lost Control and Transmission in the album.
The Shergold Masquerader was a versatile guitar that allowed Sumner to use more tone options as the coils of the humbuckers could be individually split and switched out of phase.
While this guitar never gained much popularity in the USA, the basswood body guitar became a signature instrument in Joy Division.
As the band began attracting popularity, Ian’s sudden demise in 1980 put the musical band on a pause. But when the group decided to continue as New Order, Sumner’s first guitar was Ian’s Vox Phantom Special VI (now on auction) to commemorate his friend’s memories.
Sumner used Ian’s teardrop Vox Phantom to produce various songs in New Order, especially noticeable in their 1981 e.p. Everything’s Gone Green.
The guitar was finally passed to Ian’s daughter Natalie by Sumner in 2002, to which she replied:
“It is fascinating to see my father’s guitar, I mean, it’s such a personal thing. Since I’m a visual person, the Phantom is especially interesting to me, as the design is rather unusual”.
Peter Hook’s original Shergold Marathon Custom Bass Guitar.
This was used extensively during the recording of Joy Division’s ‘Closer’ album. pic.twitter.com/VTBTCYUxec
— Joy Division & New Order Pics (@JDNOPICS) February 28, 2019
What guitar effects did Joy Division use?
Joy Division used a few pedals in their rigs, such as the Electro-Harmonix Clone Theory, a pedal that makes chorus and vibrato. But much of their guitar sound came from solid-state amps with built-in distortion in conjunction with the unique sound of the Vox Phantom guitar.
Since Joy Division had such a short career, there isn’t much information available on the internet which could inform me briefly about the various effects Joy Division produced. However, I stumbled upon a site that helped a little.
Read below what I found:
Sumner used a combination of guitars and synthesizers to reproduce full instrumentation in live settings giving Joy Division their trademark ‘metallic’ sound that came from built-in battery-powered Vox Phantom Special VI.
Another factor that helped Joy Division build their signature effects was the introduction of a six-string Shergold Marathon model used on many songs on the Closer album.
Bernard Sumner’s mastery of the guitar paired with his voice makes every New Order song feel new no matter how many times I’ve heard it pic.twitter.com/petHNBHoV7
— Drinking Green Tea (@food_enjoyer) December 23, 2016
Why did Bernard’s guitar tone change from Joy Division to New Order?
Bernard’s guitar tone changed significantly from Joy Division to New Order as a way to escape the shadows of the legacy that Ian Curtis had left. As a result, his guitar tone and chords were lighter and sounded more hopeful.
Ever since Joy Division morphed into New Order, Sumner took on the duties of the lead vocalist. From here, he attempted to bring a change in the way they were producing music.
I made sure to discuss at length the consequences that followed changing the band’s name in a recent article of mine. What really surprised me was the contract they had all agreed to regarding continuing if 1 of the members left.
Just click that link to read it on my site.
Sumner even began using horrible overdriven preamps and synthesizers to set a different tone to New Order for a brief time. As the band worked for some time, differences began to surface. Peter Hook continuously expressed his resentment towards the 360 degrees turn the band took.
The surviving members decided to leave their past behind by adopting a new name.
This became a pivotal reason for Sumner’s use of a completely different tone from Joy Division. Along with changing the band’s name, read my recent article to find out what other steps the band members took to escape the shadows of their past after Curtis’ suicide.
Just click that link to read it on my site.
Gillian Gilbert -New Order#GillianGilbert #NewOrder pic.twitter.com/UIs1HgkWXW
— Carlos Martin (@nososvossoyyo) January 28, 2021
How Often Does Gillian Gilbert Play Guitar in New Order?
Gillian Gilbert plays synthesizers the majority of the time in New Order. However, she does play guitar on songs such as Ceremony, Love Vigilantes, and Dreams Never End.
New Order’s unsung ‘hero-ine’ guitarist, Gillian Gilbert, has played a decisive role in ensuring the band’s longevity by frequently contributing as a key guitarist.
Gillian made her live debut with the New Order at The Squat in Manchester.
She played guitar during the studio recording of New Order’s first single Ceremony and many songs such as Dreams Never End and We All Stand.
Gillian stayed with the band, significantly contributing to producing a series of albums, including Low-Life, Technique, Republic, and Get Ready. From here, she took a lengthy sabbatical to tend to her children starting in 2001.
During her absence, Phil Cunningham replaced her onstage for some time.
Fortunately, the synth queen, Gilbert, re-joined New Order in 2011 and was part of the band’s widely popular comeback album- Music Complete, in 2015. Cunningham remained in the band as well, making the group a quintet rather than their traditional quartet.
Peter Hook was gone by then, but her return meant that 3 of the 4 original members were still in the band.
“I’m back now, and young people are shouting my name; it feels so good. Women should be in bands – every band should have one!”
Gilbert’s been a significant guitarist in the band since then, playing quite frequently.
From being a budding guitarist when he founded Joy Division to his new identity as the guitarist/ vocalist in New Order, Bernard Sumner is an instrumental figure in the world of famous guitarists.
While his name may not go down well in the history of guitar legends, the multi-talented brit punk-movement starter is undoubtedly a good guitarist.
Photo which requires attribution:
Bad Lieutenant by Man Alive! is licensed under CC2.0 and was cropped, edited, and had a text overlay added.