No matter what you think of him, there can be no doubting Billy Corgan’s eminence as a guitar hero. An alt-rock legend, he’s the mastermind behind The Smashing Pumpkins, undoubtedly one of Chicago’s best products. Ostensibly, The Smashing Pumpkins’ most influential run came in the 1990s, and their classic lineup of Corgan, guitarist James Iha, bassist D’arcy Wretzky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, is their best.
This iteration of the band produced their most significant works, and whilst it was Corgan who penned the majority of these, without Iha, Wretzky and Chamberlin, they wouldn’t have been the same band, espousing a real power on record and in the live setting. However, I digress. The point above was to show that although Corgan is a master songwriter and guitarist, he wouldn’t have had the platform he has today without the classic lineup of The Smashing Pumpkins. However, one thing is also clear, without him, there would be no Smashing Pumpkins in what is a real paradox. In many ways, he is The Smashing Pumpkins, as shown by the way the band trudged on through the 2000s and 2010s without any of the original members, save for Crogan himself.
As far as songwriting ability goes, Corgan is in the most esteemed company when it comes to alt-rock songwriters, occupying the same space as Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell and J Mascis. Like these other icons, Corgan’s songwriting ability is augmented by his brilliant guitar playing. He’s given us countless legendary riffs and guitar moments over the years and is one of those rare figures who is placed in both the legendary songwriter and legendary guitarist categories.
Given that he is so lauded as a master of the six-string, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to list Billy Corgan’s ten best guitar moments. Whether it be his riffs, chord progressions, solos or effects, Corgan has delivered many stellar moments over the years in a plethora of ways. He’s a dextrous guitar player who is equally adept at penning emotive acoustic guitar parts as well as high-octane, metal-infused shredding.
In earnest, there were too many to pick from, but one thing is certain, every track on this list is excellent. Unfortunately for fans of the band’s later work, our picks all come from the band’s first three records, so be warned, you won’t see anything from Machina here.
Join us, then, as we list Billy Corgan’s ten best guitar moments.
Billy Corgan’s 10 best guitar moments:
‘Siva’ – Gish (1991)
Written entirely by Billy Corgan, ‘Siva’ was the first single of The Smashing Pumpkins’ debut album, Gish. A rumbling guitar piece, it fuses the alt-metal of the late ’80s with psychedelic rock and is one of the most dynamic moments of the early Smashing Pumpkins period.
Whether it be the main chord progression which is the forebear of ‘Cherub Rock’, the quiet picked part, or the solo, there’s much to love about Corgan’s playing here. Across the track, you can hear the influence of Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction clearly, and if the band ever extended the song, it had the potential to be Corgan’s equivalent to ‘Three Days’.
Added to the west coast vibe, there’s also a funky chord that Corgan plays only a couple of times in the first half of the track, which is very similar to the opening one for Jane’s Addiction’s ‘Stop’. If you can spot it, top marks.
‘Tristessa’ – Gish (1991)
Another alternative metal-infused number, you wouldn’t be wrong in regarding ‘Tristessa’ as the sister of ‘Siva’. The song is equally as hard-rocking as it is melodic, and it remains one of Corgan’s best-loved riffs.
From his solo to his dive bombs towards the end, listening to the song, you understand precisely how he quickly established himself as one of the definitive guitarists of the ’90s. Additionally, that snappy riff in the build-up is unbelievable.
‘Cherub Rock’ – Siamese Dream (1993)
The first single from The Smashing Pumpkins’ sophomore effort, Siamese Dream, ‘Cherub Rock’ makes a strong claim for being Billy Corgan’s best guitar moment.
The way in which the clean version of the riff pulls you in before the band stomp on their fuzz pedals was a simple but effective way of opening the song, as it has your ears stood to attention immediately. The riff, the chorus, the effects, the solo; everything about this song is perfect, and Corgan’s playing is exquisite.
‘Today’ – Siamese Dream (1993)
I’d argue that ‘Today’ is the most beautiful guitar riff that Corgan has ever written. Light and emotive, its dreamlike quality was augmented by the hazy colours of the iconic music video, where Corgan and the band drive around in the ice cream truck. The intro crashes in and washes over you, and through utilising the ubiquitous loud-quiet-loud dynamics that Pixies and Nirvana popularised, it gave room for Corgan to show both sides to his guitar playing, both the light and dark sides.
Furthermore, the tone of his Big Muff fuzz pedal is something that people have been trying to emulate for 30 years and have never really managed to do, a testament to Corgan’s unmistakable guitar-playing style.
‘Geek U.S.A.’ – Siamese Dream (1993)
A real favourite amongst hardcore Smashing Pumpkins fans, ‘Geek U.S.A.’, is a thing of beauty. Amped up, fusing psychedelic and alternative metal, the meaty riff is one of the best that Corgan ever penned, and it instantly has you rocking your head back and forth.
The guitar tones are on point, and the swirling elements of the track are a real sonic delight. It’s one of the best examples of Corgan’s acute understanding of dynamics, and the middle section, where it slows down into an almost shoegaze pace, is proof of the skill that comprises Corgan’s playing. Turn this one up loud. It’s a real journey.
‘Hummer’ – Siamese Dream (1993)
If you haven’t already figured it out, a lot of Corgan’s best moments come on the masterpiece that is Siamese Dream. The dissonant intro is lovely, as are the wailing, overdriven guitars that open the track. Harmonic yet noisy, Corgan and Iha’s guitars dovetail in the best of ways here, and the shimmering, reverb-laden guitars the pair do so well.
This is another loud-quiet-loud piece, and it’s wonderful. The end of it will blow you away, it’s like A Storm in Heaven-era The Verve, and is best enjoyed high.
‘Soma’ – Siamese Dream (1993)
‘Soma’ is one of the best cuts on Siamese Dream. A song where Corgan really showed his songwriting ability, it has an atmosphere that many of the alt bands of the ’90s could only have dreamed of achieving, indicative of Corgan’s unique creative vision and style.
A heady, meandering piece, ‘Soma’ contains some of Corgan’s most effective toned-down guitar-playing, and the build-up is executed flawlessly. The short arpeggio that Corgan plays right before the music comes crashing in is an underrated gem, showing how his ability to pull out a sweet lick as if it were nothing. Additionally, as far as solos go, this is right up there.
‘Jellybelly’ – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)
A personal favourite, ‘Jellybelly’ is perhaps the heaviest guitar riff in The Smashing Pumpkins’ back catalogue. It’s as if Melvins were more melodic and fronted by Corgan. The way this thunderous cut manages to straddle the heavy and passionate is quite something.
As far as playing hard goes, it’s top marks for Corgan and Co. The riff, bridge and chorus melodies are something that all alternative guitar players should aspire to, as are the noisy divebombs towards the end.
‘Bullet with Butterly Wings’ – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)
‘Bullet with Butterly Wings’ is another one that makes a strong claim for being Corgan’s best guitar moment. The main riff is simple but has you on the edge of the seat, creating tension, before the band launch into the iconic chorus of “despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage”, which is one of the ultimate Generation X lines.
It’s another song where Corgan and Iha dovetail spectacularly, and the bridge, which features one of the best riffs in their discography, remains as powerful as it was back then. Also, who can forget the wah-driven solo at the end? It’s so ’90s, and we love it.
‘Zero’ – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)
No list of Billy Corgan’s best guitar moments would be complete without ‘Zero’. A classic example of simple but effective, the song is one the Corgan’s darkest cuts, bordering on the oppressive sounding. The harmonics of the main riff are iconic, as is the bounce of the chorus riff.
Added to this, the metallic guitar tone is so goth, and the way it helps the song to a crescendo is really interesting, creating tension that intertwines with Corgan‘s screams of “you blame yourself”.