The fourth installment of the GuitarSong series profiles Soundgarden and their very trippy song Head Down from the 1994 Superunknown album. Their best selling disc, Superunknown followed the band’s breakout hit Badmotorfinger, was a success critically and commercially, and is still regarded as one of Grunge Rock’s defining records (along with Nevermind, Ten and Dirt).
Way back in the 80s Soundgarden was formed in Seattle and came of age and ability around the same time as many other well-known bands from that legendary scene: Tad, Skin Yard, Green River, Mudhoney, Nirvana. Like the other Seattle rock denizens, Soundgarden was influenced by equal parts punk rock, rock, pop and metal-ish bands like Black Sabbath. In the early days they were very crude and their riffs were big and huge, but in 1991 Ben Shepherd joined the band on bass guitar and brought with him a whole new approach for writing and recording. Coincidentally, around the same time singer/guitarist Chris Cornell really started to come into his own as a songwriter and these two events completely redefined the Soundgarden sound. By the time Superunknown was recorded many of the rough edges had been polished, the songs were more sophisticated and the sounds much improved. In essence, amid all of the heaviness, they created a modern-day Revolver with plenty of melodic Beatle-esque moments, including this tune.
While Kim Thayil, lead guitarist of Soundgarden, was responsible for some of the heaviest riffing from the early 90s, Chris Cornell is also no slouch as a guitarist and has written and played some of the best guitar the band has produced. One of the key ingredients that bassist Ben Shepherd brought to the band was an interest in open guitar tunings and the ability to write a good guitar song and though he wrote the music and lyrics to Head Down he plays bass on the song. So I would imagine it was very much a group effort to get Head Down together, with everyone, including drummer Matt Cameron, putting in a solid effort. As Chris Cornell was quoted as saying:
“Head Down” was a complete demo Ben had played for me, where he’s singing on it and it’s very similar to what ended up on the record. That was an amazing moment because it was one of those times when I felt like, “This must be what it was like to be in the Beatles,” where one of the band members just walks in and drops a song like that — it’s already done and you don’t have to do anything, and you already know it’s going to be one of the best songs on the album.
First — tuning for the song is CGCGGE. This jangly, somewhat psychedelic, Zepplin-y tuning is also used on the great tune, Burden in My Hand from the Down on the Upside album. The great thing about this tuning is that it has a drone type sound on (what would normally be) the D through the high E strings, but the low (what would normally be) E and A strings function as the power sound of a dropped-D tuning. So you can have these very jingly-jangly, bluesy, psychedelic high riffs and melodies and combine that with a very heavy bottom riff all on the same tuning! Also the “dropped” nature of the top strings means those riffs can be played with one finger and given that the tuning is C based and the song is in the key of C, the open/12th fret dynamic applies (as it would if you were in concert tuning and playing in E).
As you can see from videos, Cornell begins the song with a clean sound and Thayil reinforces the riffs with a more overdriven guitar sound. Then they just build it up to POUND level it until the middle. Interestingly, tuning to C was/is a favorite technique of Stoner Rock bands (Kyuss, Monster Magnet, Acid King, High On Fire) because the riffs be so HEAVY and simultaneously it is a lot easier on the vocalist as it is two steps down from concert tuning. The other aspect is the de-tuned treble strings have a slurry/jangly sound that is pretty great; definitely not suited for everything, but on a tune like this, it works! After one of Soundgarden’s patented “big” riffs (minute 2:50) Thayil, Cornell and Shepherd all play counter melodies in the middle before returning to the main riff. The band wasn’t really known for this kind of dynamic jamming, but they look like they’re having fun and that’s one reason why I picked it as a GuitarSong. I’ve never played Head Down in a band situation, but I have played it myself and it’s a fun tune to play! It’s also a good beginner to intermediate style song and you can certainly take it a lot of places because the tuning and structure have that “openness” that allows for experimentation.
Here is the midi-tab for Head Down.
Here‘s a list of the song’s YouTube play-a-longs.
Here‘s a cool interview with the band.
Here is the Unofficial Soundgarden Page. I used to visit back in the day and it’s still online. It is very informative and it has a guitar tab section that is pretty good.
Soundgarden was one of my favorite bands from the 90s and I think Superunknown is one of the best albums of the past 25 years. There are certainly many tunes off of the disc that one could pick as a great guitar song because it’s full of great moments. As I said earlier, I think Head Down is a really good “learner” tune for those who don’t have the abililty yet to play some of the more difficult stuff and also it’s a song that can be played just as easily on acoustic or electric. It also gets one in shape to deal with open tunings, which as I have written about in the past, is a great way to expand your guitar abilities and also broaden your songwriting. Once you are comfortable in this tuning you can proceed directly to Burden in My Hand. Some of the other open tunings are easier (My Wave, The Day I Tried to Live) some are a bit more esoteric (4th of July, Like Suicide, Mailman). But once you are comfortable you can navigate easily and maybe even make up some of your own. That’s what they did!