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Tuning Up: Doing It Wrong Feels So Right

Why challenging conventional guitar wisdom is our last true frontier.

Here is Ravonettes' frontman/guitarist Sune Rose Wagner's current pedalboard setup.

From Gene Vincent on up to the War on Drugs, rock has always been about rebellion. So why is it that we guitarists are often so staid?

Tattoos, “extreme” hair, makeup, leather jackets, and chain wallets are everywhere—the Disney Channel, commercials for kitchen-floor cleaner. But they don’t signify nonconformity any more than cranked stacks or low-slung guitars. We like to think we’re badasses, but the truth is, all this stuff isn’t half as risky as buying your clothes at L.L. Bean and playing an ’80s Hondo through a Gorilla practice amp.

So let’s just admit it: Despite all our stylistic trappings, we’re a pretty conservative lot.

But maybe we just mistakenly believe there are no new trails to blaze—no new gear combinations, no new tone settings, no new scales or chords or songs. Or maybe, despite our deep-seated desires and best efforts to shirk tradition, we think there are still no-nos—stark lines delineating no-fly zones that are preposterous to consider.

Conventional logic says this is all a recipe for “unique” ugliness, but in reality the Raveonettes sound... is not only instantly recognizable, but it’s also beautiful and organic sounding.

Many of us restrict ourselves with certain “givens” before even picking up our instrument. We think tube amps are the route to great tone. We might tussle a bit over where a fuzz box or wah belongs in a signal chain, but we pretty much agree that after that it’s compression, dirt, modulation, delay, then reverb. It’s all very elementary.

But we’re not in elementary school anymore.

For the record, I’m not talking about different for different’s sake. Actually, I kind of am—but not as some stupid attention-getting gambit. How about for the joy of discovery? How about to expand your horizons and bulldoze ruts?

Despite the mightily entrenched views of the 6-string majority, there are plenty of inspiring examples of wacky adventurers over the years. Players who did stuff that sounded different and new, but once you knew how they did it you thought, “Oh god—really?”

The new album Pe’ahi from Danish surf/garage-pop duo the Raveonettes.

The new album Pe’ahi from Danish surf/garage-pop duo the Raveonettes has recently made me rethink my own assumptions. As guitarist/songwriter/co-vocalist Sune Rose Wagner detailed in our recent interview, despite his addiction to vintage Jazzmasters and Mosrites, and despite his love of the Everly Brothers and Mark Knopfler, he hasn’t used a guitar amp on any of his band’s seven albums over the last 13 years.

All of Wagner’s influences used traditional guitar gear in traditional ways, but he and fellow Raveonette Sharin Foo did things differently to create a signature sound. Besides eschewing amps and recording direct through a Neve-style preamp, Wagner uses an ass-backward pedalboard. First in line is a Catalinbread Echorec delay, then two Boss RV-5 reverbs—always running in tandem with different settings—followed by five dirt boxes, ranging from WMD’s bit-crushing Geiger Counter fuzz to a ZVEX Box of Metal, an EarthQuaker Devices Bit Commander, an old Rat, and MXR’s La Machine.

It gets “worse,” too: Wagner has played drums since he was 5—he says they’re his favorite instrument—but every Raveonettes album since their 2003 debut, Whip It On, has featured percussion loops exclusively. “I’m not a fan of ‘real’ drum sounds—it all sounds the same to me,” he admits. “I love samples—they’re so diverse. I love mixing various drum sounds together, maybe have three or four different kicks and four or five different snares. I want them to sound interesting and special.”

Conventional logic says this is all a recipe for “unique” ugliness, but in reality the Raveonettes sound—a cross between Dick Dale twang, My Bloody Valentine fuzz mayhem, and the Jesus and Mary Chain’s melancholy melodies, with Phil Spector-esque “wall of sound” production—is not only instantly recognizable, but it’s also beautiful and organic sounding. And it’s built them a sizable following around the world.

Maybe different for different’s sake is something worth exploring after all. Turn on your ears and turn off the judgment. There’s a universe of fun waiting for you.