Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil Reacts to Being Called a ’Sloppy’ Guitar Player, Explains Why He Doesn’t Rely on Patterns

Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil discussed his approach to guitar playing and why he prefers not rely on established fretboard patterns and boxes but rather go with improvisation. Speaking to Pete Thorn in a new interview, Thayil pointed out how his work in Soundgarden often included different tunings and, for lack of a better word, a more alternative approach to the instrument.

Reflecting on how some online reviews weren’t kind to his work, Kim said (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs):

“I’ve recently read this online review, and it’s like, ‘I don’t know, I’ve seen Kim live, he is just kind of sloppy.’ I started thinking, ‘I played about eight different guitar tunings. At some point, 30 years ago or more, the idea of patterns and box patterns and scales, I just threw it out the window. I now have to relearn the song on the neck visually, as well as orally.”

PETE THORN SUNDAY LIVE #298 with KIM THAYIL of SOUNDGARDEN

This kind of approach required him to completely relearn how to play and come up with new music. Discussing his work, Kim said:

“Everything I’d learned when I was younger, that I taught myself about scales or patterns, those are no longer factors because we’re coming up with our own tunings, or making shit up, or adjusting things.”

And another challenge here is to know how to navigate on the instrument with these completely different tunings. He continued:

“I’m gonna play in that, so now I have to play more by ear and visually. I look at the song and look at the neck. There’s that chord, there’s this chord. I picture where the chords are, I picture where the notes are, and then the first thing you do at any tuning is you orient the octave, right?”

Guild Guitars x Kim Thayil at Guitar Center Seattle

Going through his experiences with a few Soundgarden songs featuring unconventional tunings, including “Rusty Cage” and “Pretty Noose,” Kim reflected on how he navigates on the fretboard in these settings:

“You start learning the patterns, you just look at the neck and, ‘I go here, and as I ascend, here’s the notes I can play.’ I can throw in these half steps now and then, and it kind of twists it into a little different mode here and there.”

“I don’t know what the mode is,” he continued. “It’s by ear, it’s by eye, and you just kind of learn these patterns on the songs — that’s how I play.”

Soundgarden's Kim Thayil Talks Chris Cornell

At the end of the day, all of this comes as one huge challenge, especially if you’re trying to improvise and come up with new stuff right there on the spot. Missing some of the notes that you wanted to hit is kind of expected in that case. He added:

“Now, if you’re playing four or five songs in those same weird tunings, but the songs are in different keys [laughs] and you’ve gotta remember the different patterns, yeah, sometimes you miss them, especially after a few beers.”

To further solidify his stance, Thayil is very persistent in keeping things this way no matter what. A prepared solo or set borders is something he’s not interested in:

“I threw being within the lines and within the borders out the window years before. A lead to me was not a melodic exploration of themes, as a lot of metal guys do it and maybe as some jazz guys do it. To me, a guitar solo was improvisation.”

Soundgarden's Kim Thayil, Chris Cornell, and Ben Shepherd Rig Rundown

“This is either where you’re being expressive — either expressive emotively or perhaps you’re being expressive aesthetically. So if you’re not dressing the emotions, you’re dressing me the ideas or the feeling of a song. And in that case, it’s going to be different from day to day.”

“So rather than having a distinct pattern, you have a general outline, and then you kind of move around in there. I liked what I did last time, and I want to do more of that, but then go here.”

Discussing the matter further, Kim also added that it’s important to have “the liberty and the freedom within a song that has structure,” even if there are some unusual time signatures and tunings involved. He added:

“And letting yourself go in a tuning that you’re only familiar with on a handful of songs is both fun and a challenge. And I totally love the opportunity to do that.”

Polara Kim Thayil Featurette

“I love that Soundgarden was the kind of band where I could do that. I love that Ben’s doing that on bass and so is Hiro, they’re totally doing different stuff.” Photo: Frank Schwichtenberg (Kim Thayil – Fabrik Hamburg 2018 10)

Author

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor.