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How to Sound Like Robert Smith of The Cure for Under $1000
Robert Smith of the Cure is one of rock's most underrated guitar players. Beginning his career in 1976, inspired by punk's youthful rebellion, he double-handedly forged one of the most distinct sonic identities of the post-punk and New Wave era. Between his emotive vocal style and his angular-yet-ambient guitar work, it's no surprise that Smith is often credited with inventing goth rock. However, it's probably more accurate to say that Smith distilled his influences (who included Elvis Costello, the Cocteau Twins, Wire, and yes, Joy Division/New Order) into a sound which embodies all that was great about the older acts that inspired him, yet stands apart as wholly original.
Interestingly, although Smith has dabbled with a multitude of genres throughout the Cure's tenure, his work generally sounds like no one else's. So how does the guitarist on a budget harness such a singular palette of sounds?
This Hub will examine Robert Smith's basic "foundation" sound, as established between the 1980 album Seventeen Seconds and 1985's The Head on the Door. Arguably, any guitarist who gets to grips with this tone can build upon it, following the Cure's career trajectory by adding new techniques and equipment to trace the band's evolution. Let's take a close look at how you can add the building blocks of Smith's style to your own.
Signal to Noise
The first stop in your journey toward Robert Smiths' characteristic sound is the selection of an appropriate instrument. It's worth noting that his first main electric guitar was a Silvertone 313, which was sold by Woolworth's in the UK and branded as a "Top 20." This instrument held his favor until 1979, at which time his label insisted that he obtain a guitar suitable for recording and touring. Smith then purchased a 1965 Fender Jazzmaster, upon which he installed--as a middle pickup--the Top 20's neck pickup.
Smith originally selected a Jazzmaster because he saw Elvis Costello play one on TV, and he admired its scrappy, gnarly sound. The addition of his previous guitar's pickup doubtless helped add to the raggedness of his early tone. In the same spirit, for the budget-conscious guitarist, there are several options that will help one come close to the sound and feel of the Cure's early recorded output.
The first and most obvious choice is Fender's current line of Blacktop Jazzmasters. A Blacktop model offers guitarists an interesting instrument at a fairly low price--these commonly retail at $499.99 brand new, and are typically seen on the used market for around $350. The Blacktop Jazzmaster makes use of a humbucking pickup in the bridge position, and a P-90 in the neck position. A nice alternative to the Blacktop model would be a Squier Vintage Modified Jazzmaster. These guitars retail new for $299.99, which means that they should be available used for around $200.
The other instrument that became a cornerstone of Robert Smith's sound from the late 1980s onward is the Fender Bass VI. Originally manufactured between 1961 and 1975, this fairly rare instrument splits the difference between a bass guitar and a six-string instrument. Smith primarily uses it to play jangly leads, like the beautiful riffs heard during the intro to "Pictures of You" from Disintegration. While an original Bass VI will set you back thousands of dollars, there are some readily available modern takes on this cool piece of gear that won't break the bank.
Schecter's Hellcat-VI is a nice option, priced new at $749.99. I haven't personally seen many on the used market, although the few times I have, the asking prices were $550 and $650, respectively. If you're looking for a cheaper option, I would suggest investigating the Squier Vintage Modified Bass VI. It retails new at $349.99, although I have yet to see even one of these being sold used. It's worth noting that the Squier models are made with arguably inferior materials to the Schecter instrument, and you may need to have the guitar professionally set up in order to keep it in tune as you play. Factor the cost of a setup into your budget if you're looking to acquire one, unless you have a good working knowledge of guitar maintenance. (The Jaguar-style bridge and floating vibrato system is a fairly complex beast. Taming it is not a task for a novice.)
A Short-Term Effect
Once you've secured the right guitar, the next step is to select a few effects pedals to color your tone in the manner heard on those classic Cure albums.
The first and arguably most important sound employed by Robert Smith throughout the band's career is that distinctive, swirling chorus sound. However, the trick here is that Smith uses a flanger on a light setting to achieve that tone. While a chorus effect can be effective, they tend to make the guitar's tone sound thinner. On the other hand, a flanger unit can yield a thicker, more psychedelic sound. To that end, I would suggest sticking with the original favored by Robert Smith: a Boss BF-2. These classic pedals can be found used for as little as $65 on the used market. While they're no longer manufactured, if you're more comfortable buying a new pedal, the Boss BF-3 is an excellent option as well, though more expensive.
Another important effect we'll need in order to create the proper ambient guitar tone is a delay pedal, which creates echoes that trail after your original dry guitar signal. Once again, Robert Smith himself prefers the Boss brand of digital echo units; you are, of course, encouraged to try other things, but it's hard to beat the original in terms of a clean-sounding digital delay at a great price. The DD-3, DD-5 and DD-7 models are the most popular. The DD-3 is the oldest of this bunch, but is still manufactured and can be purchased new for $139.99, although it's not uncommon to find them listed at used prices from $40 on up. The DD-7 is the latest model of this line, and it logically retails for a higher price--usually $169.99. Used prices for the DD-7 are still a little on the high side, usually starting around $95. However, the advantage to this pedal is that it also models a variety of delay machines from the past, from dirty tape echo units to modulated analog pedals to pristine digital effects.
When it comes to using each pedal, judicious application is the key. While it may sound as though Robert Smith applies these effects heavily, oftentimes, it's a case of "less is more." Notice how Smith's playing style also leaves a lot of space; he plays fewer notes than your average guitarist would, and allows the two primary effects mentioned above to fill in the sonic canvas.
Now, we venture into trickier territory as Smith has utilized a wide variety of guitar amplifiers throughout the Cure's history. It could be argued that it is the least important part of his setup, though, as his guitars and effects have remained the same, and he's been able to replicate tones from the band's back catalogue very accurately when touring with an entirely different amplification setup.
To that end, let's look at a few options:
- Roland JC-120: Smith is rumored to have used this amplifier extensively in the studio during the band's 80s heyday. While early producer Mike Hedges confirms that this legendary solid state combo amplifier featured heavily on the Seventeen Seconds album, the Jazz Chorus slipped into the background as of 1982, and vanished completely from Robert's touring rig in the 90s. Still, this amp can be purchased new for roughly $1,100; the used market is far more kind to a guitarist on a budget, and vintage models can be frequently be found for between $400 and $500. Noted for its incredibly loud volume, clean tones, and lush built-in chorus effect, it's hard to be dissatisfied with this modern classic 2x12 combo.
- Peavey Musician Mark III: This was Robert Smith's main workhorse amp for the better part of the 1980s. It formed the basis of his classic sonic fingerprint. This solid state amplifier head was run through Peavey 4x12 speaker cabinets for a loud, clean tone. It also featured a built-in phaser effect and an extensive, tweakable EQ section. Although they're no longer manufactured, Musician Mark IIIs are not too difficult to find on the used market. The heads often retail for $150 to $250, and often the cabs aren't much more expensive--I recently came across this half-stack configuration, both head and cab, for a mere $400.
Although Robert mainly utilized solid state amps during the Cure's creative and commercial peak, that doesn't mean it's necessary to approximate his sound. For instance, on more recent tours, he's relied on Vox AC-30s quite heavily, and to date, no concert reviews have mentioned a change in his tone. To that end, the main thing to remember when selecting an amplifier that'll get you a Cure-like tone is that you'll need a lot of volume, and a lot of clean headroom--keep it loud, and keep it clean!
Play For Today
So let's look at one possible Robert Smith-like rig we can build using the elements suggested in this article. We'll use a combination of new prices, and used ones based on current averages derived from eBay and Craigslist (as well as my own personal experience).
- Squier Vintage Modified Bass VI - $349.99 New
- Boss BF-2 Flanger - $75 Used
- Boss DD-3 Delay - $70 Used
- Peavey Musician Mark III Amp with 4x12" cabinet - $400.00 Used
With this rig, which would cost a total of $895, you'll be able to accurately re-create the atmospheric lead lines heard on the Cure's classic 1980s albums!