Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins fame makes the headlines a lot these days for gear releases and commentary. Whether it’s the recovery of his long lost Gish Fender Stratocaster, tag-team release of a Op Amp Big Muff with Electro-Harmonix, or his claim that the paint color of his Reverend signature guitar impacts sound, Corgan isn’t shy to offer his take on tone.
Is Billy Corgan back? I’d say, he never left. And more than that, his approach to song-writing and guitar defined a generation. Whether you’re a fan of Corgan’s playing from ages ago or have just encountered it through his solo projects and latest releases with the Pumpkins, a crash course on Corgan style is sure to extend your alt-rock chops.
So what ingredients go into Corgan’s sound? Try these simple tricks to channel your inner pumpkin.
Ditch Single Not Riffs in Favor of Octaves
The brilliant thing about the guitar is that octaves are never far away. Find a root note on the low E or A string and no matter what, two strings and two frets up, you’ve got an octave. Corgan leveraged these octave structures for some of the most iconic riffs of their library, such as the lead lines of “Cherub Rock” on the Siamese Dream (1993) album or the acoustic foundations of “1979” off of Mellon Collie and Infinite Sadness (1995).
If you find yourself stuck in a riff rut by designing licks base on single-note progressions, take a page from Corgan’s play book and evolve those riffs into octave-driven melodies. One of the reasons this works so well is that it adds instant dynamic and depth. On the effect side of things, since Pumpkins-style is always fuzz-laden, this octave strategy gives an almost faux octa-fuzz effect.
Chugging Riffs that Follow a Double Kick
There’s no way around it, Corgan is a genius on stage even when he’s alone with an acoustic and a microphone. Yet when in a full band set up, particularly with his long-time percussion wingman Jimmy Chamberlain behind the kit, Corgan’s playing takes on a rhythmic dynamic.
One thing defines part of Corgan’s playing style once in the Pumpkins ensemble is the way his riffs and lead lines hit hard and keep pace with Chamberlain’s rapid kick that often accentuates unexpected beats. This means Corgan’s playing inherits a rocking swing that has one foot in the rhythm section and one out front leading the melodies. While you might be used to thinking it’s your bassist’s job to play along with the drums, think like Corgan and keep an ear out for the character of an unusual kick.
Boost Solo Sounds with Modulation
When it comes time for a solo, there are some fairly standard strategies. Stack gain, sculpt with EQ, or build with a boost. Yet for Corgan, particularly in his earlier work, soaring solos needed to lift off into outer space. And no better way to do that that a bit of flying modulation.
The go-to modulation sound here has to be the MXR Phase 90. Conveniently enough, the classic orange exterior seems like a good fit for the Pumpkins. By using this as a solo enhancer, Corgan takes what are typically routine pentatonic shapes or riffs and elevates them so they become multi-dimensional. Unlike boosting with one of the options outlined above, this doesn’t just give you more it gives you multiplicity of sounds. When any one not rings out or bends, the effect moves it back and forth, side to side, and the result is a solo that comes from a place that’s more than just fingers and fretboard.
Whether it’s vintage Pumpkins sound you’re after or contemporary Corgan, adding these techniques to your repertoire will result in smashing tones.