Potent Pairings: The Guitar Work of The Cure’s Robert Smith

Robert Smith may be the most underrated rock guitarist of all time. While he was never one to shred with the same flash as some of his ’80s contemporaries, his influence over droves of players and sub-genres should earn him a more revered spot in the guitar gods pantheon.

The Cure still fill stadiums with a surprisingly diverse community of adoring fans. Bands like Dinosaur Jr and the Smashing Pumpkins have recorded loving covers of Cure songs. If the recent cavalcade of boutique chorus and modulation pedals is any indication, Smith’s influence as a tonal architect is alive and well.

So why is the ink devoted to his guitar craft comparatively limited?

For one, Smith’s status as a pop culture emblem of angst might distract audiences from his underlying musical achievements. For the general population, Robert Smith’s hair and makeup choices are a more relevant touchpoint than his guitar tone.

Perhaps The Cure’s renown as a poppy synth band gets in the way of guitar worship. It’s understandable considering that many of their biggest hits are flush with cascades of Roland and other string synths.

Distractions aside, Smith remains a guitar player and effect explorer first. It may just be that his affinity for the textural over the technical in his work is the real root of his underappreciation. While certainly a capable player, his innovation and influence has less to do with the notes he plays and more to do with how they sound.

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Look at how popular shoegaze and its unyielding pedal worship has been over the past decade within indie rock circles. My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy might be the sonic manifestos of the genre, but The Cure were swimming in similar waters with 1982’s Pornography.

Even before that, Smith played a Jazzmaster modded with a pickup from a cheap department store guitar to record the group’s debut studio album, Three Imaginary Boys in 1979, and could be seen with a Fender Bass VI a couple years later. He was playing offsets with endless chorus and delay decades before this aesthetic was normalized by the skinny-jeaned denizens of your local DIY venue.

That album and the ones that followed – Seventeen Seconds in 1980 and Faith in 1981 – were angular post-punk outcrys stocked with sneer and counterbalanced with undeniable hooks and grooves. Starting with Pornography in particular, you can hear an increased textural exploration and tonal interplay. Listen to the instrumental sections of “The Hanging Garden.” The layered, shifting guitar lines take the various effects of the day and forge a cohesive, iconic gothic orchestration.

Later albums proved more diverse, with radio-friendly hits like “In Between Days” and “Close to Me” on 1985’s The Head in the Door and “Just Like Heaven” on Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me in 1987. While these hits and other genre exercises of this era were departures from the dirges and youthful anger of earlier efforts, they reflect a constant quest for new sounds, textures, and instrumental approaches to serve the song.

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With Disintegration in 1989, everything came together, which is a tad ironic given the album’s title. The pop hook sensibilities, the gothic alienation, the deep, enveloping layers of sound all coalesced into a work that South Park fans will remember Kyle calling “the best album ever.”

Cure releases since have all offered something worthwhile. They’ve toured consistently despite membership changes, most notably the addition of studio guitar ace Reeves Gabrels in 2012 (along with his slick signature Reverend solid body).

Smith for his part has played a number of guitars throughout his career, including a range of Fender offsets, various map-shaped Nationals, and a Gretsch Country Gentleman. In recent years, he’s almost exclusively used a set of signature instruments built by Schecter, including the electric UltraCure (in both traditional and Bass IV-esque configurations) and the acoustic RS-1000.

As for effects, Smith primarily uses Boss pedals with the odd EHX or Dunlop option tossed in. Nothing newfangled. If it ain’t broke, don’t cure it.

© Dan Orkin & Reverb

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