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Learn the guitar style of classic Smashing Pumpkins with these 3 exercises

Smashing Pumpkins
(Image credit: Paul Natkin/WireImage)

As guitar duo for one of the most influential '90s alt-rock bands, Billy Corgan and James Iha create intricate layered parts with grungy powerchords, ambient dream pop arpeggios and heavy, fuzz-distortion infused riffs. Corgan’s catchy vocal melodies and major scale based riffs in songs like Tonight, Tonight gave the band broad appeal, which earned them huge success.

And, though their scale choice is often simple (sticking to major and natural minor scales), Billy’s biting vocal delivery and songwriting chops infuse the band’s material with attitude. Billy tends to use bends, legato and slower melodic lines in his lead work.  

We’re looking at some typical techniques used by Corgan and Iha. Play through our riffs to get some trademark Pumpkins sounds in your own playing.

1. Octaves 

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(Image credit: Future)

Billy uses octaves for their fat sound – perfect for melodic riffs like Cherub Rock. Here, the G# octave in bar 1 is pure Pumpkins, outlining an E chord (E G# B) thanks to the open E note chopping away below. There’s a little Corgan-esque dissonance too – a semitone clash between the G# and an A note played by the bass.


2. Arpeggios

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(Image credit: Future)

This clean, ringing arpeggio is typical of some of the band’s more ambient moments in songs such as Tonight, Tonight and Mayonaise. Learn the notes along the fifth string first, then try adding in the open-string droning notes. It’s a tricky line so practise slowly at first.


3. Pentantonic lead lines 

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(Image credit: Future)

This Corgan style lead line is based mainly in the A minor pentatonic scale (A C D E G). Adding an F note (a b6th interval) adds that extra hint of melancholy. Take extra care with the tuning of the bends and ensure the note goes up exactly a whole tone each time.

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