How To Sound Like The Cure on Guitar

When it comes to pedals — and chorus and delay in particular — few players have had as lasting an influence as Robert Smith of The Cure. Bands like Dinosaur Jr and the Smashing Pumpkins have recorded loving covers of Cure songs, and the cavalcade of recently released boutique chorus and modulation pedals testify to Smith’s lasting impact as a guitar tone architect. In this edition of Potent Pairings, we’re taking a look at some classic Cure guitar tones and how to use every day pedals to achieve them.

Performed by Chris Kareska

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

How to sound like Robert Smith

The Cure are the great survivors of the punk era. They have been together – albeit with an ever-changing line-up – for nearly 20 years, during which time their mix of gothic, independent, and quirky pop styles has allowed them to transcend the vagaries of fashion and enjoy enormous,  and continuous commercial success.

Robert Smiths ‘s sound is steeped in simplicity.  The key here is good song writing as oppossed to racks of endless equipment. A simple Boss Distortion is all that required here.  The Cure are often identified with the gothic rock subgenre of alternative rock, and are viewed as one of the form’s definitive bands. However, the band has routinely rejected classification, particularly as a gothic rock band. Robert Smith said in 2006, “It’s so pitiful when ‘goth’ is still tagged onto the name The Cure”, and added, “We’re not categorisable.

I suppose we were post-punk when we came out, but in total it’s impossible  I just play Cure music, whatever that is.” Smith has also expressed his distaste for gothic rock, describing it as “incredibly dull and monotonous. A dirge really.”[ While typically viewed as producers of dark and gloomy music, The Cure have also yielded a number of upbeat songs. Spin has said “The Cure have always been an either/or sort of band: either  Robert Smith is wallowing in gothic sadness or he’s licking sticky-sweet cotton-candy pop off his lipstick-stained fingers.”

The Cure’s primary musical traits have been listed as “dominant, melodic bass lines; whiny, strangulated vocals; and a lyric obsession with existential, almost literary despair.”  Most Cure songs start with Smith and Gallup writing the drum parts and basslines. Both record demos at home and then bring them into the studio for fine-tuning. Smith said in 1992, “I think when people talk about the ‘Cure sound,’ they mean songs based on 6-string bass, acoustic guitar, and my voice, plus the string sound from the Solina.

The Solina

The Solina String Ensemble is often thought of as THE String Machine of the late 1970’s disco era. It’s a multi-orchestral machine with violin, viola, trumpet, horn, cello and contrabass. Instead of attack and decay there are crescendo and sustain controls (which sound more orchestral but are the same thing). Apparently this synth really makes a great string sound, but that’s all really… It has gate and trigger outs from the polyphonic keyboard. Completely cased in wood (or wood-like) panels with a clean and discrete layout. It’s old, it’s vintage, and it’s been used by Air, The Eagles, Elton John, Pink Floyd, The Cure, Joy Division, OMD, Josh Wink, STYX, Tangerine Dream, Keane, Japan, and New Order.

“On top of this foundation is laid “towering layers of guitars and synthesizers”. Keyboards have been a component of the band’s sound since Seventeen Seconds, and their importance increased with their extensive use on Disintegration.

As  for Guitar’s Robert  says  “Most of the guitar work has been done on a limited edition Gibson Chet Atkins – a huge guitar with gold all over it.”

Amps

Ampeg VL-503 Combo / 1×12

Guitars

Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman Electric Guitar

Ovation Balladeer 12 String 6751 Acoustic Guitar

Pedals

Boss BF-2 Flanger

Boss CH-1 Super Chorus

Boss DD-3 Digital Delay

Boss DS-1 Distortion

Boss PH-2 Super Phaser

Boss PN-2 Tremolo Pan

Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive

Dunlop Original CryBaby Wah Pedal

ROBERT SMITH (GUITAR, BASS, LEAD VOCALS, KEYBOARDS): AKG C12 mic; Ampeg Combo SVT112; Banjo (5 string); Boss effects pedals; Coral Sitar guitar; Emu Emulator II; Fender 6 string bass; Fender Jazzmaster; Gibson Chet Atkins ltd edition guitar; Gibson SG custom guitar; Gretsch Tennessee Rose guitar; Jen Cry Baby Wah Wah pedal; Marshall Bluesbreaker combo; Mosrite guitar; Ovation 12 string guitar; PHD custom guitar; Sitar; Takamine 12 string acoustic guitar; Takamine 6 string acoustic guitar; Vox AC30 ammp; Yairi Classical guitar & Schecter UltraCure six-string bass

 The following is a year by year exposition of what Robert Smith used meticulously described:
in 1981 : the built-in chorus of a Roland JC-160 amp / the built in phaser of a Peavey Musician Mark III head amp (and that’s still to be checked out a MXR Flanger – he used this one extensively with the Banshees, I still have a doubt about its use with The Cure).
in 1982 : the built in phaser of a Peavey Musician Mark III head amp / a Electro Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man (analog Chorus / Vibrato / Delay).
in 1983 / 1984 : still the Peavey phaser + a Boss CE-2 Chorus + a Boss BF-2 (located at the end of the FX chain).
in 1985 / 1992 : same amp, same phaser + and numerous chorus (CE-2 / CH-1, following the convenience) + Boss BF-2
from 1996 onwards : introduction of a Boss PH-2 (Roberts didn’t use his peavey anymore but Ampeg VL503 or Line6 Flextone instead), Boss BF-2, Boss CE-5.
– in 2006: CE2 or JC-120. He’s been using the CE2 into various amps (Marshalls a lot) live for the last decade, but it might well have been the JC-120 in the studio.But it’s not just the chorus – there’s a lot of compression there and he deliberately tunes his high E string a little flat. Slow rate, full depth.
The lead (descending) riff is a Fender Bass VI into a Boss CE-2 and DD-3 and a Peavy Bass amp. I can’t remember the pedal settings but Robert Smith likes to use “intuitive” symmetrical setings like 12:00 speed 12:00 depth or 10:00 speed and 2:00 depth. In any event the Bass VI is THE KEY to the tone on “Just like heaven”.
Have fun.

© itsstecole & Sebouh Gemdjian