says. “Whether I’m playing with Thurston or
other guitarists like Alan Licht, or horn play-
Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo onstage with his Travis Bean T1000A.
Photo by David Emery
ers, or different percussionists, I always learn
something about energy level and approach.
It’s one of the most incredible aspects of
music—the communication that comes with
creating together with someone. It’s one of
the things that really sets group music apart
from what an oil painter does or even a com-
poser that does things in a more solitary way.”
For conspirators and admirers alike, the key
to understanding Sonic Youth’s hazy, hyper-
energized, and disorienting guitar sounds is
embracing the myriad alternate tunings that
Ranaldo and Moore have created, mutated,
and employed as the backbone of their style.
As a youngster, Ranaldo stumbled on
the concept by dissecting jams by Neil
Young, David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, and
folk abstractionists like John Fahey. But in
the hands of the Sonics, alternative tunings have become something else entirely.
Octaves and unisons pumped through distortion and delay become banshee choirs
and sheets of fractal blur, while odd arpeggiated intervals become crystal bells and
ominous clangs of doom.
For a guitarist unaccustomed to working out-
side standard tuning, navigating Sonic Youth’s
universe of tunings can be like starting from
scratch. But as Ranaldo explains, players can
create their own rules and terrain by embrac-
ing the general concept.
“The tuning thing opens up a world that’s
more expansive than anything you can
do with pedals,” he says. “There are such
strict conventions about how you’re sup-
posed to tune a guitar, and yet a guitar
is so flexible. There’s no real reason to play
in a conventional tuning if you’re trying to
go somewhere new. If you can trust your
ears and what you hear, you don’t have
to know what a chord is to know that it’s
right or sounds good. It’s a very instinctual
way to play, but it opens up huge spaces
to work with.
“In Sonic Youth, we’ll make note of what key
we’re in for the sake of organizing a song,
but we rarely know exactly what chords we’re
playing—whether they’re suspended or diminished—we just know how they sound. It means
working by the seat of our pants and really
listening and using our ears. And what you
know about the fretboard will sometimes go
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