Billy Corgan explains why his approach to playing guitar solos was different to his grunge contemporaries, recalls his two reactions to hearing Nirvana's Nevermind

Billy Corgan
(Image credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Rick Beato has done it again and produced another unmissable musician interview – this time with Billy Corgan. A 90-minute deep dive into the recording and songwriting mind of the Smashing Pumpkins chief that touches on the classic songs and iconic producers he's worked with. And early on, he talks guitar solos in particular.

"We didn't feel we were that different, so when people reacted to us almost as if we were heretics or something, it was strange to us," says Corgan on some of the early feedback to the Pumpkins' debut album Gish in 1990. 

"And there was the whole playing solos, which was verboten in alternative circles at the time," he continues. "And if you even think of Kurt [in] Nirvana, he would play ironic solos – they weren't real guitar solos." 

I came from that route that if you're going to play a solo, you better play a good solo

Corgan suggests he was coming at things from a different perspective, even when Beato rightly points out that most of the big alternative / grunge bands of the Pumpkins eras had guitar solos, contrary to the strange idea they were actually anti-solo.

"Kim Thayil would play [solos], but they weren't solos played by people who were necessarily trying to play like Ritchie Blackmore. I was trying to play like Ritchie Blackmore. And my father was a guitar player so I came from that route that if you're going to play a solo, you better play a good solo. There was a pressure [on] me for that."  

Basically the beginning of Cherub Rock is ripped off from By-Tor And The Snow Dog by Rush

We're not sure if that holds true for Jerry Cantrell, who we call 'Grunge Gilmour' around these parts, but the theme of Corgan wearing his classic seventies influences on his sleeve comes up again later in the conversation. Namely two classic Pumpkins tracks that Corgan says contain very clear nods to Rush and The Who, respectively.

"A song like Cherub Rock, that's basically us doing Rush… basically the beginning of Cherub Rock is ripped off from By-Tor And The Snow Dog by Rush… it's a straight rip off of Rush."

When Beato asks him about the tempo mixing in the Pumpkins' Tonight Tonight, Corgan reveals the Townshend influence.

"We saw that as The Who. If you listen to the backing tempo of Tonight Tonight without the strings, it's just like The Who. We're basically doing a poor imitation of The Who."

Aside from the UK shoegaze influences like My Bloody Valentine that Corgan goes into in the interview, he was also one of the only guitarists from the grunge era to namecheck '70s rock players that weren't regarded as 'cool' at the time.  Corgan explains it was a reaction to the claims in some quarters that 1993's breakthrough second album Siamese Dream was 'overproduced.'

"We got a ton of shit in reviews when Siamese came out because it was 'overproduced'," reflects the Chicago musician. "In 1993 terms it meant we were trying too hard… so of course I double down in interviews and said we were trying to do Boston and Queen, which by the way is not something you're supposed to say in alternative circles in 1993.  

"And it was true," Corgan continues, warming to the theme. "Because if I'm gonna make a record, I'm going out like Tom Scholz. I'm not going out like Kurt, I'm going out like Tom Scholz. In my mind, that made sense to me but we took a lot of junk for that because layering guitars wasn't something you were supposed to do, or using strings." 

It's interesting that Corgan should mention Scholtz and Kurt Cobain here because both musicians come up again later. Corgan again repeats his claims from last month that Nirvana and Pumpkins producer Butch Vig was hugely influenced by his sound on Gish for the Nevermind record. And when Vig first played him a preview of Nirvana's second album, he was not only struck by how much Smells Like Teen Spirit sounded like Boston's song More Than A Feeling, but something else too.

When the song kicked in I looked at Butch and said, 'You ripped off my guitar sound motherf*****'

"I've told this story a few times but we were sitting with [Butch] on a Wisconsin lake on July 4, whatever the year would have been," remembers Corgan. "He says, 'Do you want to hear the new Nirvana?' He's got a boombox and he presses it, as the sun's going down on a beautiful Wisconsin summer day.

"I had two reactions," continues Corgan. "First of all, he ripped off Boston More Than A Feeling, and then when the song kicked in I looked at Butch and said, 'You ripped off my guitar sound motherf*****'. And he kind of was like, 'I guess I did', because everything he took into that [album] was stuff that I taught him. Butch didn't need me to mic up a cabinet but the way I would layer guitars, Butch was like, 'Oh I'll take that.' 

"So now Nirvana is on the radio 18 seconds and of course every time I hear the guitar I'm like, 'There's my guitar sound'." 

Check out the full interview above, and our own interviews with Corgan, Vig and more below on the Pumpkins' recording history.

Classic interview: Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin, Butch Vig, Flood and more on the Smashing Pumpkins' recording history

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.