As a co-founding member of Soundgarden, Kim Thayil has written and performed some of the hardest and heaviest riffs of all time, spanning the drop-D swagger of Flower to the relentless grind and pterodactyl squeals of Jesus Christ Pose.
With his trusty Guild S-100 in hand, Thayil also played a major role in helping shape a style and approach to rock guitar that focused more on the importance of songwriting and the almighty riff with the arrival of the grunge movement in the early ‘90s.
After the tragic passing of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell in 2017, Thayil has remained active, first with Wayne Kramer's MC50, and now with new Seattle outfit 3rd Secret, which includes Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and Thayil‘s Soundgarden bandmate Matt Cameron among its ranks.
Wherever he lends his talents, Thayil‘s distinctive lead style, colorful use of feedback and punishing riff delivery is a through-line in all of his output. Here, he selects and inspects guitarists who shaped his idiosyncratic sound, loosely categorized into bands, individual players, genres and musical movements, at his request.
As a result, this one goes far beyond the 10 influences we originally requested…
1. The Beatles (George Harrison and John Lennon)
“Normally, I would start with the Beatles. But John Lennon and George Harrison didn’t have an effect on me as guitarists – the Beatles had its effect by the nature of their songs and the culture that they came about in, both socially and politically.
“Being a little kid, the Beatles were the soundtrack to so much that was going on in the world in the ’60s and ‘70s. They were important in that way.
“It wasn’t until I was older that I began to appreciate George Harrison as a guitarist on songs like While My Guitar Gently Weeps – where either he or Clapton, or a combination of the two, did that sort of soulful playing. As a kid, I gravitated to the guitar songs and the cool guitar riffs, and songs that had a little bit of a bounce, such as Paperback Writer or Day Tripper.”
2. Kiss (Ace Frehley and Paul Stanley)
“I first realized that guitar playing was cool when I heard Kiss, and that was thanks to Ace Frehley. He had a cool look, and Kiss designed themselves to appeal visually. Frehley was easily my favorite member of Kiss, and at that time I liked the songs he wrote and his costume. [Laughs]
“I didn’t know what ‘lead guitar’ was, but he was credited as the lead guitarist. I took that to be the ‘out front guitar’ – the heavy guitar that started the songs. So, if I hear a riff like Watchin’ You or Nothin’ to Lose, both start with guitar, right? I think that’s lead guitar.
“That’s what I liked: the loud, distorted, big, heavy sound of the rhythm guitar, but I attributed that to the lead guitar, and that was being played by Ace Frehley. The guitar solos I thought were these extra flourishes that were added, and thought they were played by the rhythm guitarist because they occurred when the vocalist wasn’t singing!”
3. ‘Proto-punk’: New York Dolls (Johnny Thunders and Syl Sylvain) / Stooges (Ron Asheton and James Williamson) / MC5 (Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and Wayne Kramer)
“Through reading about Kiss, I was connected to other ‘power chord hard rockers’ – like the MC5, the Stooges, and the New York Dolls – which was perfect, because that is a good bridge to punk rock. That was perfect timing for me; when I was 14, it was like ’74/’75.
“I ended up really liking Johnny Thunders. I got into that sort of sleazy, loose, cool-looking playing, like Joe Perry and Johnny Thunders, and that whole thing connected me to the MC5 and the Stooges.
“I liked both periods of the Stooges – with Ron Asheton and with James Williamson. At the time, I was really into the MC5’s first album, Kick Out the Jams.
“I came to learn that a lot of the stuff I liked – which was wild and chaotic and careening out of control – was being played by Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, and a lot of the more solid/learned stuff was coming from Wayne Kramer. It was just a great balance of those two guitarists in that band.”
4. Ramones (Johnny Ramone)
“That just set me up for the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. I got the Ramones’ Leave Home album, and that was back to those big, loud, distorted power chords that I liked with Kiss, only it's super-fast. That was a new thing to me. So, Johnny Ramone became a big influence.
“Now, my influences went from big distorted rock to loose, wild and chaotic, and then to fast. Fast is the element that had an influence on me – and specifically, with Johnny Ramone.
“I remember shortly after that I was turned on to the Saints’ (I’m) Stranded, and it was like the Ramones but only faster!”
5. ‘Industrial rock’: Devo (Bob "1" Mothersbaugh) / Pere Ubu (Tom Herman)
“Within new wave, there are things like industrial rock. Industrial rock was a label they’d throw on bands like Devo or Pere Ubu, because they’d use these electronic and synthesizer sounds to emulate factory effects.
“And there was something sort of smart and witty about those guitar players. There was something dynamic about it. Like, with Devo, there was this comic and cartoon-like element to the music that had this appeal, because it seemed smart and it moved differently.
“It didn’t move in the predictable ways of more traditional punk or hard rock, and I started liking Bob "1" Mothersbaugh from Devo. The next big insight for me was listening to Pere Ubu’s The Modern Dance, and that guitarist, Tom Herman, because they were heavy and dangerous in these different ways.”
6. The Contortions (Jody Harris) / Richard Hell and the Voidoids (Robert Quine and Ivan Julian)
“My best friend is a sax player, and reeds are incorporated in the work of Pere Ubu and another band, the Contortions. Both bands feature guitar, bass and drums, but they also have sax, reeds and some keyboards.
“I became more appreciative of that because my best friend was a free jazz fan, so he turned me on to things like Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. But with his free jazz and my punk rock, we kind of met at the Contortions.
“Their guitarist was a guy named Jody Harris, and I had this record that was Jody Harris and Robert Quine [1981’s Escape]. Robert Quine from the Voidoids was aslo a big influence for me. That album, Blank Generation, which had Ivan Julian and Robert Quine, was just amazing stuff.”
7. ‘80s American progressive post-hardcore’: Minutemen (D. Boon) / Meat Puppets (Curt Kirkwood) / Butthole Surfers (Paul Leary)
“Then in 1984, all this SST shit starts coming together. Besides Black Flag, you have Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, and Saccharine Trust. I think the two guitarists that stood out for me were Curt Kirkwood and D. Boon.
“I probably say D. Boon’s playing might have hit me a little more as being stylistically unique. His guitar playing was slashy, percussive and very thin; bright, and high-end-y.
“I also loved Curt Kirkwood from the Meat Puppets because of the contrast between the first album and Meat Puppets II. The first album had the elements that I described in the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams. Songs like Love Offering and Blue Green God just have this wild, chaotic, loose, coming-undone sort of heaviness and speed to it. I would file the Meat Puppets’ first album with Kick Out the Jams.
“I had to get past the vocals to get into the Meat Puppets. The guitar was so cool that it gave context to the vocals, and then they became one of my favorite bands. And the second album is beautiful. It has that wild coming-apart-at-the-seams feel, but it’s also colorful, dynamic, pretty, trippy and acidic. That became my favorite Meat Puppets album.
“Paul Leary… I was also getting turned on to the Butthole Surfers the same time I was getting turned on to Curt Kirkwood and D. Boon. There was something with early Butthole Surfers that was aggressive and psychedelic, but not in a jangle pop way. It was psychedelic in an acid rock way. It was also loose; it seemed dangerous. I get that sense of danger from Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and Wayne Kramer, from the Velvet Underground, and I got it from Paul Leary from the Butthole Surfers.”
8. Bauhaus (Daniel Ash)
“In between the late ‘70s punk rock/new wave explosion and 1984/SST, there was a British post-punk thing, and I picked up on the style and elements of Daniel Ash. Once again, specifically the use of feedback, slashing, and pick scrapes and finger squeaks on the strings.
“All these elements that were incidental, producers and recording engineers often tried to keep off the tape. It's also stuff that guitarists tried to avoid doing because they thought it was incidental, noise and unintended.
“Ash embraced that as all part of the depth of the music and created that sort of ‘cinematic depth’ – kind of in the way that Pere Ubu had this weird literary dynamic to the way they did things. So, they weren’t afraid of the picks scrapes, the squeaks, and the use of space. It was just amazing.
“And on some level, it’s fun and wild, but it’s also courageous and arty. It inspired me not to be afraid of these components of playing guitar. I didn’t have to work my way out of them – I could incorporate them into the songs.”
9. Jeff Beck
“Going back to my best friend, Brad, who played sax, he was turning me on to Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy and Sun Ra, and through hearing stuff like the Contortions and Captain Beefheart I start getting an appreciation for instrumental music.
“At some point, I heard Jeff Beck’s Wired and Blow by Blow, and it was great to hear guitar playing without a goddamned singer getting in the way of it! And I did go back and listen to Truth – because I was so moved by Jeff Beck’s playing, and it was soulful and passionate. It was at times raw, energetic and fluid, and other times it was rootsy, and sometimes from the future.
“Then I heard Beck-Ola and Truth with Rod Stewart on it. I wasn’t a Rod Stewart fan, but I heard Truth and I was like, ‘Wow. He’s an amazing singer. Everything here is soulful – the singing and the guitar playing.’
“But Jeff Beck’s Wired and Blow by Blow gave me an insight into instrumental music from a guitar perspective – and not just an accompaniment for vocals or in the pop rock vein. Jeff Beck at that point was just way over my head – I was still learning power chords and thinking, ‘Let's see how fast I can play a triplet.’ Beck was this whole other universe for me at the time.”
10. Derek Trucks
“I think Derek Trucks is one of the most soulful guitarists I’ve ever heard. The way he plays is beautiful and can send shivers up and down my spine in ways that Jeff Beck can.
“Derek Trucks kind of reconnected me to his slide playing. I don’t play slide, but Trucks has a beautiful voice on guitar, which is very expressive. It brings me back to the insight I might have had listening to instrumental music from Jeff Beck.
“I like Trucks with and without vocals – whether he’s playing with his wife Susan Tedeschi or if he's playing instrumentally. It’s great; his phrasing – the dynamics and the soulfulness – and the fact that he incorporates elements of free jazz, Sun Ra, and raga into blues.”
11. Jimi Hendrix
“Can you do an 11? A lot of these elements of guitarists that have appealed to me were also present in the playing of Jimi Hendrix.
“His playing had beautiful mellifluousness, heavy dark aggressiveness, quirkiness, expressiveness and the courage to use those incidental noise elements – like feedback, dive-bombing, screeching and bending the strings way sharp.
“Those elements that I liked from a lot of these other guitar players, Hendrix touched on a lot of that.”