Smashing Pumpkins

Smashing Pumpkins


Billy Corgan
The alt-rock founding father on his smashing new signature Stratocaster guitar

Corgan with his signature Stratocaster models.When alternative rock exploded in the 1990s, one of the movements paramount unspoken rules was no guitar solos. Rules are made to be broken, thoughespecially in rock n roll and even more so in alternativeand one of the first bands to buck the trend was Chicagos Smashing Pumpkins, which released a string of seminal U.S. alt-rock albums throughout the late 1980s and 1990s and boasted one of Generation Xs most articulate spokesmen and first bona fide guitar heroes in Billy Corgan.

To fully appreciate Corgans sheer musical out-there-ness, you have to keep in mind the context of the times. When grunge hit big and everybody else was gazing at their shoes, sticking to the chords and so not soloing, Corgan stepped forward with lengthy and unconventionally next-level instrumental breaks that could go from shredding, screaming incendiary intensity in one song to delicate, whispering beauty in the next.

More than 30 million albums later and fresh from the success of the Smashing Pumpins 2007 Zeitgeist reunion album and world tour, Corgan worked closely with Fender to create his signature model, the Billy Corgan Stratocaster guitar. Released in June 2008, its an extraordinarily versatile and modern take on the Stratocaster, meticulously crafted to Corgans exacting specifications and specifically designed with custom-wound pickups to get the high-gain sound and signature mid-90s buzz-saw tone that helped make Corgan such a distinctive and influential guitarist.

Always a keen commentator, Corgan spoke with Fender News in detail about his history as a guitarist and about the development, sound and purpose of his signature Stratocaster model

FN: What attracts you to the Stratocaster?
Hmm, where can I start? Well, my first real guitar was a Fender Mustang. It was more of an economic thingI couldnt really afford any other guitar, and I think I got it for a couple hundred bucks. And I always loved that it had this sort of Indian thingyou know, there wasnt a lot of sustain on the guitar, and I think in my early playing I was sort of attracted to that kind of Cure style of playing, even though I didnt know the Cure existedbut that sort of open-string-y type thing. So in the early days of the band, thats what I played, but I could never get the gain that I wanted.

And then Jimmy (Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin) actually sold me my first Stratocaster, which was a 1973-ish-era Strat. And playing the Stratocaster through a high-gain ampit suddenly was like it evoked all the things that I liked that Id been hearing on recordings, whether it was Hendrix or Blackmore. And Id never put it togetherit was never a choice of, like, Yeah, I want to play a Stratocaster. I just got one, and when I played it, it suddenly brought alive what I was looking for in music.

If you were to ask specifically what it was that I liked about the Stratocaster right away, never really having even really played onebecause my father played Gibson, and so I attached what I thought was good sound to my fathers playing; hes a different type of guitar player than I amwas the idea that you could play a very individualistic style, and yet you dont end up sounding like everybody. And what I mean by that is if you think of the difference, say, between Jimi Hendrixs playing, Ritchie Blackmores playing, Uli Jon Roth early days Scorpions playing, my playingyou have completely different guitar players; Yngwie Malmsteen; completely different guitar players, yet the instrument never makes their playing more narrow. In fact, it becomes more expressive.

The fact that the Strat was originally based on the thinking of a violin makes complete sense, because the whole point of playing violin is to express the persons personality. And I think the Strat is the preeminent personality guitarif you want to be an individualistic player, this is the guitar for you.

Corgan with his signature Stratocaster models.Whats attracted me to working with Fender to try to make my own guitar is not to make a guitar to make you sound like mebecause that would be the last thing I would want anyone to do, because I certainly am not interested in sounding like anybody else; its to make an instrument that would develop the persons individual expression.

I think whats difficult for people in this modern culture, with such high-gain rock application, is understanding how to play a style that expresses their individual personality and yet still keeps them sort of within the sound thats current, which is very, very high-gain. And what Ive worked with Fender to try to do is to create an instrument that will both allow the individualistic expression at a very high level, so that theres nothing on the guitar that will hold you backwhich is always the most frustrating thing, I think, for a guitar playerand at the same time allow your personality to shine through and play high-gain rock, which I think Fenders been a little behind the curve in addressing.

Now, the most common thing that people do is they put a humbucker in the guitar, but that takes away the very intrinsic value of what makes a Strat a Strat. Now, I dont put down anybody who wants to do that, and Im sure theres an aesthetic there that theyre attracted to. But for me, the Strat with the Strat soundif you can get that right, that is the optimum. And if you look at the great solo guitar players whove come out of rock, theyve all played Stratocasters.

Now, what if youre sitting there saying, Im not a solo guitar player? Well, Im not always a solo guitar player either, yet people associate me with a very individualistic style. And you can hear the influence of my style that I took from other people, whether it was Hendrix or the Cure or God knows who else I stole fromyou can hear that echoed in modern alternative rock. The point is that its about getting down to who you are. What has always frustrated me, as a musician, with equipment is when the equipment keeps me from being who I am. And so what weve tried to do is make an instrument that lets you reach your potential.

FN: Who or what inspired you to pick up the guitar?
My original inspiration for playing the guitar, on paper, would seem to be my fathermy father was a fantastic guitar player; he still plays a little bit. A really mind-blowingly good guitar player. Never reached any national prominence but, for me, was like my guitar idol. And my father had very strong opinions about guitar.

Unfortunately, my father never encouraged me to play the guitar, and in fact tried to teach my brother the guitar, which is, of course, family history. And I walked down in my friends basement one day, and he had a Cort Flying V Michael Schenker modelblack and white, and he was sitting there and there were two cute girls, sort of eyes open, looking at him, and I thought, Oh, thats what I want to do (laughs). So that was my original inspiration. But once I started playing, and because of my father and because I grew up in a rich musical legacy, there were so many people that I immediately wanted to try to play like, and thats the great rush about playing the guitarthere are so many choices, and there are so many different ways. And theres really no wrong way to play the guitar, whether youre in the Sex Pistols, or Voivod or Slipknot. There are so many different ways to express yourself on the guitar, and thats why it's such a supreme instrument.

The Billy Corgan Stratocaster.FN: How much have you been using your new signature model?
Well, I have a lot of vintage Strats that I still use a lot for recording. The problem is theyre very tweaky, and each ones sound is completely different, so theres no consistent go-to guitar. My greatest go-to guitar, my 73 Strat that Jimmy sold me back in 1989, got stolen from a Pumpkins club date in 1991 or something, and Ive never seen it since. And Ive always struggled since then to find a guitar that was like my guitar.

And when I first talked to Fender about making a signature model, it was during the making of the album, and they provided me with some models of different possibilities of where we could go. And so I did use some of those on the albumthe new Pumpkins album, Zeitgeistand the album is a mixture of both new Fender guitars and old Fender guitars and, of course, some other brands, but primarily trying to find that combination of heaviness with the different sounds.

As far as using my new guitar model on tour, I play the guitar every night. I have a few different models for different tunings and stuff like that. Ive been working with DiMarzio to find a pickup, and I think that this combination provides the most versatility in the high-gain setting. And Im out here playing every night on stages all over the world, and as anybody knows who plays, ground hums, what the lights do, people talking on their cell phones, can cause all sorts of interference. And this is a big problem with the old guitarsthey werent made at a time when you had all this electrical interference.

So Ive been very satisfied with the low noise floor of the DiMarzio pickups, the high-gain application and the versatility, because Im playing music from over a 17-year period of the Pumpkins history. So Im playing everything from what would be, you know, early, kind of spacey Pumpkins to grunge to complete cyber-metal to ballads, and anybody who knows the Pumpkins music knows that theres a lot of versatility in the guitar playing and the sounds. So I really need an instrument that can very easily provide me you know, I dont have time to switch guitars between every song. Its like, I have to be able to make quick decisions about how to make things work, and Ive been very satisfied with these guitars.

We have a hard-tail (bridge) on the back for better sustain; a heavier body weight so theres enough low end in the guitar. Working with DiMarzio to get a pickup thats got both Strat articulation but enough low-end heavy metal to get the Sabbath out of the guitar that I want. Aside from that, its sort of a standard Fender guitar; Ive just kind of hot-rodded up some aspects. And I think whats really nice about this is that the guitar is the kind of guitar that anybody could pick up and play. So its not sort of geeked out in some way that I could only be interested in, but at the same time it gives me the versatility that I need, and I think thats what makes this a great instrument.

And you know, a lot of people do endorsements and they love the ad and the thing, but they dont really play the guitars, or they make a guitar thats so specific to them that if you play it, you can only sound like them. This guitar, really, I think anybody could pick up and be satisfied, and in no way would it infringe upon their playing; and at the same time, its able to support me every night. Im playing this guitar onstage every night probably about 80 percent of the time. There are other songs that I need just different sounds and tunings, but the versatility of this instrument is what impresses me, and which is why Im really excited about doing the model.