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Music

James Iha's five best guitar moments in The Smashing Pumpkins

As a founding member of the iconic 1990s alternative rock band The Smashing Pumpkins, James Iha became one of his generation’s most iconic guitarists and a landmark name in the formation of alt-rock as we know it today. Best known for his work in the Chicago band, he brought an effortless cool to their sound, a perfect foil for the work of frontman and guitar-playing counterpart, Billy Corgan. 

He was a key member of the group until things fizzled out in 2000, and then went on to have a stellar career, which some would say surpasses that of Corgan’s. Notably, he has been a permanent member of the supergroup A Perfect Circle, which features Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan and celebrated songwriter Billy Howerdel.

Outside of the alternative metal behemoth, he’s also been a member of Tinted Windows, which features members of Cheap Trick, Hanson and Fountains of Wayne. To the joy of Smashing Pumpkins fans everywhere, it was announced that he had rejoined The Smashing Pumpkins in 2018, alongside wholly underrated drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. 

Iha has also moonlighted as a producer and a general force for good in music. Over the years, he’s produced a string of remixes for other artists including Midnight Movies, Isobel Campbell and Michael Stipe. Alongside this, he was the co-owner of the independent label Scratchie Records with Adam Schlesinger. Cultivating his own space in which to record his mind-blowing sounds, he also owned the recording studio, Stratosphere Sound with Schlesinger and Andy Chase. 

Today though, we’re concentrating on James Iha the guitarist. A real shredder, who is also more than adept at the softer side, his textured, passionate playing has influenced legions and will continue to do so for as long as the guitar remains a tool for good.

Often overshadowed by the fact that Billy Corgan wrote the majority of The Smashing Pumpkins’ songs, Iha brought a lot to the band, and we shouldn’t forget that. Duly, we’ve listed his five best guitar moments that prove he is a guitar hero. Expect to see some surprises.

James Iha’s five best guitar moments:

‘I Am One’ – Gish (1991)

The debut single by The Smashing Pumpkins, originally released in 1990, it was the first time that the world heard the dovetailing guitars of Corgan and Iha. Co-written by the pair, on the track we hear Iha perform as the rhythmic foil to Corgan, letting him rip over the top.

Added to the excitement is the harmonised, Thin Lizzy-style licks they deliver towards the end of the track which is also stellar. The riff is classic and full of swagger, and it was the first taste of future cuts such as ‘Siva’ and ‘Cherub Rock’.

‘Geek U.S.A.’ – Siamese Dream (1993)

Another fan favourite, on ‘Geek U.S.A.’ we heard Iha ramp it up a couple of notches. His fuzz sounds so thick and viscous across the record, but on this cut, it really shines. It’s a dynamic piece, where we hear Iha bounce off Corgan’s playing, and it is smattered with attitude. 

There are chromatic runs, blues-influenced licks, and the wailing guitars that we love The Smashing Pumpkins so much for. Notably, Iha’s textural work on the track is brilliant, and as it pulls you into the languid dream that makes up the middle section of the song, you’re dazzled by Iha’s otherworldly playing.


‘Soma’ – Siamese Dream (1993)

Co-written by Corgan and Iha again, there’s no surprise that ‘Soma’ is one of the standout moments on Siamese Dream. Atmospheric and heady, a lot of this can be attributed to the dexterity with which Iha plays, and this is one of the best examples of how he serves the band and song, and not himself.

Absolutely beautiful, his textures at the start are akin to something that French duo air would popularise at the end of the decade. Dynamic and emotive, if you’ve never heard it before, you’re sure to have ‘Soma’ on repeat, dazzled by the work of Iha.

‘Porcelina of the Vast Oceans’ – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)

Track 13 on the mammoth Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, ‘Porcelina of the Vast Oceans’ makes a strong claim for being the most underrated song in the whole of The Smashing Pumpkins’ back catalogue.

A winding piece, with many different, swirling parts, it is a little known fact that Iha actually played the solo on the track. Incredible, casting off the shackles of Corgan, this is perhaps his best moment on the guitar. 

‘Zero’ – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)

No list of James Iha’s best guitar-playing moments would be complete without the Generation X anthem that is ‘Zero’. Although it is not written by him, it features one of the most iconic riffs in the history of The Smashing Pumpkins, and it packs a real power that subsequent guitarists could only dream of espousing.

Undoubtedly, the most iconic part of the track is the fuzzy, synthetic solo which was performed by the man himself. As his smoky eyes peer out from behind his Stygian hair in the video, you know exactly what’s coming, and it’s thunderous.