A Smashing Pumpkin Shows His Roots April 1998
Guitar Player
By James Rotondi

He has been a character on The Simpsons and a model for fashion designer Anna Sui. He has been on the cover of Asian Magazine and Rolling Stone. He even owns a record company (Scratchie) with D'Arcy, the bass player from the Smashing Pumpkins-the multi-platinum alternative rock band they share with guitarist Billy Corgan. But 29-year-old guitarist James Iha wasn't satisfied until he released Let It Come Down [Virgin], his first solo album.

The title is apt; gone are the blazing Big Muffs and barre-chord fury of Pumpkin smashes such as Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness and Gish. Instead, the soft-spoken, dry-humored Iha opted for an acoustic-rock production that suggests influences such as The Band, Neil Young, Nick Drake, and Gram Parsons.

"I didn't model the sound after a particular album," he says, "but I was going for the vibe of those early Band records. If you analyze individual sounds on those albums, you might come away thinking, 'Wow, what a terrible guitar tone." But the sounds work so well together. And the records aren't as bright as today's productions-they have a warm sound that really brings you in."

On Let It Come Down, the open-D-tuned "Silver Strings" chugs along like an outtake from Neil Young's Harvest, its throbbing bass line having what Iha describes as "that gropey Stray Gators feel." The all-acoustic "Winter"-which was constructed from tracks flown in from a six-year-old 8-track home demo-incorporates the modal pedal tones and quasi-Eastern bends used in so many Smashing Pumpkins numbers. "Those bends are kind of a trademark Pumpkin thing," admits Iha. "In fact, at one point, Billy and I were talking about not doing them anymore because that's such an easy thing for us to do-just bend the strings up and down-the key to our success!"

An acoustic guitar aficionado, Iha has a passel of older Gibsons lying around his Chicago home, including a J200, a J-100, and a Hummingbird. "They're great for writing," he enthuses, "because they have so much bass." For "The Sound of Love" and "Silver Strings," however, Iha used a high-strung Guild to add a glittering, mandolin-like top to the arrangements. "When you overdub a high-strung part over a regular acoustic, it produces all these overtones. It's like a mini-symphony," he says. "Also, the high-strung is cool because there's usually nothing else in its range. It can really cut through the mix."

Common gauges for a high-strung guitar are (high to low) .012, .016, .009, .016, .018, and .025, with strings 3 through 6 tuned an octave higher than usual. It's also common practice to tune high-strung guitars a half- or whole-step below standard pitch and use a capo to make up the difference, as strings tensions on the lighter strings are often intense.

For the Let It Come Down sessions, which took place in his 24-track home studio, Iha left his trademark black Les Paul Custom in the closet and broke out a Fender Telecaster Delux with chrome humbuckers, a vintage '68 Stratocaster, and a single-lipstick Danelectro. "My producer, Jim Scott, and I had a rule that if a guitar sound sounded good from the beginning-from when you first plug it in or set up the mike-we'd tweak it a little with EQ or effects if needed," says Iha. "But if it sounded bad from the outset, there was no reason to kill ourselves EQing and putting effects on. We were just trying to get nice, warm sounds, to make the whole thing sound organic." For amp warmth, Iha leaned on an old Fender Deluxe Reverb, a vintage Vox AC30, and small, old Gibson amps.

Iha's acoustic filigrees-in standard, double-dropped-D, open-D, or open-G tuning-form the core of each song, but they're fleshed out by his tasteful between-vocal licks, Greg Leisz's plaintive pedal steel, John Ginty's juicy Hammond B-3, Matt Walker's spot-on drumming, and the vocal harmonies of Veruca Salt's Nina Gordon and songsmith Neal Casal. But if the production values are decidedly different from Iha's Pumpkins work, the sentiments are even more so. It's a mild shock to hear so many affectionate, damn near fuzzy words-"Be Strong Now," "No One's Gonna Hurt You"-flowing from the mouth of Iha, who's known for his acerbic wit.

Currently wrapping up work on the next, largely self-produced Smashing Pumpkins opus, Iha remains self-effacing about what he calls his "limited vocabulary of chord voicings" and "slow hands." But a fawning fan-authored website entitled "The Church of James Iha" and his busy schedule signing bands such as Fountains of Wayne, Fulflej, and the Chainsaw Kittens betrays that Iha has got it good-even he is beginning to realize it. "I'm actually optimistic, at least on record," he jokes, "I'm just trying to rock in my own sad way."