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“No matter what I’m writing, I’m writing a soundtrack to a somewhat imaginary world” – remembering Chris Cornell: the unsung guitarist

Cornell
(Image credit: Kevin Nixon/Future)

There can now be no doubt that in the roll call of rock, Chris Cornell’s legacy will stand proudly alongside the all-time great vocalists. But his incredibly emotive range that could reach from soul to metal is only part of what made him one of the key artists of a generation.

Even next to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Screaming Trees, Melvins and Mudhoney in the fascinating hotbed of alternative rock talent that emerged from the Pacific North West of the US in the early '90s, Soundgarden covered the widest musical breadth. In many ways they are the only band to ever successfully bridge the sonic worlds between The Beatles’ fierce and relentless creativity with Black Sabbath’s bluesy weight.

It yielded a deep, engaging diversity in their sound that was epitomised by their masterwork, 1994’s sprawlingly ambitious Superunknown - the album that would host Cornell’s universally-acclaimed masterpiece, Black Hole Sun.  

Cornell’s talent travelled further: with and without a guitar in his hands on stage, in bands Temple Of The Dog and Audioslave as well as an acclaimed solo career that would take him to acoustic troubadour territory, running parallel to his welcome reunion with Soundgarden in the last years of his life. When this writer spoke to Cornell in 2013 he spoke as a re-energised guitarist.

“I guess it’s a post-Audioslave thing when I picked up the guitar up again and I did a couple of solo albums,” he explained.

“Then Soundgarden reformed and in the middle of that I started doing acoustic tours. And that was a huge thing for me - a different animal. You have to play correctly when you’re doing a two-and-a-half-hour acoustic show because everyone can hear everything. Granted, I have a lot of songs and a huge catalogue and history to draw from, and I don’t have to go out there and play everything perfectly, but it’s still a sort of naked experience.  

And I grew a lot from that because I played so many shows that way and just figuring out how to relax and play something in that environment when everything is so completely clear. I don’t have any other instruments backing me up and I had to accompany myself only. I’d never done that before.”

Burden in my hand 

For those who had been introduced to Cornell in his role as Audioslave’s frontman in the first five years of this century, his role in Soundgarden was a very different animal. And even for the singer, returning with new album King Animal in his old band after a few years touring their back catalogue, it presented challenges to him.

“There was some of the complexity of the new Soundgarden album… having to play and sing on it,” he reflected. “[Playing acoustic shows] definitely helped me with the sudoku of guitar playing, I think. It’s helped me to increase my capacity to understand it because I don’t think I’m a natural guitar player.”

That might sound like modesty - and Thayil had noted to us that the singer was a “tighter, improved” player on his return to Soundgarden - but it was a telling admission. Cornell approached the instrument from a different direction to his peers and it became a huge part of Soundgarden’s unique chemistry.

Because he was our drummer initially he always had a great sense of timing

Kim Thayil

He actually began as the band’s singing drummer when bassist Hiro Yamamoto and guitarist Kim Thayil founded the fledgling Soundgarden with him in 1984. Cornell would switch to mic duties on stage only for a few years before Soundgarden’s developing compositions demanded a second guitar live. Cornell’s drumming roots are something that Kim Thayil believes informed his guitar style.  

“Because he was our drummer initially he always had a great sense of timing,” he told this writer in 2013. “He plays from his elbow - some lead guitarists play with their wrists and bass players might play with their shoulders.”

Thayil’s early encouragement of Cornell’s creative ambitions around the time of Soundgarden’s 1988 full-length debut Ultramega OK proved vital in the band’s rapid progression from punk rock to a much broader palette.

“I was a novice at that time, really,” Cornell told Michael Astley-Brown for MusicRadar, just a couple of months before his death. “I didn’t start playing guitar in earnest until then, and it was really to contribute songs or ideas to Soundgarden. Unlike a lot of bands, I didn’t get any resistance; I got a lot of encouragement.

“I’d come into the room and start playing the part, and if Kim liked it, for example – and he’s the guitar player so he would be the first one to be pissed off that someone else is pushing in on his territory – he would really respond positively to it and it would become a song. So, that was sort of the beginning of me becoming a guitar player on that album.”

Rhythm king 

We’ve had hit singles in 6/4 where nobody ever really noticed that

Chris Cornell

Soundgarden were not your typical American rock 4/4 cruisers when it came to their rhythms.

There was a fearlessness from the beginning, and it drove later songs like Rusty Cage, Fell On Black Days and King Animal’s By Crooked Steps in ways that would rattle most singing guitarists. Not so with Cornell, who worked hard to deliver their odd metered grooves on stage.  

“The vocal melody is still in 4/4 while the guitars are in 5… something!” he told this writer of the latter song [it’s actually 5/4].

“It’s something Soundgarden does uniquely well," he continued. "We’ve had hit singles in 6/4 where nobody ever really noticed that. Or with odd time signature and rhythmic changes sometimes, particularly for a song that’s played on the radio. [By Crooked Steps] is like that - particularly the way the vocals sing over the guitar rhythms. It sounds almost like a straight rock song but there’s something askew.

“It’s not obvious when you’re sitting there thinking about it. It just happens. That was the first song we worked on where I felt that we were taking what it is that we do to a new level. And at the same time it’s definitely the most challenging one to sing and play. To just sing it would be easy but the singing and playing part – it’s a new beast. But I’ve run into that before – Rusty Cage was a very difficult song at first.”

Alternate rock 

Chris Cornell

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon/Future)

All four songwriting members of Soundgarden - completed by drummer Matt Cameron and Hiro Yamamoto’s eventual replacement, Ben Shepherd - were as creative with their use of tunings, too. It helped Soundgarden sound other-worldy at times, and somewhere to the left-field of everyone else, even in the Seattle scene.

By the Superunknown tour in 1994, the band's guitar racks were brimming with instruments out of necessity, and it seemed tunings drove their songwriting in much the same way as U2’s Edge uses effects. But Cornell revealed that the truth wasn’t so calculated; more often a case of being in the right place, with the right guitar.  

“It’s a little bit more about proximity to the tuning as opposed to picking up a guitar, putting it into a weird tuning and then trying to create something out of it,” he explained to us.

“There’s some reason to be holding a guitar in that tuning and you’re noodling around and something cool comes out of it. For example, for Been Away Too Long, I had an old Gretsch hollowbody that was hanging on the wall in my hallway that was in that tuning [E E B B B B] and I just took it off the wall one day and I strummed it. I didn’t know what tuning it was in but I just strummed that basic riff out of the blue.

“A couple of days later, that riff was going through my head so I figured, ‘Okay, I’ll make a song out of it.’ It just happened that was the tuning the guitar was in, and that’s similar to a lot of songs I’ve written in weird tunings.

“I’ll be working on one song… like that tuning from Been Away Too Long that’s made up of Es and Bs. That was originally introduced to me by Ben [Shepherd, bass] on a song he wrote called Somewhere that was on [1992’s] Badmotorfinger. Sitting around practising that and holding a guitar in that tuning I came up with other ideas. My Wave is in that tuning and that came from a riff that I played in a rehearsal when we were practising Somewhere - it became that song.”

Searching for truth

Chris Cornell

(Image credit: Jeff Lypsky)

Cornell’s solo acoustic tours would develop another side to his playing. Outside of Soundgarden, acoustics had always played a part in his work - from his leadership of Temple Of The Dog with Cameron and most of Pearl Jam, to 1992’s Singles soundtrack with the solo song Seasons, Audioslave’s countrified I Am The Highway and the unusual progressions found in 1999 solo debut Euphoria Morning.

I don’t want to learn anything from anybody else. I just want to make the guitar sound in ways that I think are cool. If I do that then there’s always gonna be some degree of personal stamp on whatever that song is

Chris Cornell

His last solo album during his life, 2015’s Higher Truth, had been directly informed not just by his solo Songbook shows, but by a conscious shift in how he allowed his influences to manifest in his guitar playing. 

My approach to guitar has always been, ‘I don’t want to know anything,’” he told Total Guitar in 2015. “ I just want to make it sound in ways that I think are cool. If I do that then there’s always gonna be some degree of personal stamp on whatever that song is. I had to reach out a little more into the history of songwriting and guitar players and actually learn some stuff!”

These touchstones would include Led Zeppelin and late folk artist Nick Drake, who can be heard in the strong pronounced fingerstyle of standout songs Through The Window and Dead Wishes. The latter found Cornell tuning to “work out the notes I wanted to hear”, leading him to the unusual E A E E B E: “It’s one of those mystical, almost British folk tunings; that sort of pastoral, nuns and fairies, misty mountain feeling.  

“There are some pretty subtle tuning changes that create these very specific open auras musically,” he added of his attraction to Drake’s playing.

“It’s difficult to write in those without sounding like that sprightly, sparkly pastoral Nick Drake thing. But it does help create new ideas in a sense when you’re sitting there.”

A different world 

Chris Cornell

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon / Future)

Higher Truth was another illustration of the breadth Cornell could cover with his voice and guitar - and he was still on a conscious journey in this regard.

“I wrote songs with lots of chords that are not necessarily easy even for me to play,” he reflected on his past work.

“I write songs, sometimes, with real challenging vocal parts to sing. But I wanted to make sure that there are some songs in there [on Higher Truth] that somebody could learn and post themselves on YouTube singing, and it’s easy. It’s just something that you can learn after a couple of listens - maybe you don’t even have to know what key I’m playing it in.”

All of which makes his loss to the music world still hard to bear. A new Soundgarden album would have been the next destination on his musical journey, though we may still yet hear what that would have sounded like if the remaining Soundgarden members can finish work on several demos

Despite an enviable catalogue behind him and the respect of his own heroes Page and Sabbath, in the last years of his life Chris Cornell was still questioning, learning and developing as a player and writer.

Whether stripped down alone with a D-28 or building layers of squalling feedback with his Seattle bandmates, one overriding vision was always there for him.

“No matter what I’m writing, I’m writing a soundtrack to a somewhat imaginary world,” he told us. “I have to get lost in what that imaginary world is, and then start listening and work out, ‘What am I hearing in here?’”

It’s a sound we will continue to miss. 

Rob Laing
Rob Laing

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. I've currently set aside any pipe dreams of getting anywhere with my own songs and I am enjoying playing covers in function bands.