Guitar School
April 1996

(Transcribed by Nikki Christoff)

In recent months, Smashing Pumpkins' Mellons Collie and the Infinite Sadness has administered a chokehold on the rock and roll universe, demonstrating in no uncertain terms the band's far-reaching scope and ferocious power. Pumpkin-Patch leader Billy Corgan, the group's primary songwriter and guitarist, leads his cohorts-James Iha (guitar), D'Arcy (bass) and Jimmy Chamberlin (drums)- on a vast excursion of sounds, styles, textures and emotions, and in doing so manages to surpass the formidable musical mastery of 1993's multi-platinum Siamese Dream.

The skull-bashing of "Where Boys Fear to Tread," "Tales of a Scorched Earth" and the hit single "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" is tempered by the hypnotic pop of "1979" and the ethereal beauty of "In the Arms of Sleep" and "By Starlight." There are even a few tunes, like "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans" and "Thru the Eyes of Ruby," that effortlessly incorporate all of these disparate qualities. Toss in the undeniably anthemic grandeur of "Here Is No Why" and "Muzzle" and you've got one of rock's great achievements.

Below is a first-hand analysis of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness with the main man himself, Billy Corgan.

GUITAR SCHOOL: What kind of equipment did you use for this album?

BILLY CORGAN: On much of the album, I used my old 1984 Marshall JCM 800 100-watt top, which is my favorite amp; it's on every Pumpkins record. I bought the amp with a 4x12 bottom-I don't even know what kind of speakers are in it-and used the bottom for most of the guitar tracks. My other main rig is the Marshall JMP-1 rack preamp, which goes into an Alesis compressor and then into a mesa is its "half amp" thing, which allows you to cut the wattage in half. That helps the way the sound hits the power section of the amp and gives it a certain kind of compression, which sounds really good. I like the amp's "presence" control, too. Power amps don't give you much in the way of controls a lot of the time. But I don't use the Mesa in stereo because I think stereo guitar sounds like shit.

GS: What songs use these different amp setups?

Corgan: "Jellybelly" is a good example of the Marshall rack and Alesis compressor guitar sound, which is the basic "fat" rhythm sound I use.

I used the JCM 800 for most all of the overdubs on the record. That's the JCM at work it kicks in really heavy [at :23] during "Thru the Eyes of Ruby," That amp has a certain cut to it that sounds great.

Because of the total differences between the two setups, I tend to use the JCM 800 more for leads, solos and overdubs than for rythem. Using two setups together makes the different guitar parts work better together-to "sit" better. On Siamese Dream I did everything with that JCM head, so it was harder to get tonal differences on each guitar part.

GS: Did you use any other guitar amps on the record?

CORGAN: On "To Forgive," I used a Fender Bassman that I bought during the recording of Siamese Dream. It's an old, fucked-up amp, one of those "silver face" models from the late Sixties or early Seventies. I paid to get it fixed, but it still doesn't work right. The amp makes this weird sound, like a storm coming. While we rehearsed the song, the sound got worse, and then started to go away,at which point we started to record. Right about the time we did the rake that's on the album,the sound started to come back. If you listen closely, you can hear a little bit of the storm sound coming again.

GS: Is it like a rumble?

CORGAN: No, it's more like KKKkkkccchhhHHH, like something's definitely wrong with the amp. I've had problems with tubes going harmonic, but this is something else altogether. I've tried kicking that head as hard as I can, and sometimes that makes the sound go away. But other times it makes it get worse, so you have to know just when and how to kick it! [laughs]

GS: How do you play the first verse of "To Forgive"?

CORGAN: It's mostly based on arpeggiated 1st-position chords. At the chorus, I break into full chords combined with single-note arpegiations.

GS: The bridge of "To Forgive" has a very cool cyclical feel to it.

CORGAN: That's because it's based on a chord progression that actually cycles around.

GS: Did you use any other unusual amps for certain tunes?

CORGAN: Not really. I can pretty much get everything I want from my rack setup. James has a Fender Twin, which we used on some tracks for cleaner tones.

Come to think of it, we did use a Vox AC-30 on a lot of tracks. It's a '64 that someone lent us, and it sounded fuckin' great. I used it on "Tonight, Tonight" and "By Starlight." At the very end of "By Starlight," there's a feedback and octave thing I do [beginning roughly at 4:12], and it's just me standing in front of the amp and cranking it up. I double-tracked it, so I'm getting different feedback on each track. It was difficult because I wasn't used to playing with "Vox" feedback. It was hard to get the guitar to feed back in the range I wanted. When I went back and double-tracked it, I went for feedback in a higher range, which created weird dissonance when I put the two tracks together.

GS: How do you play the intro and verse sections of "Tonight, Tonight"?

CORGAN: The intro is made up of repeated suspended chords. For the verse, I play arpeggiated chords, using the open D, G and B strings in conjunction with fretted notes on the A string.

GS: "Tonight, Tonight" has a wide range of cool guitar tones on it.

CORGAN: The Vox has a lot to do with that. Also, when I used that amp, I mostly played a '72 Gibson 335 instead of my standard '57 reissue Strat.

GS: Is that 335 the same guitar that's in the "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" video?

CORGAN: No. We rented the 335 in the video because I didn't want to fly mine out to L.A. where I was going to be jumping around in the desert all day! [laughs] I bought my 335 at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, the same place where I picked up a 1928 National Steel that I'm in love with. I swear I'm going to learn to play slide on that thing. I like the 335; it's the only non-Strat guitar that I really enjoy playing.

GS: Can you use it for the really loud, heavy tuned even though it's a semi-hollow guitar?

CORGAN: Yeah, i'm fine with it. I can get that Ted Nugent, Double Live Gonzo sound, no problem. Sometimes when I'm playing the 335 on stage, I'll go ino [Nugent's] "Stranglehold" because the tone is exactly the same! The band always gets a kick out of that.

GS: Do you play that guitar on any other songs.

CORGAN: Right now, I'm just using it for "Tonight, Tonight," thought I'll probably start using it for other things, too. It sounds real good on "Bullet."

GS: Speaking of "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," can you explain the different section of that tune?

CORGAN: Sure. The verse section is based around a droney chord shape. At the chorus, I shift to full 1st-position chords while James plays barre chords. The, for the breakdown, I switch to arpeggiations of the 1st-position chords.

GS: Are you happy with the guitar sounds on this record?

CORGAN: Yeah, I am. For the next record, though, I'm planning on not using any of my own gear. I want to force myself to get a totally new sound. I'm going to dismantle the rack and start over.

GS: Di you use any other non-Strat guitars on Mellon Collie?

CORGAN: On "Where Boys Fear to Tread," I used a Les Paul Junior reissue. I really like that guitar a lot. It's got a fat sound. Though the rack set-up, that thing sounds incredible.

GS: That song has a pretty crazy beginning.

CORGAN: That's the part of a sick jam we were having. The song just a pretty simple riff played over and over. We but that one live, and the take on the record is the first time we ever played the tune together! All the changes in the song are totally off-the-but, and were signaled by me via making signals and faces to the band as we played.

GS: It's interesting how, at the very end of the song, you unexpectedly return to the lick one more time. A similar little "extra piece" thing happens at the end of "Love."

CORGAN: The thing with "Where Boys" was that, when we got to the last note, which we hold, I signaled Jimmy to come back in on the riff. I wanted him to end it exactly as it ends on the record, but he played through it, so we had to edit it later.

GS: Did you and James have aa basic guitar setup that you used for most of the record?

CORGAN: Yes. Most of the time, the guitar combination was my '57 reissue Strat and James's gray sunburst Les Paul, which I think is from the eighties. That's the one that stays in tune. He's more sentimentally tied, however, to his black one, which won't stay in tune with anything! We call that the Gish Les Paul, because it's on so much of that record. While we were recording Gish, we had to continually punch in because if the low chords voicing were in tune, then the high voicings would be out of tune. It drove me fucking nuts! There's nothing I hate more than an out-of-tune guitar.

GS: What makes that super high-pitched sound that goes through "Where Boys," beginning at :45?

CORGAN: I used a '74 Strat, commonly known as the "I love My Mom" guitar. That guitar has since been painted baby blue. I used it on the main rhythm of "Muzzle," through the reach setup.

GS: That's a fantastic guitar sound.

CORGAN: Yeah. The guitar is made of a heavier wood so it's got the basic Strat sound but with more bottom, more of a low-fi kind of sound that's real nice. It sounds good for certain songs. I played that guitar on "Bullet," too, because it has a little more "Chunk" on the bottom end.

GS: How is the "Muzzle" verse section played?

CORGAN: Again, I use a lot of 1st-position chords. As far as other electric guitars go, I bought an Epiphone SG from a crack dealer. That's the guitar I play on "An Ode to No One". It has this weird, EMG-type pickups in it, and you get that low-mid, Black Sabbath esque "superchunk" sound. When I was recording the solo to "Fuck You," I kept ending it by throwing the guitar against the amp, just to see what kind of sound it would make, and I broke the screws that hold the pickups in, so they were flopping around and banging against the strings! [laughs]

GS: Was that a useful sound?

CORGAN: No. It don't sound as cool as you'd think. It was just an annoying thud, followed by a high-pitched whine. Not much to get excited about.

GS: Can you demo "Fuck You" for us?

CORGAN: Sure. The first verse is all single notes. For the second verse we switched to power chords. The chorus is based on an ascending octave figure. For this octave lick, I must the A string the whole time.

GS: There are some really wild noises during that solo. Are you using a Digitech Whammy pedal?

CORGAN: No, not there-but there is a bunch of Whammy on the record. James uses a Whammy for his solo in "Zero." For "Fuck You," I stood in front of the amp, which was turned up so loud that I could barely play without it feeding back all over the place. It created a bizarre interaction of sounds. I did use the Whammy during the breakdown section of "Bodies" [beginning at 1:56] to drop the harmonies a whole step.

GS: At the end of "Fuck You," it sounds like you're bending the neck of the guitar backwards, raising the pitch of the held chord.

CORGAN: That's exactly what i'm doing. That's a funny story, because when I recorded the rhythm guitar tracks to "Fuck You," it was the first time I tracked with the album's co-producer, Alan Moulder. Flood, whom I'd been tracking with, had left town. I recorded the first rythem track and did a little neck pull at the end. Then I did the other track without listening to the first track, which is how I always do guitar double tracking.

At the end of the second track, I pulled the neck again and said to Alan, "Okay, watch this." The I played them both back, without the drums, and we listened for discrepancies. Alan absolutely could not believe I did the neck pull-out of time, no less-at exactly the same moment, It's kind of a tribute to Alan, really, 'cause I did it to freak him out. I've double-tracked for so long now that I know all of my little idiosyncrasies. I knew from the "feel" in my body when to do the pull.

GS: Did you use any 12-string guitars on the records?

CORGAN: I used an Eighties 12-string Fender a bit on the end of "Beautiful," for this "walking" guitar line. It's hard to pick out, though. You can hear the guitar most clearly when the song switches from the middle eight back to the normal part of the song [at 2:41].

GS: What's the deal with the acoustic guitars?

CORGAN: That's a good question. [laughs] James has a bunch of good acoustics: A Gibson, a Takamine and a few others. I'd just grab whatever was around. He has a 12-string acoustic-I think it's a Gibson-that we tuned to the "Nashville" tuning [achieved by removing the regular strings on a 12-string, leaving only the higher octave strings for the 6th, 5th, 4th and 3rd strings; the 1st and 2nd strings are "unisons," so they stay in the same octave]. We used that tuning on "Thirty-Three," and it might be on "Take Me Down" or "Farewell and Goodnight."

"Stumbleine" is a demo that I recorded at my house. I play my Ovation acoustic on that one. What's unusual about that riff is that the octaves are played on A and B strings, with the open D and G strings ringing in between the octaves.

I'm generally pretty nonchalant about acoustics. I have a '62 Gibson Southern Jumbo that I write on a lot, so I always leave that at home. A lot of the record was written on the Southern Jumbo and the piano. I bought the Jumbo at a place called Black Market Music in San Francisco. They have a lot of guitars hanging from the ceiling, and they have a great collection of pedals, too. James and I used to always go shopping for guitars together, but then he got weird about trying to beat me to the guitar stores. We played a gig in San Francisco recently, and I went down to the Black Market and saw a nice guitar. I said, "Maybe James would like this guitar." and the salesman says, "That's funny; James was just here!" I go, "He was?! Did he buy anything?" And the guy says, "Yeah, he bought a '62 Strat for $3,000. Look over here." And they already had a fresh Polaroid of James holding the guitar, making a funny face, stuck on the wall! And I was like, "Fucker!"

GS: What are your favorite songs from Mellon Collie?

CORGAN: It pretty much changes all the time. I just took a driving trip, and listened to the whole album for the first time in a couple of months, and stuff jumped out at me that's hadn't before. Like "Tales of a Scorched Earth," which is just a bit about teenage nihilism. When I recorded the song, I had mixed feelings about putting it on the album, but when I just got away from the intellectualizing and just listened to it, I enjoyed it. It's total bombast. Within the context of the whole record, it fits nicely. It's a nice opposing ice cream flavor. My favorite songs are always the ones that are closest to me personally instead of what may be the best "musical" song. I usually don't like the singles as much, but I do like "1979" a lot.

GS: How did you get those unusual voicings on the chorus of "Tales,"?

CORGAN: I overdubbed an unusually tuned guitar part on the chorus. The G string goes up one half step to G# and the high E strings goes up one whole step to F# [all pitches actually sound on half step lower, as all the guitars are tuned down one half step]. Then the guitar is run through a kind of envelope filter, so it sounds strange.

There's a lot of different things going on during the bridge: there's a regular bass, there's a Fender P-bass played with a pick [playing a different line and sounding like a six-string bass], there's a few guitars played through envelopes, and there's a real scratchy guitar, too. There are about six or seven different instruments happening in there.

GS: Wasn't "1979" one of the last songs written for the album?

CORGAN: it was the last song. I was writing songs while we were making the album because I felt it was incomplete. We wound up with over 40 songs, so we'd stare at them for hours saying, "This has got to go." It would get pretty brutal. I demoed out the basic music for "1979," and we practiced it a few times. Flood wanted to take the tune off the board so we wouldn't spend more time on it, but I said, "Let me have one more day." I went home and wrote the whole song that night, words and everything. The next day I came in, played the new demo for him, and he said "That's it! It's done!" That demo is still floating around somewhere, and it's pretty damned weird.

"1979" has a real immediacy to it; there's just something about the riff and the vocal. The singles are always like that, though. They come to you pretty fast. It's funny, because that melody is the very first melody I sand against the riff. Sometimes I have to "mine" the melody; you have to dig around until you find something good and solid, like "Today" and "Disarm" [from Siamese Dream]. Those were the first melodies I ever sang against the chords. And when you find melodies like that, everything seems to just fall into place effortlessly. It's as though the song is already written, and you're just trying to find the thread. It's a weird feeling when you hit upon that.

GS: Are you ever inspire to write something by the sound of a certain guitar?

CORGAN" I've pretty much gotten away from looking for a second to inspire me. That one song on the record where that happened is "X.Y.U." There was something about the main lick that was very menacing, so everything I wrote around it goes with that same menace. That's a live take, with the whole band playing the same room, loud as hell.

GS: One of the hallmarks of your rythem-guitar style is you incorporation of smooth "voice-leading" chords that blend into each other because of close voicings and shared tones. Is that something that you are consciously aware of, and do you use it as a tool in writing guitar parts?

CORGAN: I love that kind of thing, and am always looking for ways to make it happen. I use that technique in the middle eight os "1979" and in the verse section of "Love." That's one of my favorite things to do. It's also on "Thru the Eyes of Ruby". I like the way the thirds of all the chords shift around. Cheap Trick uses that technique a lot, and so did John Lennon. I don't know if I picked it up from listening to them, or if it came naturally.

One of my favorite things is to come up with a certain voicing, or chord shape, that I can slide around on the neck. That's what "Ruby" is based on. I also do a bunch of that on "In the Arms of Sleep", which is in an unusual tuning; the G string is tuned up a half step to G#.

On Pisces Iscariot, there's a song called "Obscured," which utilizes the exact same chord shape- a 1st position C shape, with the fifth, G, included below the root on the 6th string-slid all over the neck. The only problem with that, by the end of the song, my hand is killing me!

GS: "Ruby" has an amazing number of guitar overdubs; at one point, there are 56. How do you accumulate so many tracks?

CORGAN: [laughs] A big part of it is that James and I did tracking for the same song in different rooms, so that while I was working on writing and arranging, he's lay down all of these different ideas. The I'd go through them and say, "I like this; I don't like that," and I'd make suggestions. He'd get something happening and call me when he was ready. Then he'd tweak the sound and execute th part. We'd also leave spaces open for where I was going to add my guitar parts. It was very piece meal. We've done this stuff long enough so that our minds work toward a common goal, so it's not like James is going to go in some direction that ultimately won't serve the common purpose.

GS: Do the overdubs cause problems in recreating those songs live?

CORGAN: Yeah, they create a lot of problems! [laughs] We do what we can, you know. We're long past the notion of getting hung up about it. A song like "Cherub Rock" [Siamese Dream] has some really good, choice overdubs in it, but the song is just as effective live, in a different way. We just try to go with it. Sometimes we try to approximate the studio version, and sometimes we just don't give a fuck.

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