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Lee Ranaldo: The Sonic Sage
Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo onstage with his Travis Bean T1000A. Photo by David Emery
Guitarist Lee Ranaldo has been there for the whole trip. He came to New York City on the heels of the punk genesis, just in time to witness the birth of a stripped-down, confrontational, and rabid musical movement called No Wave. In 1981, he met fellow sonic adventurers Thurston Moore and bassist/guitarist Kim Gordon, and Sonic Youth was born.
Unlike many bands just finding their feet, Sonic Youth defied categorization from the beginning. They assumed the classic rock-band structure of two guitars, bass, and drums. But what they did with it sounded nothing like anything that had come before. On their first three records, the band flirted with everything from the clanging, single-chord symphonics of No Wave to the punch and power of hardcore punk and the hypnotic textures of dub and ’60s minimalism. With Evol (1985) and Sister (1986), and the barrier-shattering Daydream Nation (1988), the band was exploring an expansive and nebulous terrain where sci-fi soundscapes, sound collage, punk energy, pop art, and classic pop song structure collided.
And by the time the band signed to Geffen and delivered Goo (1990) and Dirty (1992), Sonic Youth had honed that recipe into an elegant, explosive, and beautiful musical architecture that continues to splinter into both artistically challenging and deliciously rocking songs and clatter to this day.
Along with Moore, Ranaldo is the prime mover behind the guitar explorations that support Sonic Youth’s music. And though their sound has never ceased to evolve, the component parts have remained consistent for most of their career. They use alternative tunings—usually of their own devising—almost exclusively. And their adventurous incorporation of effects, unorthodox prepared guitar techniques, and innovative use and abuse of Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars, creates a sprawling sound spectrum ranging from the chime of fragile bells to hurricane howls.
On “Eric’s Trip” from Daydream Nation, Moore plays an inexpensive Les Paul copy strung with two .056 strings tuned to B and two .042 strings using two drumsticks—one used as a variable tension bridge and the other as a slide—to create sounds akin to hellhounds in a squadron of dive bombers. He uses a similar technique on “She Is Not Alone” from the Sonic Youth EP, but to completely different ends—using a Jazzmaster and tapping the strings with a drumstick behind his improvised drumstick bridge to create a sound somewhere between an Indonesian gamelan and a sinister, broken music box.
Ranaldo, meanwhile, is given to using screwdrivers for similar means, and he makes use of unison-based tunings, overdrive, and the considerable string length behind the bridge on Jazzmasters and Jaguars to simulate something akin to a swarm of giant, metallic, jet-powered bees. But the mélange of experimental techniques is not for show. Indeed it has helped Ranaldo and Moore crack open a universe of compositional options that produce guitar music quite unlike any that’s come before or since.
“To me, the guitar is still pretty limitless in its possibilities,” Ranaldo says. “It’s just one of the most immediate sound generators available—you can interact with it in such an immediate way. There are not many barriers between the guitar and an idea.”
Such immediacy is vital for Sonic Youth and Ranaldo, whether they’re working as a group or as participants in their many side projects. They are voracious listeners and record collectors, as well as visual artists and writers. This combination of multidisciplinary approach, communal spirit, and hard-nosed work ethic means inspiration comes fast, frequently, and in many forms. It demands an open mind and a ton of creative energy. But the payoff is a boundless playing field and countless avenues out of a rut and into the realm of unfettered musical expression.
“Collaboration is one of the coolest, most natural ways to expand on what you know," Ranaldo players, 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 composer that does things in a more solitary way.” For conspirators and admirers alike, the key to understanding Sonic Youth’s hazy, hyperenergized, 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 outside 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 embracing 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 supposed 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 completely out the window, but if you’re into the exploration, it’s one of the most expedient ways to get a new flavor out of the guitar.” Ranaldo is just as willing to enter alien territory as a listener. Early fascinations with the Beatles’ and Grateful Dead’s manipulation of tape loops and electronics opened his mind to the modern minimal composition of Stockhausen and Steve Reich. And the bubbling cauldron of ’60s rock steered him to the world music he calls one of the most liberating influences on his guitar playing.
“If you’re talking about extending the potential of the guitar, international music is a really useful guide. I’ve always been inspired by Balinese gamelan music and Indian raga. But I also found a lot of parallels with that stuff and groups like the Velvet Underground or the Stooges. The overtones of raga and the way melodies can stretch out over a single note really translate on the electric guitar. So do the metallic, percussive qualities of gamelan music, which I explore by playing behind the bridge. Even things like the Master Musicians of Joujouka in Morocco. Their music is really related to circular-breathing jazz techniques on one hand, which is why Ornette Coleman went there to play with them. But they also play in these droney styles and with a repetition, intensity, and volume that equate with a lot of aspects of rock and roll. And yeah, that becomes background information when you’re working on songs in more rock-related idioms.”
Ranaldo and Sonic Youth’s openness to cross pollination is not new. Many of the same impulses fueled work by the ’60s innovators who inspired Ranaldo. But the willingness to act on ideas without second-guessing or concern for reproducing the form is what has kept Sonic Youth vital—even when it has meant diminished commercial success, battered guitars, and befuddlement among musicians unable to decode the band’s music.
“A certain irreverence is essential to getting yourself out of creative binds,” Ranaldo says. “You don’t want to get so precious about an instrument that it puts up a barrier between what you can or want to do musically. And a lot of the best art has always come from people with less-than-perfect technique. Traditionally speaking, I probably play less technically than ever before—and my sound is probably more my own now than ever.”
Lee Ranaldo’s Gearbox
Guitars: Fender Lee Ranaldo Signature Jazzmaster, Travis Bean T1000A, Fender Telecaster Deluxe
Amps: 1963 Fender Super Reverb, Fender Vibro-King
Effects: Klon Centaur Overdrive, Ibanez AD-80 Analog Delay, DigiTech PDS 1002 2-Second Delay, BJF Electronics Honey Bee Overdrive, Moog Moogerfooger Ring Modulator