Josh Homme and The Desert Sound


Welcome to Just Riffing. Every other week I pick a guitarist I admire and write about them.

It’s only fitting that I start with a personal favorite: the man, the myth, the 6-foot 5 ginger, Josh Homme. I must preface this by saying I am by no means an expert in this area. I am a perfectly mediocre player myself, but I do love learning about my favorite guitarists, so just don’t hold me to any complex music theory analysis. That said let’s get into it.

Most well-known as the frontman for Queens of the Stone Age, Josh Homme emerged from the Palm Desert scene in the early 1990s and has grown to be one of the most well-connected people in music. Here’s a brief history of an extremely prolific career. From about ‘87 to ‘95 Homme played guitar in his first band Kyuss. Kyuss pioneered what is now referred to as “stoner rock” or “desert rock,” due in large part to Homme’s playing style. They went from playing parties in the desert powered by generators to opening for Metallica. In between Kyuss’s split and QOTSA’s formation in ’98, Homme played rhythm guitar for the Seattle based, grunge-era band Screaming Trees. Then, from ’98 on he has been the guitarist and vocalist for Queens of the Stone Age. Along the way he has made and toured an album with Iggy Pop, formed a side project entitled Them Crooked Vultures with Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters) and John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), as well as producing albums like Arctic Monkey’s Humbug at his ranch in Joshua Tree. 

Now, this would have been a very difficult piece to write 10 years ago. First, because a column written by a 10-year-old would not be a very engaging piece of writing. Second, because Homme was notoriously secretive about his setup and style up until a few years ago. He has since gained the self-awareness to realize that if you keep refusing to tell people things eventually they stop caring. 

Beginning with Kyuss, Homme’s desert sound was largely characterized by heavy, driving riffs with a psychedelic flair. Sludgy seems like one of those words people use when they have to get creative about describing sounds in pretentious ways, but it fits. When I think of the guitar in Kyuss, sludge is the word that comes to mind. Beautiful sludge nonetheless. The reason for that is Homme’s use of downtuning. He played almost exclusively in C standard, so think of what a normal guitar’s strings sound like and then tune each of them down two whole steps. Run that through bass amps instead of a traditional guitar amp? You’ve got low-end for days. To any reasonable listener this would seem to be very metal influenced, but Homme claims he was most inspired by the aggressive playing style of Black Flag-esque punk. It may also be notable to mention that his first guitar teacher was a polka musician, so Homme learned mostly polka style barre chords and rhythm when he first started. He claims he didn’t even think about using a pick for 3 years. 

Many of Homme’s methods remained true for early Queens of the Stone Age. Their first few albums are a lesson in catchy riffs and living in that boxy mid-range guitar sound. Their fifth studio album, Era Vulgaris, saw Homme transition out of C tuning back into the traditional E standard. The lineup also became more permanent, putting 3 guitars total (and their signature lap steel) into the on-stage mix. 

More than his sound, there’s still something different about his playing style. That comes from a unique scale he uses to solo. He takes your regular old minor pentatonic scale and modifies it in such a way that it sounds like, well, it sounds like Queens of the Stone Age. I would do a poor job trying to explain shifting fourths to major thirds, so I’ll humbly suggest you watch his Guitar Moves episode so you can see it for yourself in all its glory.

Finally, gear talk. Homme has had some distinct eras of guitars he’s played live. In Kyuss and through QOTSA’s Songs for the Deaf he played a 1984 Ovation Ultra GP, which also happened to be the year they went out of production. In its day the GP was considered a poor man’s Les Paul, but Homme’s star power has been significant enough to bring the guitar out of obscurity and drive up prices of the ones left in existence. Touring around 2005 and 2007 featured the use of relatively “cheap” guitars like the Epiphone Dot and Teisco Tempo, a particularly strange choice from an unknown Japanese company. From their next album in 2013 and beyond Homme has increasingly used boutique guitars. He has frequented brands like Motor Ave and Echopark, with the occasional Gretsch thrown in there. Pickup choices range from DiMarzio Super 2s to custom made. Overall, he favors semi-hollow bodies over solid. As for amps, he’s used Ampeg VT-40s along with an assortment of rare vintage stuff. In the studio it seems like he’s recorded with anything and everything, including a speaker from an abandoned hospital that his friend stole. Pedals are abundant so here are some highlights: Boss GE-7 EQ (it’s all about the mids), Fulltone Fat Boost, Ultimate Octave, and Wah. 

Homme’s career proves that you don’t need overly technical playing or the most expensive equipment to create a great sound. 

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