Reprinted without permission from Guitar, July 1997

by Rich Maloof

"A consistently good band works all the different elements well," Kim Thayil once told us. "A song has to appeal sentimentally, intellectually, physically, viscerally, and dig deep down into your soul and suck you into it. And after that, of course, it'd be a matter of taste." You can count on one hand the current bands that meet those criteria -- and now you have to subtract one. When Soundgarden dropped the bombshell that they were through as a band, it blew a big hole in the side of already-staggering hard rock. They were the only band to persevere after the fall and subsequent defamation of grunge; in fact, they were just hitting their pace as other rock acts were disappointing fans left and right. With Down on the Upside still selling, a very successful tour just behind them, and leftover ideas still in the can, the news this past April that they'd disbanded was unwelcome.

But Thayil, Chris Cornell, Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd have always known what was best for their band, and being impervious to outside opinions is part of what made them powerful and unique. As much as they'll be missed, and as much potential as fans believe they're leaving unactualized, it's to Soundgarden's credit that they quit while they were ahead. We don't need another band making music if they don't believe they have anything left to say.

This month's Riffology pays tribute to Soundgarden with interview excerpts, odd tunings, a discography, and a sampling of riffs that show how the 'Garden grew from Seattle club band to the last best hope for hard rock.


(Sub Pop) - 1987/88
Soundgarden's earliest grooves, led by Kim Thayil's downtuned, Sabbath-style guitar the Hiro Yamamoto's rubbery bass lines, helped to establish the band as Seattle's premier alternative rockers. these two EPs, now assembled on one disc, helped turn the nation's attention to the Emerald City, it's nascent "grunge movement," and it's long-haired ethos. Leather-lunged lead singer Chris Cornell -- Robert Plant by any other mane -- screamed loud enough to keep that attention and put Seattle on the rock-and-roll map.

(SST Records) - 1988
While Cornell's archetypal rock-and-roll persona was impressive enough on the EPs to get major label attention, the band decided to record their first full-length for an indie. More intricate that Sabbath, less sophisticated than Zeppelin, the bands sound began to take shape here, linking classic rock and blues riffs to an aggressive punk attitude, definitively captured on their cover of Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning." But the dense production prevented much in the way of sense from escaping the muddle.

(A&M Records) - 1989
An unfortunate major label bow, Louder Than Love seemed more like a weightlifting contest between Thayil's guitar and Cornell's vox that a well-crafted hard-rock album. Terry Date's production is murky and the songs, save for the decent "Uncovered" and "Big Dumb Sex," plod along like a herd of cattle in a foot of mud.

(A&M Records) - 1991
And so begins the bands remarkable rise to a formidable level of craftsmanship. With good production, a varied collection of tempos and tone, and the addition of songwriter Ben Shepherd on bass, the band showed its mettle (and potential) on tracks like "Jesus Christ Pose" and "Holy Water." The MTV Buzz Clip "Outshined" helped the band shine before a wider audience. Sure, the sound was still a rumble, but there was a sense that the rumble had something fabulous hidden beneath it.

(A&M Records) - 1995
Expanding on the potential of Badmotorfinger, Superunknown delves even deeper in the band's explosive heavy-rock formula, adding touches of pop and psychedelia to the mix and coming up huge. "Black Hole Sun" and "Spoonman" benefited from excessive airplay, but it was album tracks like "Head Down" and "Like Suicide" that introduced elements of dynamic variation, clever bridges, and pure pop melody into the band's repertoire. By all counts, Superunknown was a spectacular leap forward for the band and a commercial revelation.

(A&M Records) - 1995
As Superunknown was out earning stars from critics and fans alike, the band released this CD-Plus to the glee of their hacker fans. A visual and aural journey into unknown CD-ROM land, the package includes games, photos, band clips, glimpses of Artis the Spoonman of Seattle, and videos of "My Wave" and a live version of "Kickstand." Also included are three rare audio tracks: the video version of "Fell on Black Days," a rendition of "She Likes Surprises" that ran only on the international release of Superunknown, and an acoustic version of "Like Suicide."

(A&M Records) - 1996
Though it doesn't outshine its predecessor, Down On The Upside does keep Soundgarden at a considerable creative pitch. As band members continued to gain dexterity on their instruments, Thayil and company resisted the temptation to make their sound too complex by staying grounded in basics. Simply stated tracks like "Overfloater" and "Tighter and Tighter" were convincing and cliche-free enough to prove the band did have a creative vision, and a sharply realized one, after all. A premature swansong. -BG

SUPERDETUNED Alternate Tunings from the 'Garden

Drop D

"Full on Kevin's Mom"
"Hands All Over"
Drop D

"Holy Water"
"Rusty Cage"
"Jesus Christ Pose"
Drop D
"Mind Riot"

"Black Hole Sun"
"Let Me Drown"
Drop D
"The Day I Tried To Live"
"My Wave"

"Burden In My Hand"
"Pretty Noose"

KIM THAYIL Solo Thoughts

Kim Thayil staked his ground in Soundgarden, but the dissolution of the band he founded does not by any means spell the end of his career. The wide range of his tastes and talent ensure we'll be hearing more from him, and soon. If history is any indicator, he'll be mangling strings and tuning pegs all over the rock spectrum; remember that Kim has played with everyone from Ministry's Bill Reiflan (the Dark Load project) to the Presidents of the U.S.A. (on "Naked and Famous," from their '95 debut).

Back in our Dec/93 issue, we hailed Kim as one of the "10 Most Important Guitarists of the Next 10 Years" -- we hope we get at least that extra six years of work from him. For our Sep/94 cover story, we had him interviewed by one of his heroes, Joey Ramone. And when we spoke to Kim as Down On The Upside was about to be released (Apr/96 issue), it sounded like Soundgarden had a long and promising future. When the news came down that the band had called it quits, we dug through our archives for any sign of what was coming. Following is an excerpt from lst year's interview, including some of Kim's thoughts that didn't appear in our feature. It's a conversation that now has us stroking our chins, wondering what he may have been thinking a year ago. -RM

Everyone in Soundgarden has been involved in a side project at one point or another. Do you need more outlets?
Yeah, I think that might be a part of it. But also, Matt and Ben brought to the Soundgarden recordings some of their experiences with the Hater recordings (Cameron and Shepherd's 1993 project). The Hater recordings are very stripped-down and spontaneous sounding, and they enjoyed that experience. they tried to interject those insights into Soundgarden, so I think it's more enjoyable for them.

How might a Kim Thayil solo project differ from a Soundgarden album?
It probably wouldn't differ that much... because so much of the idea of what Soundgarden is about was created when Chris and I and Hiro (Yamamoto, bass player from 1984-1989) were together. So much of it musically, in terms of direction and sound, was dictated by the guitar and my understanding of how the band should be. If I do a solo record, it would be sort of like making a Soundgarden record without Chris singing, and where's the good in that? (laughs) But actually, if I made a solo record, it might be more inclined to sound like Badmotorfinger or Ultramega. It would just sound like this, because I'd be more guitar-oriented in my writing, whereas the stuff on (Down On The Upside) is much more vocal-oriented.

What kind of music do you want to be making when you're 50?
I don't know. I guess whatever music would be appropriate and honest for me at age 50. The other possibility, if I were to make a solo record, would be to describe all those ideas that I normally wouldn't share with Soundgarden.
But I mean, the Soundgarden stuff is so natural for me. It's what I'm naturally inclined to do. But there are other ideas which are a little bit more... textural. I could see me doing something on my own and using material that is not Soundgarden-friendly. I could see it being a little bit more -- I don't know how to describe it -- having more elements of Wire and Young Marble Giants and maybe a bit of Pink Floyd, as well. I don't know if I want to say "ethereal," but something that would be very powerful but wouldn't be viscerally powerful; it would be melodically and dynamically powerful. There would be a lot more arpeggios used, a lot more space and drones.

Musical annotations by Arthur Rotfeld and Richard Maloof

"Flower" from ULTRAMEGA OK
Even in their early days, Soundgarden's trademark low-n-heavy syncopated riffs were present. Notice the rest at the end of the second bar -- the short, jabbed notes here (accented by Cameron's hi-hat barks) are what really define this as a Soundgarden riff.

"Loud Love" from LOUDER THAN LOVE
Thayil gets the most out of wide intervals with this pumping, eighth-note riff from the E Dorian mode (EF#GABC#D). The open low E lays the groundwork, and the bent G -- at the 5th strings 10th fret -- turns the end of each two-bar phrase toward the sinister.

"Outshined" from BADMOTORFINGER
This single from Badmotorfinger outlines a few Soundgarden hallmarks: low and heavy; slow and grooving; and odd-timed but seamless. Even though we're in 7/4 time, the riff plays smoother that most bands can muster in 4/4.

You're going to have to give then tuning pegs a few twists if you want to re-create the great sound Thayil gets for "My Wave." Note the tuning below the music: all E's and B's. There's a big payoff when you hit this relatively simple 5/4 example, which lays down a thick be before Cornell's vocals enter.

"Fell On Black Days" from SUPERUNKNOWN
Black days never felt so good, The changes are simple enough, but Cornell's riff is dressed up with a few subtleties (the bent B5, the palm-muted C's) to make it stand out from the crowd. The 6/4 meter helps push the feel forward, and the understated attack characterizes the song's mood.

"Superunknown" from SUPERUNKNOWN
It's in the key of G major (GABCDEF#), but the opening riff of "Superunknown" relies on both Bb and B#. Usually, the combination the the b3rd and the #3rd generates a bluesy sound, but because here they are sounded simultaneously -- and voiced a half-step apart -- a strong feeling of tension and dissonance is generate. (The simultaneous ringing of both notes is possible because the Bb is played on the 3rd string, and the B# is played on the open B string). Hats off to drummer Matt Cameron for having the guitar smarts to create this riff.

"Pretty Noose" from DOWN ON THE UPSIDE
There's a bit of a spinning psychedelia in this four-bar phrase, which swirls all the more with the help of a gently rocked wah pedal. Once again the tuning is unusual, but it affords Thayil great bottom end and the luxury of staying in 3rd position.

"Switch Opens" from DOWN ON THE UPSIDE
This verse riff is a good example of Soundgarden's ability to create something unique from a simplistic part. Try playing the chords in the Grt. II part using your thumb on the 6th string; the upper notes of the chord can be played with the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd fingers. You may find that this kind of fingering works better that a "proper" fingering (i.e., one that excludes the thumb). The Gtr. I part, compose entirely of harmonics, reinforces the upper voice of Gtr. II, and adds a chime-like effect.

"Burden In My Hand" from DOWN ON THE UPSIDE
With a ratty middle-range tone, this strummed part is heard through the verses of "Burden." Notice the C chord in the final bar has a added F#(#4), which lends the part a Lydian (CDEF#GAB) flavor.

For more Soundgarden music and info, check out Soundgarden -- Riff by Riff, by Arthur Rotfeld, published by Cherry Lane Music Company.