Billy Corgan’s fan bases have long debated what the best guitar solo ever is, and even media outlets such as NME have gotten involved by placing Soma’s guitar solo at #41 of the greatest guitar solos.
We were recently afforded the opportunity to talk with Billy Corgan about three classic Smashing Pumpkins songs that featured incredible guitar solos – two of which Billy told us he was most proud of. So without any further ado:
“Something Jimmy Chamberlin and I used to always talk about that was always really frustrating was you go into rehearsals, you work on the new material, you say ‘okay these are the songs,’ you record those songs, [then] you go on tour and you play for six months, a year, and you find little things and you go to yourself, ‘I wish I would have played this better’… So it’s very rare that you have on record of what your playing is like when you’re in top touring form. There is a certain beautiful recklessness that comes from playing a lot, to where you’re willing to take chances because you’re able to let that energy pass through you very easily, where normally in an album process you are more in an intellectual mode, because you’re sort of analyzing everything. So what I like about [TAFH] solo is that it captures that risk-taking and that high level of playing, both emotionally and physically, in a way that most Pumpkins recordings don’t because they’re usually done before touring, as opposed to during or after touring cycles.”
In a 1997 interview with Guitar World, Billy said “The solo, funnily enough, was quickly thrown down because I had to go to a funeral. It was supposed to be a reference for where to pick up when I came back. But when I returned, I was surprised by how much I liked it.”
Billy expounded on this, telling us that he was ready to go to a funeral for a step-uncle who was more like a step-grand uncle who was always very nice to him. As Billy was about to run out the door, he said he wanted to record a kind of feeling, and when he’d come back, he used that as a starting point. When he got back, still dressed in his suit from the funeral, he listened back to the recording and told us, “I was really surprised by [the solo]. So surprised by it that I listened to it again because I thought, ‘Okay, well there’s got to be something about it I don’t like.’ And actually there is something I don’t like about it, but on the whole. I played [some] 500 notes and there’s only two [notes] that I don’t like or something. I could have replaced them, but I thought I’d just leave it like it is. So it’s like, perfectly un-perfect.”
In the recent reissue of Pisces Iscariot, Billy wrote about Starla: “This is the stuff legends are made of, recorded in one all-night-go to make a hard deadline. Much has been made of this song, but it’s the right kind of nothing; where you see that once in a while I am capable of getting out of the way of a good idea that needs space. A cataclysmic solo follows the nursery rhyme into the cosmos, crashing out whatever is left of your purple heart.”
Billy told us the exact same story about Starla that he told at the Denver VIP show: how the band had 24 hours to pump out two songs due to record label pressure, telling us that the record labels, even today, are still reactive rather than proactive when it comes to scheduling releases.
Billy went on with the story, saying that around 7am, after being up all night with the deadline looming and the need to mix the song right away in order to make it in time for FedEx shipment, he told us “I went out and setup a bunch of pedals and kneeled in front of the amp and did the solo in just one take and I figured, ‘Well fuck it. It is what it is.’ I went back in to listen to it with Kerry…Kerry said, ‘This is incredible,’ and I went back and was, ‘mmm, it’s pretty good.’ Then James who was still up with me goes, ‘I’d like to try it as well’… James insisted that he wanted to do it, so he went out there with the same setup and laid down his own solo, which by the way, we did find. We actually have a mixed copy of it. We have talked about releasing it just for historical sake. If anyone wants to hear the James Iha solo, I think Kerry mixed it when we were doing the reissues, so we do have that sitting there somewhere.”
Billy told us that for the solo, he used a micro synth pedal that had an envelope feature that would react according to how he would play. “So as I was playing, in essence things were happening that I didn’t have control over, but I was in essence reacting to… It’s like I basically setup a hurricane of a guitar sound and then I’m trying to kind of ride the storm as I’m playing. So you hear these beautiful moments where I’m able to kind of master the storm and ride it for 10-15 seconds and it spirals out of control. It’s like I created an uncontrollable set of parameters and you hear me struggling trying to control them. What’s beautiful about the solo is that there are all these incredible synchronicities that happen, and even melody lines that rise to the form, which is not bad, considering I never played the song before [laughs]. I never once even soloed over those changes. So it was sort of an intellectual thing, ‘Oh, I’ll solo over these changes’… It’s a beautiful moment of innocence really, because I really don’t know what I am doing, other than what I think I’m doing, and that’s what really stands out about that. If you think about what I am saying about Aeroplane verses Starla, they’re the same thing, but on two different ends of the spectrum. One is complete innocence, and one is the beneficiary of the kind of confidence that can only come from being on tour a lot.”
When Billy told us about playing the guitar solo for Starla, he said it was a hit or miss: “The other day I played it at practice and I played this incredible, beautiful solo, then the next time I played it, I was like, ‘Eh- it’s okay.’
Before Billy went into the solo for Cherub Rock, he gave us some context, saying, “What I like about Cherub Rock is that it feels very fresh. Even when I listen to it today, it’s like I am listening to it for the first time, and I think that’s kind of key. When you listen to Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix, two of the greatest soloist of the 20th century, they sound like they’re experiencing what they’re playing as they’re playing it, which is an interesting loop if you think about it. On one level, they are able to be ahead of time because they are able to anticipate what they are going to do or do it in the instantaneous moment that they’re doing it in, and at the same time they are able to have an emotional reaction and then play off the emotional reaction.”
He went on to say that is what great soloists do, and they generally don’t get bored with their own playing, whereas “I get bored with my own playing really quick. I never invested enough in the soloing end of my life to not get bored, so my playing is my reflection of my boredom. So I like to play it in a manner like I’m sort of discovering it as I go along. Cherub Rock has that.”
Billy explained that for Cherub Rock, he used a method called “tape phasing.” He explained, “You’d take the solo itself—just the sound of the solo track—you copy it to another piece of tape, and then what you do is you run the two signals together. And you’re not locked up by computer, so they are slightly out of sync, and that effect—that kind of swooshing sound—is created by the difference between the signals, which is called ‘phasing’… I can’t think of any solo sound that I ever had that was better. The sound of that solo is just incredible. I wish they all sounded that good. “