Soundgarden & Smashing Pumpkins Members Talk Grunge Guitar Solo Backlash

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Think “shredder,” and the usual suspects probably immediately come to mind – Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Dimebag Darrell, etc. But what about such talented ‘90s era alt rock guitarists as Kim Thayil (Soundgarden), Curt Kirkwood (Meat Puppets), Duane Denison (Jesus Lizard/Tomahawk), etc.? For my 21st book overall, Shredders! The Oral History Of Speed Guitar (And More) (out March 15 through Jawbone Press), I dove in deep – interviewing such traditional shredders as Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and George Lynch, but also, made sure to include a chapter that focused solely on the alt rock side of things. Read this excerpt, from a chapter in the book titled Not Just Metal, for the proof…

BILLY CORGAN [Smashing Pumpkins singer-guitarist; solo artist]
Absolutely. From the get-go. [Corgan experienced criticism from the alt-rock scene for having guitar solos in Smashing Pumpkins songs.]

CHRIS HASKETT [Rollins Band guitarist]
[I felt] pretty much an even mixture of complete boredom and intimidation! I could never play like that. Most of it just bored us. There were a couple of bands that I actually liked—up to Master Of Puppets Metallica, early Slayer. Master Of Puppets was in my little Walkman for a year—partially because of the sound of it. That was metal sounding ‘good,’ as opposed to metal sounding sludgy. But some of the other bands, after a while … especially speed metal—I liked Anthrax, but other than that, most speed metal, it’s got no groove. There’s very few drummers that can actually swing at those tempos. So most of it has no funk—it has no groove to it. We used to call it ‘hamster fucking’—that’s what it sounded like. It held no appeal for me. Because it was metal, but it wasn’t heavy. Then again, I’m in the minority in this. It stopped being heavy and was showboating, rather than actual real meat and potatoes heavy music.

A lot of those guys, it was also a whole bunch of technical things where it’s kind of like, the whole tapping thing, it was never going to ever fit with the style of music that we were playing, and I’ll never be able to learn to do it well, so I’ll just skip that whole step. I’m not a very fast player—this is not my thing. I was kind of relieved to not have to get into that kind of speed race of guitar playing that was going on that was very prevalent back then. But that said, there were a lot of people with amazing chops that I do like, but most of them tend to be the outside guy—guys like Steve Vai and Mike Keneally, and a lot of the Zappa guys. The guys that have this serious technique, but the technique isn’t the be-all/end- all—it is just a means to the end.

DUANE DENISON [Jesus Lizard, Tomahawk guitarist]
I wouldn’t say complete disdain, but it was somewhat frowned upon. I think that due to just the excesses of the corporate-rock genre and this sort of guitar hero worship, to us, it seemed like it was unnecessary and kind of a frivolous afterthought—that just wasn’t really necessary for the message of the music. And that if the song was interesting, I wanted the guitar parts and the riffs to be interesting enough that you didn’t necessarily need the solos—though I did occasionally take some. But it wasn’t on every song, which is what you get when you listen to a lot of classic rock or metal. Personally, I never looked down on solos or hated it, but it wasn’t what it was about—it was more about textures and chord things and rhythmic power.

AL JOURGENSEN [Ministry singer-guitarist] If you look to all the great early punk-rock songs—Richard Hell, The Ramones, the Pistols, Buzzcocks, Magazine, Wire— there was no emphasis on lead guitar playing there. At all. It was all song-craft. So that really started in the late 70s/early 80s, as completely the antithesis of the Eric Claptons, Jimmy Pages, and Jimi Hendrixes. It’s like, ‘We don’t need to be a technical master to write good tunes.’ And I thought that’s a very healthy attitude. And [Ministry guitarist] Mikey Scaccia embraced that later in his life, too. To a sense like, ‘This song is awesome. It doesn’t need me to go shred and rip on this section. It would sound forced.’ So he acquired restraint and taste.

In the immortal words of B.B. King, it’s like, ‘The best note that’s ever been played isn’t played.’ There’s no need for it—the best one may be silence. Silence may be the best note that you will ever play. I think a lot of these other people realized too, you don’t need a standard, forced guitar lead in every song to make that song. And if you do, it’s forced. You do what you do for each individual song. Each individual song is a journey; each album is a journey. Each lead is a journey if you take it as that, instead of just forcing it on a song, just because you think, ‘OK. We’re going to leave a section for a guitar lead.’ Well, what if it doesn’t need a guitar lead? Can you think of something else that can be there? And they don’t. They just force it. So I think that’s a healthy thing for the state of music.

KIM THAYIL [Soundgarden guitarist] I think guitar solos were part of the overindulgence of popular music—according to the punk rockers and the indie underground. Occasionally, some hardcore guys would whip out a solo, because the guitarist knew how to play that. Often, guitarists would learn their craft without developing improvisational skills or leads skills—they would focus more on rhythmic things and chords. They would consciously avoid guitar solos, because it was seen as some kind of ‘elitist indulgence,’ from the stadium-rock era of the 70s—as well as the prog rock era of the 70s. Borrowing from classical music was kind of considered obnoxious—at least in the punk, hardcore, and post-punk scene. In the post-hardcore scene, though, you had a lot of guitar players who started borrowing and incorporating guitar leads.

CURT KIRKWOOD [Meat Puppets singer-guitarist] Some people thought it was unnecessary. It’s like, if you’re playing a lead, it’s not punk rock. But I thought that was just more of a way to kind of push you to do something—either just forget it, swallow, and just do it, like, ‘Here’s a lead, anyway.’ One of the things I thought why people loathed to play any solos was sort of like, ‘Oh, you’re just masturbating.’ But one thing that I never lost was what I was into was just playing guitar—playing punk rock was an excuse to play guitar … playing any music was an excuse to play guitar. I didn’t really ever separate the leads from the other stuff. I wasn’t that into playing leads, but my brother would say, ‘You’re good at that. There should be a lead on there and there.’ So I would do it anyway, and just kind of change the song up. But I didn’t really care not to put them in there—I thought it was fun.

DUANE DENISON Usually the lyrics were the last thing to go on—I tried doing it that way [letting the lyrics influence the music], and it just never worked. Typically, a song would start off with just a pattern or a motif or a theme. And that could be a bass line or a short melodic figure on the guitar, and then I would try and develop it, harmonize it, put different intervals over it, transpose it, play it backward, build a part around that, and then try to have the other sections somewhat related to that, so there was some kind of cohesion and unity. So it was actually a composition. I know that people will think like, ‘What?!’ But we actually put a lot of time and thought into those arrangements. I’d like to think they’ve held up well as a result.

But as far as rhythm guitar, I tried to avoid the standard chord voicings and shapes. Obviously, there’s times where only a power chord will do, and I was not shy about that. But trying to add notes and things where there was a certain amount of dissonance and angularity that you didn’t typically hear in rock guitar players—at least up until that point. There were others, but I’d like to think I did it differently. And you had to have the right kind of sound to bring that out. If I had a more saturated ‘metal sound,’ those chords would have just turned to mush, and those riffs, there wouldn’t have been any articulation to it. So it had to be a little cleaner and brighter to begin with. But it was all really about trying to not do the typical thing, and not just have it be barre chords and blues licks—which is what classic rock up to that point had been.

CHRIS HASKETT By the time Henry [Rollins] and I started doing a band together, it was an audience with a wider attention span, I suppose. There was space to put in a guitar solo if it was appropriate. But I came to solos pretty late. In almost every band I’ve been in, I’m the weak link. When I started playing with Henry, I was in a band with Andrew Weiss and Sim Cain, who are the rhythm section of Gone, and they had already been playing together like, ten years. And they were both amazing. And then combined, they were more than the sum of their parts.

When I started out, I’d just write riffs and hooks and play them to death, and my solos—if you go back and listen to Hot Animal Machine—tend to just be the main riff repeated without the vocals. [Laughs] But it was also a baptism by fire— if you want to be in a band with people that good, you’re going to get better … or you’re going to be out. And then when Andrew left and we replaced him with Melvin Gibbs, I mean, Christ … you’d better be on your game and find your voice!

DUANE DENISON There was a time in the 80s when there was a bunch of guitar players—mostly English—who did a lot of interesting chord and textural and effects stuff, and didn’t do a lot of solos. Andy Gill from Gang Of Four, the late John McGeoch from Magazine and Siouxsie & The Banshees, and Geordie Walker from Killing Joke. Those were very influential.

KIM THAYIL I guess guitar solos in a way were taking away from the vocal, from the lyrics, from the riff, from the rhythm. And I think that was a way in which it was perceived—both as an indulgence and an inefficient way to convey a musical idea in song form. Of course, there were really great guitarists that came out of that period—guys like D. Boon from the Minutemen and Curt Kirkwood from the Meat Puppets. These guys, when they started off, their solos were kind of noisy or just a fast instrumental accent or dimension to the song. It just added energy to the song.

But in the post-hardcore thing in the mid to late 80s, these guys were incorporating their guitar chops more … obviously, D. Boon had passed away by then, but he was definitely getting his little weird beatnik blues licks in on the Minutemen albums, up to the mid 80s. And the guitarists from Saccharine Trust, St. Vitus, and Black Flag definitely incorporated in guitar solos and doing it more.

But initially with punk rock, that was not really a thing. The Ramones didn’t play any solos. The Sex Pistols played pretty sparse, their solo style was very much like Johnny Thunders from The New York Dolls—a few string bends here and there, a couple triplets, and that was about it. It fulfilled the function of accenting the song. Sort of like shifting gears—accelerating. But as far as exploring musical themes in a way that a lot of the late 70s bands may do—Crimson or Yes, or even to some extent Zeppelin or Sabbath—that was kind of frowned upon. The music was moving away from that and more song, riff, and vocal oriented.

But it’s strange, because concurrent to this, you had Eddie Van Halen come out, who changed the idea of how a guitar could sound and how lead guitar can change the technique, but also how it was incorporated in the songs. And by the way, Eddie Van Halen—one of the greatest guitarists ever, one of the best soloists ever—was not overindulgent in his use of the guitar solo in a song. As a matter of fact, the first album has a lot of great leads, but there aren’t really a whole lot of solos, per se—they’re like quick flourishes and fills. And on Van Halen II, there are definitely some great guitar solo parts, but it’s not lead heavy. It really isn’t. Everything was more song-oriented—the songs were a lot tighter, oriented toward the lyric, the vocal, the pop arrangements.

To read another excerpt from the book, click here.

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  • Great excerpt from a very cool book!

  • Kevin Lang

    Interesting piece, great piece! I have always been a BIG Pumpkins fan. Absolutely one of the biggest in fact. I never realized how incredibly good of a guitarist Billy was until I saw them live. Have seen them live a LOT, probably 12 times. I have even seen him play a bar in their heydey of Siamese Dream. It was on the stadium tour for Mellon Collie, though, that he most blew me away.

    about the issues of guitar solos being indulgence, Green Day is known to actually invite fans on stage to play guitar with the band… and Billy Joe admonishes every one of them to not to a solo or they will pull the plug. It is part of the punk ethos, which I get. Though solos too often were formulaic and unnecessary (basically, all 80s hair metal… I am looking at you) – sometimes they can be transcendent. Now, we all know about Comfortably Numb… but also watch Lindsay Buckingham play the solo in ‘Landslide’. Watch a live clip. It is incredible. He plays the solo, and the melody underneath it at the same time.

    He, too, is an incredible guitarist that you might not realize unless you see them live.

    If I had to vote whether all songs had solos after the 2nd verse, or get rid of all of them… I would opt to get rid of all of them. I think about 80% are just pointless musical masturbation. To be transparent, I am a life long guitarist… so I have a bias. Perhaps, though, it is why I think a forced one is just a cruel waste of everyone’s time.

    Ok, one last pertinent caveat… I am a rythym player, and can’t solo for crap. So, screw those guys! I am just jelly.