This post is about the guitar sound of Robert Smith of The Cure, a sound that involves a Roland Jazz Chorus amp, Boss pedals and much more, and we’ll get into the specifics in a bit, but the quest for that sound for me started with a local star from my hometown… Adrian S. is a legend in certain circles, and one of the few guitar players I’ve known to pay proper respect to The Cure. When I was in a band called Match Party with Adrian S. (check out footage of him at the bottom of the post), he would not begin the show until whoever was within ear shot answered a series of trick questions about the sound of his American Special Fender Stratocaster as he was setting up. (Disclaimer: he no longer does this, by the way.) The first question was: “Dude, are you mad at me?” This question was, in fact, about his guitar sound, because it was probably prompted by the fact that you were not commenting on his sound already. Not commenting would have been better than saying the wrong thing. If you cared about the show starting any time soon that is… Anyway, the right thing to say would have been the answer to the ultimate question, which if Adrian heard without having to ask it back then, would have made his entire year. We’ll get to that in a bit as well.
Question number two was: “Dude, do I sound like Robert Smith, dude?” Notice that one features a second “dude” – a tell-tale sign that the answer to the first question has not been satisfactory. Truth be told, Adrian S. is a genius and telling him that he sounds just like Robert Smith would be like telling The Edge he sounds just like Andy Gill from the Gang of Four. Considering the desperation in his voice, second “dude” and all, you probably answered “Yeah, dude!” You probably even made matters worse by saying “How do you get that flanger to sound just like The Cure?”
Question number three was: “What album?” No “dudes” in that one. Rather than letting you ruin your musical credibility by bantering on, Adrian has pushed you along closer to the trigger for fusing the constantly raging electricity inside his proto-indie facade, behind his “Adrian” glasses, with the vacuum on stage waiting to be filled with his gravity and defined by some of the catchiest tunes ever put into orbit. There were only about 6 or 7 people who knew what the answer was, and at this point they would intervene, as casually as possible.
If you were a Cure fan and you thought you actually knew the answer without really knowing Adrian, you may have said “It sounds just like ‘Show’,” figuring that live album has a lot of tracks from “Disintegration,” and it’s a double disc, so how can you go wrong. Well you can and you just did. As I am approaching, grimacing diplomatically, Adrian is already unplugging everything, just to start over. “That chord from Play for Today sounded just like ‘Paris’.” If I got that in before he pulled the plug, he would ask “What, this, dude?” and he would go into Play for Today as heard on the other live album recorded the same year, 1992, that featured the stadium Cure mimicking the sound of the early goth Cure and hitting perfection.
Adrian was never satisfied with his sound, it was never quite like “Paris.” The game was rigged. Technically, beginning with 1981′s “Faith” album, Robert Smith began using a six string bass, the Fender VI, extensively, besides his legendary Fender Jazz Master and Gretsch Chet Atkins. This especially became the case with their live shows when Porl Thompson came back to The Cure (he had been in the original Easy Cure as a teenager), because Robart Smith had another guitar filling out the sound when he needed it. Robert Smith sort of turned into a six string bass B. B. King, simply adding atmospheres and two-string leads between lines of singing. He does seem to use the Schecter Ultra six string bass in 1992′s “Paris” live album version of Play for Today, and by then The Cure’s concert footage features the guitar quite a bit .
The Cure’s Paris 1992 version of Play for Today (above)
I used to think that Robert Smith played bass only on rare occasions like on the song Faith, but the Fender VI and the Schecter Ultra six string basses were his guitars of choice even on widely known cuts like Just Like Heaven, Pictures of You and many more. Later on, Robert Smith got a promotional deal with Schecter Guitar Research, who made a custom version of their Schecter Ultra six-string bass just for him and called it the UltraCure. The gouge of the high strings on a six string bass is just thick enough to make the ch0rus and flanger sound fuller. Adrian must have known this.
There are ways one can come close, of course, with Boss pedals, the effects that used to be associated with garage bands everywhere. In the studio, apparently Robert Smith used the built in chorus of a Roland Jazz Chorus amp and the phaser of a Peavy Mark III bass head. Once he played with Siouxie and the Banshees in 1982, around the “Hyaena” album days, he started using a Boss Flanger 2. Sometime 20 years ago, however, by his own admission, I’ve heard, he fell in love with all the Boss pedal colors and started using more of them. Here are a fan’s Boss pedal settings for the guitar sound in an early Cure classic from the “Seventeen Seconds” album, A Forest:
First here is a very recent performance of A Forest from the 2012 Reading Festival. Yes, the other guitar player is none other than David Bowie’s ex-axe Reeves Gabrels (apparently a member of The Cure now). Robert Smith is using a Schecter UltraCure six-string bass. Reeves Gabrels is playing his signature Reverend guitar.
- A Boss RV-3 Reverb (discontinued too and replaced by the RV-5): balance 25%, tone 30%, r.time 40%, mode 10.
Here is some in-depth research from hardcore Cure forums online:
Below is an account from a dedicated Cure fan who claims to have seen Robert Smith’s Boss pedal settings on one of their live DVDs:
Rate : 40 %
Depth : 50 %
Res : 50 %
Mode : I
Manual : 40 %
Depth : 60 %
Rate : 40 %
Res : Impossible to see… sorry, my eyes have their limit, lol !
- 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.
Adrian S. playing with IDK (whose frontman Red is currently in Ripface Invasion). Adrian is playing Red’s Gibson SG (Standard I think). Adrian was in IDK in the early 90′s. This is a sort of a reunion in 97. They end the show with a cover of Metallica’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Ripface Invasion’s World Premiere of “To Not Give In:”