(Credits: Far Out / Mute Records)
Beyond Sonic Youth fans and the New York no wave scene, there’s a solid case to be made that Lee Ranaldo ranks among the greatest guitars to grace alternative rock. With his partner-in-crime Thurston Moore, Ranaldo forged guitar-driven soundscapes plagued by noise and experimentation that would change the genre forever.
40 years on from their debut record, Sonic Youth remain a staple in the record collections of indie kids and a reference point for alternative bands worldwide. Ranaldo’s playing has likely inspired countless budding musicians to pick up an electric guitar, but who were the guitarists who first inspired Ranaldo to take up the instrument?
During a conversation with Red Bull, the Sonic Youth guitarist picked out his top five guitarists of all time, providing a glimpse into his own musical interests and influences. The wide-spanning list ranges from the intricate yet layered folk soundscapes of Joni Mitchell to the jazz stylings of Django Reinhardt, each choice providing more insight into Ranaldo’s own unique playing.
Ranaldo kicks off the list with peer and fellow avant-garde and no wave proponent Glenn Branca. His admiration for Branca, perhaps expectedly, stems from his innovation of the instrument. “He was using multiple guitars and tuning them as though he were creating a choir,” the Sonic Youth guitarist explained, “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 it.”
Similarly, Ranaldo picked out Television frontman Tom Verlaine for his subversive use of the instrument, which he compares to a saxophone solo. To Ranaldo, this stuck out from the “fat and bloated” sound that dominated the 1970s. He even stated: “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.”
A guaranteed name on almost any list of top guitarists, Joni Mitchell’s unique playing also makes the list for her unconventional open tunings. “When you hear her playing, you know it’s Joni,” he stated, perhaps the highest compliment of them all. The endlessly influential Django Reinhardt quickly follows, who Ranaldo deems “magical” and enthuses, “It’s nothing I could touch in terms of my own playing…”
Sleater-Kinney co-vocalist Carrie Brownstein rounds out the list for her “fresh” playing and on-stage energy. “She’s one of those players who switches between lead and rhythm, which is something that I also try to do,” Ranaldo reflected.
Charting the unconventional, the experimental and the unique, Ranaldo’s list shines a light on his own guitar sensibilities. Though his use of the instrument is a far cry from Mitchell’s or Reinhardt’s, his penchant for innovation and idiosyncrasy is reflected in his choices. Find the full list of Ranaldo’s favourite guitarists below.