Billy Corgan
Guitar Geek USA
by: Billy Corgan (#1)

Guitar Geek USA: Smashing Pumpkins Billy Corgan presents a highly personal, alternative take on guitar playing in this, the first of six exclusive columns for Guitar World.

I'd like to begin this first installment of my new column with a statement: There is no right or wrong. What you read here represents just one person's views on the crazy, frustrating thing we call music. You have every right to disagree with me on any or every point--in fact, doing so will help to clarify your own point of view.

When it comes to guitar playing, the true judge of what's "good" and what's "bad" is the player himself. Some people say Frank Zappa, for example, was an awful guitarist. Others maintain he was a genius. Some people, like Steve Lukather, think I'm a terrible guitar player. Others disagree. The point is that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, and you shouldn't let someone else's taste influence you too much. (Although I would say that if "Hold The Line" was the best rock riff I'd ever written, I think I'd keep my mouth shut.)

Guitar playing, in and of itself, does not mean a whole heck of a lot. But guitar playing with in the context of great music and great songs is a big deal. If you look at the guitarists who are most noted for their playing ability, you will find that their reputations are inextricably tied to the great songs they have written, or at least reinterpreted in their own unique ways. We appreciate the guitar-playing skills of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and others within the context of their songs. The downfall of the Yngwie Malmsteen school of guitar playing, which focuses almost solely on technical proficiency, has occurred because ultimately, no one really gives two shits about guitar playing in and of itself, except maybe other guitar players.

These days, there are three-chord punk bands enjoying huge popularity, and no one can tell me that their style of playing--which doesn't even involve guitar solos--is somehow less influential than guitar playing based on virtuosity. When you get right down to it, the guitar playing of Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong has a lot in common with that of a Seventies guitar hero like...Ted Nugent. Both have been very influential because their styles are very accessible.

And there we come upon the magic word. My intention with these columns is to present an accessible approach to guitar playing that emphasizes individuality as expressed through songwriting. Among the topics I hope to discuss are:
1. Finding your own style. (There is no reason to play the guitar just to sound like everyone else.)
2. Using the guitar as a songwriting tool.
3. Developing a creative approach to guitar sound for both studio and live situations.
4. Understanding the important differences between recording and live performances. This topic will also include an exploration of the many possibilities the studio affords you, such as overdubbing, as well as a look at the ever-present problem of replicating "studio magic" in a live situation.
5. Dealing with six-string hopelessness: why bother playing guitar at all when true geniuses like Hendrix have already taken the instrument to such seemingly unsurpassable heights?
6. The almighty riff (the topic of this month's column).

Every great rock song has a great riff, be it a single-note melody or a chordal-based sequence, and that's probably what makes it a great song. Like a great frontman, a really good rock riff should have a hypnotic, star quality. A great riff takes you over; you might find yourself playing it repeatedly for 10 minutes. There's something about it that makes you want to indulge in it.

If I were to define the word "riff", I would say that it's an instrumental part of a song that gives the song a certain identity, defines it in some way. Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" riff is a textbook example of this: the minute you hear it, you know what song it is. In my own experience, I've found that really complicated riffs, although they may sound great on their own, don't make for the best songs. Simplicity, it seems, is a key ingredient; once again, just listen to "Whole Lotta Love". That riff also has another very important attribute: you can sing over it. This is crucial, because while a powerhouse riff will often open up a song, it often will not be the riff that continues to drive the song along.

"Siva", from our first album, Gish, had one of those riffs that let me know immediately that I had a song, even though I had yet to work out all the parts. James Iha adds to the riff by playing a contrasting sequence. That riff sounded like my band--it had instant identity--and it got my blood going right away. There was something about it that was so distinctive that it made a lot of other songs I'd written seem wimpy and weak by comparison. Since then, I've always tried to find that weird marriage of a great riff. The "Siva" riff crystallized everything I was trying to do with the band. It had power and immediacy, and the song seemed to write itself around the riff.

When I wrote "Siva," I was working in a record shop, and I used to bring an acoustic guitar with me to work. When no one was in the store, I'd just sit behind the counter and play. So, this was a riff that I wrote on acoustic, keeping in mind that I would transfer it to loud, heavily distorted guitar later. It was buzzin' in my head!

Almost a reverse-case scenario occurred with the song "Today," from Siamese Dream. I had all of the chords and the melody, but no opening hook. At that point, we just started the song with the verse chord progression, which in and of itself is pretty catchy because of the melody. I knew I had to come up with some sort of opening riff. Then, out of the blue, I heard the opening lick note for note in my head. That's the state of mind I've trained myself to be in: I'm always looking for the guitar hook. When I added the opening riff, it completely changed the character of the song. Suddenly, I had a song that was starting out quiet and then got very loud. I could start to hear the shifts in the song as it progressed. I knew that I was going to bring that riff back in for emphasis, and I knew where I could do that.

In the realm of songwriting, you really have to mine the territory and search for good riffs. Both of these examples show that heaviness is not the only thing that makes a good riff; of far greater importance is the context within which the riff is used. To me, the best rock riff writer now is Diamond Darrell of Pantera. At the other end of the sonic spectrum is the Edge from U2, who plays completely stylized parts which propel the songs.

It wuld be ridiculous for me to claim that each riff I write is great, or that it is in no way derivative of music that has influenced me. Unfortunately, the guitar is an instrument that has been explored so thoroughly that it's hard to come up with a catchy, instantly recognizable riff that sounds totally new. That brings me back to Diamond Darrell: he's taken the down-tuned D thing (where the E string is tuned down a whole step to a D) to a new extreme. He's developed his own language around it, and he's playing some incredible things.

When I find that I can't seem to escape the shackles of what's already been done, or if I feel that I'm locked into a "traditional" way of thinking, I turn to rhythm guitar. Ultimately, that seems to open up infinite possibilities--far more than just sitting around noodling. Another option is to play the bass, which seems to push my writing in a more rhythmic direction. "I Am One," from Gish, is an example of a song that has a pretty decent guitar riff, but a killer bass riff to support it. Here's the bass riff, and here's the guitar part that goes over it.

You can start with the high-falutin' idea of sitting odwn and writing the ultimate rock riff, but if you can't do that, or if you can't find something that sounds unique and different, you should go backwards--to the very nature of what makes music work, which is rhythm. Using a drum machine, playing the bass, or even just toying with different chords in different rhythms opens up new possibilities that you may not otherwise discover.

Another way to inspire yourself to come up with good riffs is to use effects, and to try different tunings. The great thing about effects is that they change the way you hear the guitar, thereby changing the way you react to the guitar. The most mundane licks can turn into something completely different with the right effect. Phasers, flangers, fuzzboxes and especially delay units will all inspire new ideas. David Gilmour has done some incredible things with delays in Pink Floyd.

For the song "Starla," form Pisces Iscariot, I had a riff which didn't really do much for me. Then, I ran it through a fuzz (which gave it a drone-y sound and added some different harmonics), and panned it back and forth in time with the songs. Soon, I started to hear an orchestration for the song. The effects inspired the arrangement, even though I didn't end up using the original effects on the final version of the tune.

Different tunings, like effects, will make the guitar seem like a whole new instrument. James wrote "Mayonnaise" after just screwing around with tunings until he came up with something he liked. Using this tuning, he stumbled across an Ebsus2/Cm/Ab chord progression, which ultimately shaped the song. For the record we're working on now, we're tuned down a half step for everything. This alone is altering the way we play and how our songs will sound.

You must force yourself away from what you know into territory that is often uncomfortable, and occasionally disappointing. There is so much potential in songwriting as you are willing to mine, but it doesn't always come easily. You've got to work at it. I wish you luck of the Metal Gods.

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