100 Favorite Guitarists: #9 Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins, Zwan, Spirits in the Sky, Solo Work)
The Smashing Pumpkins are a fun band to try to describe to people in terms of genre, as aside from making their debut during grunge they really shared no similarities with other other major bands that came out during the time. My attempts to narrow down end up at something like “they’re baroque psychedelic dream pop metal, unless you get certain albums and then the game totally changes.” Despite the the difficulty of narrowing down a coherent one or two word way of describing them, I have grown more and more enamored with the band in recent years and have seen my love of them grow in relation to my study of the guitar. Billy Corgan, the band’s constant creative force, is one of the guitarists I can most directly trace my own style of playing to, this constant desire to make my compositions something new and exciting with each thing I work on and to use the guitar not only as a tool of melodic aggression but also as a mood altering tapestry of fully formed feeling, the a palpable incarnation of beautiful intent. What Billy does so well is give this strong sense of emotional content with his guitar playing, either weaving his guitar in simple passages of beauty or more technical passages of aggression. Everything becomes this big roller coaster of ideas, this constant back and forth to understand the rawness of emotions and all the unconscious parts of ourselves that feed into them. In a song like “Mayonaise,” about all those complex feelings about defining oneself in our youths, which opens with a delicate near acoustic moving line topped with little harmonics that give this feeling of fragility that mirrors the tentative nature of growing up. This gives way to a really full sounding fuzzed out chord pattern, a kind of white noise that seems to speak to all the different voices informing us washing out, while still having a driving pattern. The solo is a slow builder, one that is about moving forward and kind of boiling up, the gradual desire to fully form into a powerful scream that we shout at the heart of the world that says “this is what I am.” Corgan seems to know just how to lock into these sounds that echo different states of being, the way we feel when we are that certain person and then uses the limited nature of six strings to make it all feel so familiar, bringing us back into the orbit of what it means to feel all the confusion and heartache that comes with being alive.
Perhaps a large part of this is just how interesting Corgan’s solos end up being. While rarely exercises in pure brutal speed, they so perfectly match my idea of a solo being the culmination of what a song is trying to say in wordless way. Billy seems to be able to find ways to make the guitar bend around his ideas, making his notes the natural extension of thematic content and really unlocks them with a strong usage of effects. One of the more impressive aspects of this is just how good he is at making solos out of the general idea of the melody, either the guitar or vocal patterns, which shouldn’t be as interesting to us, as we’ve heard it before, but in Billy’s hands they become more vibrant and dynamic, giving us both familiarity with the general idea of it, but adding a new wrinkle by adding a driving force behind it, such as in “That’s the Way (My Love Is),” where the strong use of echoes and shrill notation takes the vocal line to knew heights of powerful declaration. Other times his solos bring in added genre influence to build a sense of depth and recognition of the universal nature of what he is doing, resulting in this kind of controlled chaos. The solo on “Drown” would be a good example of this, as the pop-y nature of the song gives way to a more psychedelic flavor, the idea of waves rolling over our unconcerned bodies found through an EBow, with notes vibrating in and out of perception. It makes the whole song feel more introspective and chaotic, like something is overflowing and giving way to the ream of the unreal. With each new song, Billy seems to find a way to unnerve us by making the solo a jarring and distinct part of the composition; it is never a rote exercise but a clear division of what naturally occurs when pondering the gravity of the song.
Of course, for all the Pumpkins’ ability to create these wonderful webs of graceful composition, they were just always really good at making powerful and aggressive songs. Many of my favorite Smashing Pumpkins songs are just exercises in rapidly down stroking chords to the sound of fully drowned gain and fuzz. Its not easy to say to why this works so well in their songs, as the aggression always seemed carefully meted out rather than the deluge of pure anger, as if they were kind of holding back in service of something larger than themselves. But, this sense of control always seemed to give the songs an extra sharpness, a feeling of anticipation for the animalistic response we could give it and all the different ways that response could be carried out. “Tarantula,” “Bodies,” and “Heavy Metal Machine” are all in the same vein and yet seem so different because they never match up in the way the tension is released, allowing them each to cut in their own way. Yet, they still have that forward momentum that encourages you to unleash yourself when listening to them, to let your body find a natural flow of movement to them and experience them with such awareness of your muscles oscillating between taught and free. Chord patterns and individual lines of notes become all the more interesting because we know that they all come from the same place but have so many different faces that they are showing us, so many different patterns and strategies to assault our senses. At the same time, the way the songs are arranged give us hints of greater depth behind this, allowing us the choice of the instinctive and the intelligent, leaving us absolute freedom as to how we proceed with our listening.
Having seen the band live twice and listened to their albums countless times, the Smashing Pumpkins are one of the few bands that continue to surprise me with new depth each time I listen to them. As a guitarist, Billy Corgan brings so much to the table in terms of influences and styles, making each composition radically different to suit his mood. The results are wonderful messes of emotions made audible, desires laid bare, making it all that a guitar should and can do.
The Equipment: Billy has been using a Fender Stratocaster throughout his career, most notably a Black ‘57 reissue equipped with Lace Sensor Red, Silver and Blue pickups. Lace Sensor pickups have a different system of employing magnets in single coils, so their sound is notably less hum filled and as my friend describes it, the red sounds like an “angry P-90.” I have also seen him employ a Tony Iommi Signature SG on stage, as well as a Schecter C-1 Baritone (he apparently smashed this guitar) and Reverend Guitars during the Zwan days. Recently, he and Fender collaborated on a signature Strat which contains two signature DiMarzio pickups and the most notable feature is the switching system which splits the hum canceling single coils in interesting ways. His amp of choice was the “Mars” Marshall, a 1984 JCM 800, though now he appears to be using a Bogner Uberschall and a Diezel Herbert. I’m sure he has used a ton of pedals, but I mostly think og him for his use of phase and fuzz and holy crap, does he have a large number of each.
Key Track: Geek USA (oddly no studio versions on YouTube, which you have to be careful of, as they didn’t always do the solo live)