Guitar Showcase 2021: Since joining the Smashing Pumpkins’ reformed line-up in 2007, Jeff Schroeder has become a lynchpin of the band’s sound, not only adapting to the Pumpkins earlier material in the absence of James Iha, but as a core member of the band’s writing and recording line-up for the last four albums.
Go to a Smashing Pumpkins live show, and you’ll notice that Yamaha gear fills a lot of the stage: from the rhythm section (bassist Jack Bates and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin), to frontman Billy Corgan’s signature acoustic and Jeff’s plethora of acoustics and electrics. and Now deep in progress on the band’s as-yet untitled 12th album, Jeff took time out from his recording schedule to talk us through his relationship with Yamaha, including some incredible shred-inspired Pacificas, and those mystery offsets we saw him performing with in 2019.
How did you first get involved with Yamaha?
“It was basically through my artist relations rep Scott Marceau who I’ve had a great relationship with. It must be eight years or something that we’ve been working together, it’s been a really long time. Which seems to be rarer and rarer in the music industry. He used to work at Seymour Duncan so I dealt with him for pickups, then when he went to work for Yamaha he wrote me about acoustics at first.
"I’d been playing another brand and they were fine, but it wasn’t really working out for me, I liked playing them but within the context of what I was doing in Smashing Pumpkins it wasn’t great. I needed something that was more of a compliment to what Billy was doing on the acoustic. He tends to like jumbos with a bigger sound so I’m playing a lot of higher-register chords, counter-melodies, I need something that can cut through. So Scott sent me some acoustics to try right before an acoustic tour we were about to do, and within the first five minutes Billy was like, ‘Wow, this sounds so much better’.
"So it started with acoustics, and then Scott was like, ‘Hey, we’re developing this new line of electrics.’ which happened to be the Revstar. Then it just started a whole other plethora of guitars. They’ve made me so many amazing custom guitars because I’m kind of a willing guinea pig to try stuff out, plus I’m able to test them on the road so I think they’re appreciative of that.”
Were you instrumental in Billy’s relationship with Yamaha too?
“Yeah, I think that’s what happened. I started using them and he was like ‘Hey, those sound pretty good!’. We were both playing a different brand and once he heard them he wanted to check them out and they were obviously more than happy to send us some more!”
So what’s your go-to acoustic model at the moment?
“I use the LS Series, and I also have the Japanese LL. I’ll use the LL more in the studio, but live I’ll use the normal production ones [LL]. I tend to use the smaller ones, the 16. Like I said, Billy’s playing the jumbo so from a sonic standpoint it works quite well. But also, I’ve been using the A Series as well, which I really love.
"Because the nice thing is that on the L Series they have these passive pickups which are really great, and if you have a sound engineer they have a lot of space to shape the sound. You’re not giving them a pre-determined sound that maybe doesn’t sound good for them, but works for you. But if I’m going to a gig where I’m not with our normal sound person or monitor person then I’ll take the A Series because I have all the control on the guitar itself, and I’ve found that works better for more impromptu stuff.”
What else is in the chain for your acoustic sound, do you go through any additional preamps?
“We go direct, but we do use a really nice Fishman preamp which is great. I mostly use it for a tiny bit of compression before it hits the board, and really no EQ and no effects or anything like that.
"The preamp just makes the sound that goes to front-of-house more controlled because sometimes going into a direct box can be a little bit rough so the compression smooths everything out. Then I’ll usually have the monitor person give me some EQ in my monitors just for me, and it sounds great.”
How many Yamahas do you own in total?
“Well, for acoustics I have a few L Series, a few A Series and a 50th Anniversary FG180 reissues that they did. Actually that’s probably my favourite sounding, and I started using that live quite a bit for six-string. I also have a 12-string too which I use for the song Mayonaise live. It’s amazing because we have all of our amps in iso-cabs, so the stage is really quiet.
"On the studio version of that song there is an acoustic back there behind the wall of fuzz, and because we have such a quiet stage it’s possible to play an acoustic 12-string with the band and it sounds fantastic.
"So I have those, then a bunch of Revstars and a whole bunch of Pacificas too.”
Can you clear up the mystery of the offset guitars yourself and James were playing in 2019?
“We did some prototypes that James and I played on the Shiny, And Oh So Bright tour, but I don’t know, it doesn’t seem like those are going to see the light of day. It was a design that they were trying out, and what was great about it was they let us do whatever we wanted as far as pickup choices.
“They were bolt-on guitars, even though they looked fairly retro and classic, they had quite a few modern accoutrements like an easy access neck joint, kind of curved with no back plate. They made mine with stainless steel frets which are great, I’ve become a big fan of jumbo stainless steel frets - once you go stainless, it’s kind of hard to go back!
"I played around with some different pickup configurations. Some of them I had a humbucker in the bridge with a single coil-sized humbucker in the neck, like a Hot Rails type pickup. I felt like even though I really like single coil sounds, that - especially using in-ears, you get the 60-cycle hum really loud when you have a lot of distortion - so I can’t really do it. So I tend to use some type of noise-cancelling pickup.
"My favourite one though, I had one with the Duncan YJM Yngwie Malmsteen pickups - the whole set - and a roasted maple neck. I still use it in the studio all the time, but I think we’re going to have to wait and see with those. That guitar led into making the Pacificas that I’ve been playing a lot over the last year or so, I’m really excited to start playing [the Pacificas] at a proper gig."
So what drew you to the Pacifica?
"When I joined the Pumpkins it was a new situation for me, having access to so many different types of gear. Before that I only owned a handful of guitars. I had a Jazzmaster, a Telecaster and a Strat and a vintage Fender Bandmaster amp which I still have, and a few pedals. But that wasn’t going to be the right rig for Smashing Pumpkins!
"I remember the first rehearsal there were two Bogner amps, two Diezel amps, a bunch of Les Pauls and all this kind of stuff. I’ve never even owned a Les Paul, so you can imagine playing a guitar you’ve never played, through an amp you’ve never used and you’re trying to play flawlessly too. It was very overwhelming!
"So my first thing was, I wanted to own one of everything! But over the years I’ve realised that it’s really hard to play consistently and get a consistent sound when you’re switching so much. I started really wanting to design a guitar that if we played in one tuning, which we don’t, but if we did what would the guitar be that I could play the whole gig on? So that’s how we started designing these Pacificas, long story short it’s sort of a Super-S.
"Which is kind of where I started in the '80s when those types of guitars were around. I think that style of body, the 25.5-inch scale, the pickup configuration, feels the most natural to me. I like the Revstars a lot, and there’s no replicating that kind of thicker sound, but that thicker body and scale length doesn’t feel as natural to me as [the Pacificas]."
You have a number of Yamaha Custom Shop models…
“I knew I wanted to do something like [the '80s guitars], then it was just a matter of… I knew I wanted a locking system because I don’t like being out of tune. I wanted humbucking pickups but I also wanted the single coil sounds too for cleaner things.
"I actually got really attracted to having 24 frets. I love Steve Vai, I’ve always been a huge fan of his music and who he is, so I’ve scalloped the 21st-24th frets like him on all of my Pacificas. I have pretty skinny fingers, and when you’re up at the 24th it makes it so much easier!
There’s obviously a lot of things on [my Pacifica] that are influenced by him. I wouldn’t say he was the first to have an HSH pickup configuration, but that is obviously very much a JEM-type thing. I also love George Lynch, so I have a (Lynch signature pickup) Hunter in the bridge, but Seymour Duncan was kind enough to also wind me some custom neck position versions of the Hunter as well. Then in the middle I have the standard Seymour Duncan SS5.”
I’ve been picking these muted, matte, semi-metallic finishes on my guitars. The fingerboards look like rosewood, but they’re actually pau ferro. Even though we had access to rosewood we decided to go with pau ferro on some of the prototypes, and I really like the sound so we just stuck with that. The one that I have at the studio where we’re working on the new Smashing Pumpkins album has a maple ’board, but I have three of them with pau ferro.”
How does the maple one compare?
“Well actually, the maple ‘board one has a Sustaniac pickup in the neck. I know Vai has started using the Sustainiac and Satriani has one too. The first guitar I had with one in it was a Reverend Reeves Gabrels signature, because I’m semi-friendly with Reeves, and I just loved it.
"I chose not to put them in all four of my Pacificas because Reeves said ‘Really limit your use because it’s like a drug, it’s addictive! You’ll have it on all the time when you shouldn’t.’ James has some of his old Fernandes guitars from the Adore era on tour and I’ve got the chance to check them out, and the Sustainiac seems to work in pretty much exactly the same way [as the Fernandes]. You’ve got the regular setting with the upper harmonic and then just the upper harmonic too.
"I’ve used it a lot in the studio and stuff, I’ll just switch it on really quickly a lot. If you want to do a crazy bend or harmonic. I don’t really use it for e-Bow type sounds, more for quick parts where you wouldn’t necessarily expect it, it’s like you’re in the perfect spot playing in front of your amp, even though you’re in the control room.”
With each guitar using a Floyd Rose are you setting them in different tunings?
“Yeah, I have two in standard and two in E-flat which is the majority of our set. Then I have Revstars and other things for drop D types of things.”
Pacificas have become such an institution, can you remember the first time you came across them?
“I never owned one, but I’m a big Sonic Youth fan and in the later period Kim Gordon would sometimes play guitar and I remember seeing that she would play a Pacifica. But also, like I said I started playing in the '80s and I was always just a lover of guitar whether it be shred or post-punk or alternative music, I try not to listen with prejudice because I think it’s so limiting.
"But I was a big fan of Shrapnel Records, and people like Michael Lee Firkins had a signature model. So I remember seeing those guitars around, but I never really came into contact with one until I started working with Yamaha.
"I think the design philosophy behind it was ‘If you can only take one guitar to a gig and want to get all of these sounds, then this is the guitar.’ I have two of the 612s in custom solid finishes and they’re fantastic guitars.
"The custom Pacificas, even though you can split the coils and get the position 2 and 4 type single coil sounds, they are geared more towards the rock part of what we do. But for songs like Tonight, Tonight and 1975 I needed something a bit more tamed-down. I’d had a couple of the production Pacificas that they gave me to try out, so they said ‘Why don’t we just refinish them so they’re a bit more you?’.
I did change the pickups to stacked Duncan noiseless single coils, and the humbucker is a Custom 59, I guess. It has one coil that’s more vintage and one slightly hotter so that when you split it, it has a little more output.
"I also put a Vega Trem on there. It’s amazing, it’s crazy. It’s almost like a Floyd the way it stays in tune. It feels similar too, it’s very fluid and just unbelievable. It’s recessed so you can pull up by two full steps and it doesn’t slip at all. You can do all the flutters and stuff too, I’m very impressed.”
It sounds like you have a pretty free rein working with the Yamaha Custom Shop
“Yeah, they’re really, really great. I’m super-blessed, I have to say. But I think also for them it’s great because they get to see the guitars on stage and get feedback on certain things.
"In the Pumpkins we obviously have three guitar players, so the quality of the guitar really matters: are you able to be heard? Are you meshing well with the other instruments? Do the guitars stay in tune? So I think that type of information is quite valuable, not that they don’t have other players doing that as well, there are a bunch of us!"
Have you had any ideas that were just out of the question?
“Well, the thing is with Yamaha, while some companies will make you a guitar that looks like the Empire State Building, they only make custom versions of guitars that they actually make.
"But those four custom Pacificas of mine have a little bit of a different body shape if you look closely. It’s sort of a throwback to the late ’80s/early ’90s era of where they made a 24-fret, Floyd Rose Pacifica. So they had to go back into the archives to get that exact shape. But they also have totally new body contours, heel and cuts on the back that Pat who used to work there in the custom shop designed. So those are all new designs. Things like that they’ll do, but if I wanted a star-shaped guitar they wouldn’t do it!"
So will we see production versions of your custom Pacificas?
“I know that they do get a ton of requests - I don’t mean because of me - but Yamaha fans that are out there who want the 24-fret/Floyd Rose type thing. So I think that was another reason they were interested in doing them, because there are people out there who would love a Yamaha guitar with those features on it. It’s great for me, too to be part of it and help throw that out into the world!”
Last time we spoke you had the Goldtop Revstar, it sounds like you’re leaning towards Pacificas but will you still be using the Revstars?
“Yeah, those will definitely go out and I’ll use them on some songs for sure. Before James came back to the band, I was covering that sonic territory. But when James came back it became less important for me to cover that ground so it opened things up a bit and I’ve relied on the Revstars a bit less. It’s nothing to do with not liking them, it’s just I don’t need to cover that sonic ground as much anymore. But there are songs where the Revstar is the appropriate sound so I still use them.”
Can you update us on the progress of the new Pumpkins album?
“It’s going to be a triple! 33 songs. I think for the first run-through - because we’ve knocked out another song yesterday - I have maybe five to go. But I’m going to have to go back and revisit a bunch because things are always changing, but as far as the first run, I’m on the last lap!
"It’s been such an amazing artistic process because it really pushes you to find new things in your playing and your style and sonics. As guitar players we’re always working on things, whatever your current fascination is, so whatever batch of songs we’re recording I’m like, ‘I’ve been working on these types of sounds or chords and I’m going to do this thing’. Then you do that for maybe four or five songs and you’re like ‘Oh, shoot, I’ve still got two albums’ worth of songs to do.’
"You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over, right? So it’s been a nice challenge, difficult some days when you’re sitting there going ‘What am I going to do?’But the nice thing is that it forces you to push things. It’s not about technique or things like that, or even sounds.
"What it really comes down to for me is writing unique guitar melodies that complement what Billy is doing vocally. That’s what I’ve found the most rewarding, what I try to do is think melodically and try and create a conversation between what Billy is doing, and the keyboard parts or what James is doing. It’s really about good melody, and it’s been fun.”
What have you been playing on the album?
“My main guitar has been a Goldtop Yamaha SG1802, if you look on their website it’s the one with the P-90s, but I replaced the pickups with mini-humbuckers. That was one of the first guitars Scott got me, it was pre-Revstar.
"The neck on it is really thick and I tend to like thinner, faster necks, but I’ve gotten used to it and it just sounds fantastic. During the first 10 or 11 songs I was trying a bunch of different stuff, but I kind of settled into that for my humbucker sound, although it sounds really great too. Then the Pacifica with the Sustainiac on it I use for the more really jacked-up sort of stuff. I’ve also been using a '70s reissue Strat which has Lawlers in it which is just a really great Strat sound.
"Then amp wise, because we’re recording remotely, I actually take a lot of DIs so that we can reap later, but I’ve been using the Helix plugin a lot for the high gain sounds. Then for clean sounds I’ve been using a Brian Carstens prototype of a clean amp that we’ve been working on together. That’s a really high quality pedal-platform amp. It’s all point-to-point, 3D clean sounds that’s great for pedals.
"I have a little Carstens Black Flag 1x12” combo, then two Fender Deluxes – one vintage one reissue, but I’ve actually been using the reissue more than the vintage one because it sounds really great, it’s the blackface once. I’ve also been using a Roland JC40 that I picked up, because a lot of the stuff is very synth driven and that solid state sound works very well against that synth backdrop. So we’ve got those set up permanently, but we’re always taking a DI so no matter what I do it could always be re-amped! “
Is it a challenge to find space within so much instrumentation?
“It can be, yeah. But we’ve gotten quite good at it. It’s been something we’ve had to iron out over the last four or five years, but now whether it’s in the studio or live, we barely talk about who’s going to do what. I think that the three of us are obviously similar enough because we’re in the same band together, but then we each have our own strengths and weaknesses so I think we all feel comfortable relying on those, and giving each other the space to do our own thing.”
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