Excerpt: Kim Thayil on the Secrets Behind His Tunings

The following in an excerpt taken from the Holiday 2012 issue of Guitar World. For the full story, pick up the issue on newsstands now, or in our online store.

A stylistic hallmark of Soundgarden’s music—and one that is very much present in the new material—has always been the band’s tendency to write and play in altered tunings. Where did that interest initially stem from?

Well, the whole drop-D tuning thing was probably popularized in Seattle as a consequence of our success. And we couldn’t be stagnant and just stay there, so we started playing around with other tunings. We liked the fact that what we were playing didn’t sound like what our friends and peers were playing. So we started introducing things like open slide tunings into our songs. Then we had what we called the “digga digga” tuning, which was drop-D with the A string dropped to G. That really took off for us around [1991’s] Badmotorfinger. And also the [low to high] E E B B B B tuning that Chris and Ben used on [1994’s] Superunknown. [This tuning can be heard on Superunknown cuts like “My Wave” and “The Day I Tried to Live.”]

You mentioned earlier that you felt the drop-D tuning that was so prevalent in grunge music came from you guys.

Well, there weren’t a lot of bands doing the drop-D thing properly. That all kind of came from us. Because, in the beginning, the big Seattle bands were probably us and Green River, and then Mother Love Bone. The fact that Alice in Chains and Nirvana started using it was because we used it.

How did you come to discover the tuning?

There was a conversation between me, [Melvins singer and guitarist] Buzz Osborne and [Green River singer and future Mudhoney frontman] Mark Arm in Mark’s apartment in the U District [the University District in Seattle] in ’85 or ’86. We were just sitting around listening to records, and Buzz was telling us about Black Sabbath. He said, “Hey, you know on this song Tony Iommi uses this tuning where he tunes his E string down to D.” And we were all like, “Really?” All I knew of altered tunings back then was slide guitar tunings, like what the country guys used. And I knew Sonic Youth was experimenting with a lot of tunings. I was not aware of the Melvins using drop-D, but I’m sure they were.

But what I was most aware of was Buzz letting Mark and me know that Sabbath did it. So I went and started playing around with that. And I wrote the song “Nothing to Say,” and Chris wrote “Beyond the Wheel,” and we became married to that tuning. I remember that the Alice in Chains guys at the time were more like a glam-metal boogie band, and one day I ran into Jerry [Cantrell] at a D.O.A. concert, and he says to me, “Man, I love that song ‘Nothing to Say.’ What are you doing there?” And I told him, “Well, it’s in drop-D tuning.” And Alice in Chains became a different band almost overnight!

For the full interview, plus features on Aerosmith, Kiss, Gary Clark Jr. and more, pick up the Holiday 2012 issue of Guitar World now in our online store. Soundgarden's new album, King Animal, is out November 13.

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.