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The alt-rock founding father on his smashing new signature Stratocaster® guitar …
When alternative rock exploded in the 1990s, one of the movement’s paramount unspoken rules was no guitar solos. Rules are made to be broken, though—especially in rock ‘n’ roll and even more so in alternative—and one of the first bands to buck the trend was Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins, which released a string of seminal U.S. alt-rock albums throughout the late 1980s and 1990s and boasted one of Generation X’s most articulate spokesmen and first bona fide guitar heroes in Billy Corgan.
To fully appreciate Corgan’s 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, it’s an extraordinarily versatile and modern take on the Stratocaster, meticulously crafted to Corgan’s 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?
BC: Hmm, where can I start? Well, my first real guitar was a Fender Mustang®. It was more of an economic thing—I couldn’t 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 thing—you know, there wasn’t 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 didn’t know the Cure existed—but that sort of open-string-y type thing. So in the early days of the band, that’s 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 amp—it suddenly was like it evoked all the things that I liked that I’d been hearing on recordings, whether it was Hendrix or Blackmore. And I’d never put it together—it 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 one—because my father played Gibson®, and so I attached what I thought was good sound to my father’s playing; he’s a different type of guitar player than I am—was the idea that you could play a very individualistic style, and yet you don’t end up sounding like everybody. And what I mean by that is if you think of the difference, say, between Jimi Hendrix’s playing, Ritchie Blackmore’s playing, Uli Jon Roth early days Scorpions playing, my playing—you 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 person’s personality. And I think the Strat is the preeminent personality guitar—if you want to be an individualistic player, this is the guitar for you.
What’s attracted me to working with Fender to try to make my own guitar is not to make a guitar to make you sound like me—because that would be the last thing I would want anyone to do, because I certainly am not interested in sounding like anybody else; it’s to make an instrument that would develop the person’s individual expression.
I think what’s 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 that’s current, which is very, very high-gain. And what I’ve 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 there’s nothing on the guitar that will hold you back—which is always the most frustrating thing, I think, for a guitar player—and at the same time allow your personality to shine through and play high-gain rock, which I think Fender’s 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 don’t put down anybody who wants to do that, and I’m sure there’s an aesthetic there that they’re attracted to. But for me, the Strat with the Strat sound—if you can get that right, that is the optimum. And if you look at the great solo guitar players who’ve come out of rock, they’ve all played Stratocasters.
Now, what if you’re sitting there saying, “I’m not a solo guitar player”? Well, I’m 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 from—you can hear that echoed in modern alternative rock. The point is that it’s 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 we’ve tried to do is make an instrument that lets you reach your potential.
FN: Who or what inspired you to pick up the guitar?
BC: My original inspiration for playing the guitar, on paper, would seem to be my father—my 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 friend’s basement one day, and he had a Cort® Flying V Michael Schenker model—black and white, and he was sitting there and there were two cute girls, sort of eyes open, looking at him, and I thought, “Oh, that’s 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 that’s the great rush about playing the guitar—there are so many choices, and there are so many different ways. And there’s really no wrong way to play the guitar, whether you’re in the Sex Pistols, or Voivod or Slipknot. There are so many different ways to express yourself on the guitar, and that’s why it's such a supreme instrument.
FN: How much have you been using your new signature model?
BC: Well, I have a lot of vintage Strats that I still use a lot for recording. The problem is they’re very tweaky, and each one’s sound is completely different, so there’s 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 I’ve never seen it since. And I’ve 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 album—the new Pumpkins album, Zeitgeist—and 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. I’ve been working with DiMarzio® to find a pickup, and I think that this combination provides the most versatility in the high-gain setting. And I’m 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 guitars—they weren’t made at a time when you had all this electrical interference.
So I’ve been very satisfied with the low noise floor of the DiMarzio® pickups, the high-gain application and the versatility, because I’m playing music from over a 17-year period of the Pumpkins’ history. So I’m 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 there’s 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 don’t have time to switch guitars between every song. It’s like, I have to be able to make quick decisions about how to make things work, and I’ve been very satisfied with these guitars.
We have a hard-tail (bridge) on the back for better sustain; a heavier body weight so there’s enough low end in the guitar. Working with DiMarzio® to get a pickup that’s got both Strat articulation but enough low-end heavy metal to get the Sabbath out of the guitar that I want. Aside from that, it’s sort of a standard Fender guitar; I’ve just kind of hot-rodded up some aspects. And I think what’s really nice about this is that the guitar is the kind of guitar that anybody could pick up and play. So it’s 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 that’s 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 don’t really play the guitars, or they make a guitar that’s 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, it’s able to support me every night. I’m 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 I’m really excited about doing the model.