Reprinted without permission from Guitar, July
SOUNDGARDEN: HARD ROCK FALLS ON BLACK DAYS
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
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.
LOUDER THAN LOVE
(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
(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.
ALIVE IN THE SUPERUNKNOWN
(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."
DOWN ON THE UPSIDE
(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
LOUDER THAN LOVE
"Full on Kevin's Mom"
"Hands All Over"
"Jesus Christ Pose"
"Black Hole Sun"
"Let Me Drown"
"The Day I Tried To Live"
DOWN ON THE UPSIDE
"Burden In My Hand"
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
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
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
"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.
"My Wave" from SUPERUNKNOWN
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