Kevin Cadogan's Platinum Riff-Writing Strategies Revealed on 'No Guitar Is Safe'

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Rife with open-string jangle, catchy melodies, and dimensional chord voicings, Kevin Cadogan's compelling guitar parts with Third Eye Blind helped the San Francisco band sell over eight million copies of their first two albums in the late ’90s.

However, as you'll immediately glean from the latest episode of my guitar podcast, No Guitar Is Safe, in which I interview Cadogan and play guitar with him at length, I will argue that, despite his success on the pop charts, Cadogan's contribution to the lexicon of rock guitar remains somewhat underappreciated—and underutilized.

No, I'm not saying Cadogan is the second coming of Jimi Hendrix and that somehow the guitar cognoscenti missed it.

But I am saying that if you like to compose or just play great rock/pop guitar parts, well, the hypnotic open-tuned riffs of this talented guitarist are certainly worth investigating.

First, full disclosure: I have been friends with Cadogan since meeting him at age 14 or 15 in Classical Guitar class at Berkeley High School over two decades ago. But although I do see Cadogan at barbecues, I promise you I am not promoting his playing because we're homies.

I promote Cadogan's playing because it involves a brilliant and simple approach the vast majority of rock/pop guitarists have never explored—and probably should. And I promote Cadogan's guitar approach because radio rock would be a lot less generic if more people employed it.

You may now, of course, be wondering, "How exactly is Kevin's approach unique?" Well, it's pretty simple, really, but let me first respond with a question: How do you think most guitarists would strum a simple D-A progression?

I'll let that play in your mind for a moment. Okay, what did you just hear in between your ears? My guess is you pictured something pretty standard or conventional sounding using standard and conventional chords—which is totally fine, because those are the chords most guitarists employ.

Kevin is not like most guitar players.

Listen to the intro to Third Eye Blind song "Narcolepsy" (which you can hear at the 2:13 mark in the No Guitar Is Safe podcast), and you'll hear how Cadogan approaches that same D-A progression. Instead of using open-position A and D chords, or regular barre chords, he strums giant six-string tapestries that feature a bonus soprano hook played on the high frets.

Why does the "Narcolepsy" part sound so full? It's all courtesy of a custom guitar tuning (D, A, D, F#, A, E, low to high).

"Often being the only guitar in the band, I've always sought out ways to make guitar parts sound huge and orchestral," Cadogan says. "I do that by finding altered tunings that sound full and also maybe allow me to add melody notes with my pinky."

His riff writing approach is in one way the opposite of what a majority of guitarists do: When he hears a guitar part in his mind, instead of forcing it to fit in standard tuning (and thus making the sacrifices we all make when we're restricted to one particular tuning and its arrangement of open strings and intervals), he heads to tuners and alters his tuning—sometimes drastically—to suit the part he is writing.

Yep, that's the approach in a nutshell—Be willing to, just for one song, put aside all the scale patterns and chord shapes you spent all that time learning over the years and retune your guitar in pursuit of new melodic shapes, riffs, and chord voicings you wouldn't have come up with otherwise.

And don't worry—all those conventional chords and scales you learned will still be there waiting patiently for you when you return to standard tuning.

Granted, Brit-rock heroes such as Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, and Dave Wakeling certainly paved the way for open tunings in radio rock. None of them, however, have explored the approach to the extent Cadogan has. Not nearly.

For instance, check out Cadogan's moody "God of Wine" guitar part (8:27 into the podcast). He came up with D, A, D, E, A, D tuning specifically for that song.

Or, get even more extreme and check out his F#, A, C#, F#, G#, E tuning on "Losing a Whole Year" (3:27 into the podcast).

The other fun part of this approach is that by retuning the guitar, you don't necessarily have to use tendon-stretching, knuckle-busting fretboard shapes to get unconventional chords. Formerly impossible-to-finger voicings can be made easy to fret by adjusting the tuning machines on your headstock.

Of course, in addition to delving into his creative process and signature riffs, in this episode of No Guitar Is Safe, Cadogan also discusses early influences, his exciting rise to the Top Ten with Third Eye Blind in the late ’90s, his sudden and shocking departure from the band in the middle of their tour for Blue, their second album, and what it was like sharing the bill with U2 and the Rolling Stones in stadiums around America.

It's all waiting for you on Episode 9 of No Guitar Is Safe, which you can subscribe to on iTunes (link below) or find on Soundcloud or any other online local or smartphone app you use to stream or download podcasts.