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If there’s one thread that runs through the philosophies of Ranaldo, Zinner, Chasny, and Bishop, it’s that moving beyond guitar clichés and stylistic traps is a conscious decision that has to be followed by a largely unconscious approach to the instrument. It’s a paradoxical position from which to work. But as each of these artists proves, it can be a fruitful creative process especially when you’re willing to put in the time.
“Players need to get sick of what they are playing and what they are listening to, and have the will to do something about it,” explains Bishop. “And it takes work. If you want to get different or new sounds from the guitar—sounds that you haven’t gotten before—then do things differently. Do the opposite. Alter your approach. Try a little dissonance, use more upstrokes with chords if you use mainly downstrokes, and create your own new chord forms. Train your ears to hear things in a different way. Think about what Thelonious Monk did with the piano— there were no effects, just a unique combination of dissonance, harmonic oddities, and whatever else he could muster. The same ideas can be applied to the guitar, though it may take your ears a while to process unfamiliar sounds in a different way. But it can be done. Just do whatever you can to come up with something new.”
Seven Songs of 6-String Enlightenment
“Expressway to Yr Skull” from the 1986 album Evol
Neil Young allegedly called this the greatest guitar song ever and has praised the beauty of its melody and ferocity in live performance. Here Lee and Thurston Moore create a gorgeous cathedral of sound in EG#EG#EG# that evokes the ringing of church bells and a raging cyclone in a single song.
“Diamond Sea” from the 1995 album Washing Machine
Perhaps the crown jewel of the Sonic Youth canon, “Diamond Sea” is also one of Sonic’s most psychedelic pieces. Like “Expressway,” it’s as beautiful, moody, muscular, and melodic a piece of guitar music as you’ll ever hear—moving from a haunting, four-note figure through a spiraling melody and punctuated by a 10-minute outro that sounds like a supernova tearing at the very fabric of the cosmos.
“What We Know” from the 2009 album The Eternal
Lee Ranaldo takes the vocal lead on this textbook example of an infectious power-pop tune turned inside-out with driving and howling verse intros and bridge—a Sonic Youth specialty that’s also on glorious display on tunes like “Kool Thing” (Goo, 1990) “Sugar Kane” (Dirty, 1992), and “Sunday” (A Thousand Leaves, 1997).
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
“Date with the Night” from the 2003 album Fever to Tell
A powerhouse that showcases Zinner’s sense of composition, his capacity to pack multiple unorthodox hooks into a single song, and his knack for playing off Karen O’s distinctive singing style.
“Maps” from the 2003 album Fever to Tell
This is the song that broke the YYYs to a wider commercial audience. “Maps” showcases Zinner’s inventiveness as an arranger, with a looper-sampled section, pulsing new-wave skank sections in the verses, a tender vocal melody, and a buzzing, punch-in-the-gut bridge.
Ben Chasny and Sir Richard Bishop
“Shelter from the Ash” from the 2007 Six Organs of Admittance album
This cut from Ben Chasny’s Six Organs of Admittance project combines a hypnotizing, circular acoustic riff with beautifully raging, slashing, and lyrical electric lead work that’s intensely personal, yet as big as the sky.
“Plain of Jars” from the 2010 Rangda album False Flag
A deceptively simple, 15-minute-plus meditation that evokes dew drops, a quiet dawn, and an exploding fireworks factory over its span. Neither Chasny nor Bishop are at their most radical here (check out the album’s opening cut, “Waldorf Hysteria,” for a taste of that), but they are at their most resourceful, illuminating the simplest themes with subtle variation and demonstrating amazing empathy for each other and drummer Chris Corsano.