Kim Thayil Praises Jerry Cantrell’s Guitar Playing

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The ’90s were a transformative time for rock music, and the Seattle grunge scene played a pivotal role in this evolution. It wasn’t just about creating new music; it was about defying conventions, infusing freedom, and embracing a sense of danger. The early ’90s brought forth a musical landscape that, in many ways, rediscovered the spirit of rock’s golden age while breaking away from the mainstream-pleasing confines of the past.

Kim Thayil is a Grunge pioneer

Soundgarden’s guitarist Kim Thayil, known for his distinctive and sludgy guitar licks, recently sat down with Guitar World to discuss the defining features of ’90s rock guitar and his personal approach to the instrument. In an era when grunge was challenging established norms, Thayil and his bandmates harnessed unorthodox techniques and original uses of feedback to craft their unique sound.

“Feedback was a big part of the sound,” Thayil recalled. “One of our first recordings was ‘Tears to Forget,’ and we only had eight tracks to work with, one of which was entirely dedicated to guitar feedback. Some people thought it was funny, but it sounded cool.” Thayil’s reminiscence of these early experiments underscores the band’s willingness to push the boundaries of sound.

Kim’s secret to guitar playing

Thayil also highlighted their penchant for unconventional techniques, such as playing behind the bridge or incorporating harmonics as integral components of their riffs. These daring explorations were a defining aspect of Soundgarden’s style, setting them apart in the grunge landscape.

“We weren’t just using harmonics as an effect or lead element; it was part of the actual riff,” Thayil explained. “And we did that frequently – if something sounded strange, we’d usually be inclined to explore. We’d say things like, ‘Let’s write a song where the riff is just feedback,’ or ‘Let’s come up with a riff mainly using harmonics!'”

In Thayil’s view, their creative freedom found fertile ground in alternate tunings, like drop D, which facilitated bending the strings in a way that paralleled lead guitar work, offering a distinct sonic signature.

Thayil’s admiration for Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath shines through in his discussion. He observes that the approach of using feedback and unconventional techniques in riffs is very “Sabbathy.” He also pays tribute to Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell, a fellow pioneer of the ’90s grunge scene who masterfully incorporated these ideas into his guitar work. Cantrell’s signature bent riffs became a hallmark of the Alice in Chains sound.

Jerry Cantrell praised by Kim Thayil

According to UG, He stated: “Yeah, Sabbath did a lot of that. That became a very distinct signature of Alice in Chains. Jerry Cantrell writes the coolest riffs with those howling, sexy bends. Listen to ‘It Ain’t Like That’ and you’ll see what I mean. I fell in love with that as soon as I heard it. That became Jerry’s thing, riffing with those awesome bends. Nobody could bend the note the same smooth way as consistently as he could. I’d say the two signature elements of Alice in Chains’ sound was Jerry’s bent riffs as well as those vocal harmonies. And if you listen to the Nirvana song ‘Blew’ from ‘Bleach’, Kurt [Cobain] was using bends as part of the riff. These were things that were probably introduced early on in the Seattle scene through us.”

The influence of these techniques extended beyond Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. These unorthodox guitar techniques became integral to the sound that defined the Seattle scene and the broader ’90s rock movement.

However, Thayil doesn’t see himself as a typical “metal lead player.” He distinguishes his approach from the classical, ornate solos that, in his words, are intended to impress listeners outside the genre. He playfully labels such solos as “mom music,” reserved for convincing parents that rock isn’t just “noise” and that it’s influenced by the likes of Paganini.

Instead, Thayil’s approach is more akin to impressionism, focusing on feel and emotion. For him, a solo isn’t about displaying technical prowess; it’s about conveying mood and atmosphere, be it manic, chaotic, moody, or melancholic.

He ended: “As for the impressionistic guitar solos, I’m definitely not a metal lead player. Those kinds of solos owe more to classical, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s ‘mom music’! It’s the kind of stuff you do to tell your parents, ‘See, I’m not just making noise, I’m not a long-haired drug-taking asshole… this is real music influenced by Paganini!'”