The guitar has had its last rites read repeatedly over the past few years. In terms of pop music especially, guitars have become ancillary if not completely absent but that doesn’t worry someone like Lee Ranaldo.
“I’ve been hearing that the guitar was going out of style since Sonic Youth started up,” he explains. “When we went to England for the first time, everyone seemed enamoured with electronics. It seems as though the same is happening again.”
Even when fashion was against him, Ranaldo (along with his guitar-abusing partner in crime Thurston Moore) opened up the potential of the instrument by experimenting with different tunings and hitting the strings with a plethora of objects. With his new band The Dust, who Ranaldo brings to Red Bull Sound Select Atlanta on Saturday, January 25, the New Yorker is still managing to find untapped potential.
One of Ranaldo’s defences of the guitar is devastatingly simple – you don’t need any power to use it. When Hurricane Sandy tore through downtown Manhattan in 2012, Ranaldo ended up writing songs that would appear on his latest album Last Night On Earth during the blackout. “When all the electricity is used up, you’ll still be able to play everything on the guitar, from Bach pieces from hundreds of years ago to the latest pop song.”
To celebrate the trusty axe, then, here are Ranaldo’s favourite guitarists...
“When I first met him, he was playing guitar in no-wave bands like the Theoretical Girls. When I started playing with him in the early 1980s, he was using multiple guitars and tuning them as though he were creating a choir. This was all untried at the time. He wasn’t a classic guitar player in the sense that he could play like Clapton or people like that, but he had the vision of a sound and he adapted the instrument to do it.”
“I grew up playing guitar but at a certain point around the mid-1970s, music got pretty fat and bloated. All the arena rock stuff was something I didn’t relate to and I tuned out of music for a while. But the first Television record was one that knocked me out and made me want to go back to playing and being in a band again. I felt like he synthesised so many different styles, like the San Francisco psychedelic scene to jazz influences like John Coltrane. Sometime, it was like he was trying to play sax solos on the guitar.”
“Joni’s style of open tunings has been a huge influence on me. It’s very unconventional and unique to her. When you hear her playing, you know it’s Joni. She’s not especially showy but among other guitar players, Joni is highly regarded. A lot of people think the Sonic Youth song Hey Joni is a tribute to her but it’s only in the title. When we were writing that song, the idea was to re-approach the song Hey Joe from a female perspective and Thurston [Moore] jokingly suggested calling it Hey Joni. But the lyrics are not about Joni specifically.”
“It’s nothing I could touch in terms of my own playing but Reinhardt’s playing is something that has become quite important to me, if only because he showed what can be done on the guitar. When I hear his music, it feels like something magical is happening.”
“There’s something very fresh about her playing and there’s an energy she has when she’s on stage that I’ve always got a kick out of. She’s one of those players who switches between lead and rhythm, which is something that I also try to do. I hear rumours of a Sleater-Kinney resurgence so hopefully we may get to see her play again very soon.”