The band was formed in 1984 by Chris Cornell (vocals) and Hiro Yamamoto (bass), who were later joined by Kim Thayil (guitar), who had moved to Seattle from Illinois with Yamamoto and Bruce Pavitt, who would later start Sub Pop. The band was named after a sculpture in Seattle.
Cornell originally played drums while singing, but the band enlisted Scott Sundquist to free Cornell up to concentrate on vocals. The band recorded two songs which appeared on a compilation for CZ Records called Deep Six which also featured songs by Green River, Skin Yard and The Melvins.
In 1986 Sundquist left the band, to be replaced by Matt Cameron, who had been the drummer in Skin Yard. The band signed to Sub Pop in 1987, releasing the Screaming Life EP. In 1988 they released the Fopp EP. Both EPs were reissued by Sup Pop as Screaming Life/Fopp in 1990.
Though the band were being courted by major labels, in 1988 they signed to SST Records to release their debut album, Ultramega OK, for which they earned a Grammy nomination. In 1989 the band released their first album for a major label, Louder Than Love, released through A&M Records. After the release of the album Yamamoto left to go back to college. He was briefly replaced by Jason Everman, formerly of Nirvana, who appeared on the Louder Than Live video, but Ben Shepherd ended up in the band as a permanent replacement.
The new line up recorded Badmotorfinger in 1991. Though still successful, the album was overshadowed by Nirvana's Nevermind. The band toured with Guns 'n' Roses to support the album, and later released the video Motorvision which was filmed on that tour.
The band made an appearance in the "grunge movie", Singles playing "Birth Ritual". The song appeared on the sound track album, as did a solo Cornell song, "Season". The film also featured a clip from "Spoonman", a song from the band's 1994 album, Superunknown.
Superunknown was the band's breakout, driven by the single "Black Hole Sun".
The band's final album was 1996's Down On The Upside. Soundgarden announced its breakup in April 1997. A greatest-hits compilation, A-Sides, was released a few years later. Cornell went on to make solo album Euphoria Morning and later formed the group Audioslave along with ex-members of Rage Against The Machine, while Cameron toured with Pearl Jam for their 1998 Yield Tour and subsequently joined the band as a permanent member.