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Music

How to play the guitar like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth

Few guitarists can claim to have a style all their own. No matter who you are, especially if you’re playing rock music, there will always be traces of other players and genres in your own technique. To do something completely unique is incredibly rare, but throughout nearly 70 years of electric guitar music, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone else who sounds like Thurston Moore.

Pulling equally from both avant-garde experimentation and the complete history of rock and roll, Moore crafted a guitar style that could alternately sound like a tornado, a chainsaw, a pillow of winds, an acid trip, or a kickass punk song. When paired with fellow sonic explorer Lee Ranaldo, Sonic Youth‘s guitar sounds were aggressive, atypical, and apocalyptic.

Moore started out like any other guitarist, learning traditional chords and basic structures that would form his foundation. But as he continued to grow, the influence of punk rock couldn’t be ignored. Neither could the draw of ambient and drone music, the likes of which hypnotised Moore and radically shifted his playing style. A new goal was born, and one that combined the ear-screeching tones of punk with the exploratory possibilities of the avant-garde.

Througout his career with Sonic Youth, Moore redefined what it meant to be a guitar player. Unusual and sometimes chromatic tunings were employed, traditional verse-chorus forms were abandoned, and traditional guitar strumming was replaced with ferocious fret attacks with drumsticks, screwdrivers, and even electronic drills. Noise was a weapon to be used judiciously, and along with high amounts of distortion, Moore’s guitars could suddenly sound like atomic bombs.

To replicate Moore’s unique style, one of the most essential building blocks is to become comfortable with alternative tunings. Apart from their debut EP, almost all of Sonic Youth’s discography features guitars in wildly different tunings. Some of Moore’s most famous tunings include GABDEG (‘Teenage Riot’, ‘Hey Joni’), F#F#F#F#EB (‘Kool Thing’, ‘100%’), and DD#A#D#GG (‘Incinerate’, ‘Or’). These unusual intervals help inspire a wide range of melodies along with a solid amount of dissonance, both of which would fit comfortably within the music of Sonic Youth.

Two of the most important influences on Moore’s embrace of alternative tunings were Glenn Branca and Joni Mitchell. Branca’s guitar orchestra was a home for both Moore and Ranaldo in the early 1980s, combining classical orchestral ideas with the aggressive attack of no wave. Mitchell’s own frequent alternate tunings provided a softer counterpoint, with Sonic Youth paying direct tribute to her on the Daydream Nation track ‘Hey Joni’.

If you can’t seem to wrap your head around alternate tunings, never fear. Standard tunings can still produce Moore-like tones… as long as you’re willing to nearly destroy your guitar in the process. Songs like ‘The Burning Spear’ don’t necessitate a specific tuning because there aren’t any specific chords or notes being played. Instead, it’s all about producing the most extreme feedback that you can wrangle from your strings.

Alternative tunings were also a byproduct of practicality. In their early days, none of the band members could afford high-quality instruments. When faced with playing a junky guitar in standard tuning or getting wild experiments to try and produce exciting new sounds, Moore opted for the latter.

Eventually, Moore settled on the Fender Jazzmaster as his main axe. The instrument’s durability a solid construction allowed Moore to manipulate it in any way he desired. That included the rare softer songs in the Sonic Youth catalogue like ‘Incinerate’ and ‘Schizophrenia’, which benefitted from the more straightforward sounds that the Jazzmaster was also capable of.

When it comes to effects, Moore is as indulgent as they come. The Pro Co Turbo RAT distortion pedal has been a constant companion to Moore over his five decades of music, but each individual song can come with its own diverse array of effects. According to Moore himself, though, the key to his tone is the relationship between the guitar and the amp.

“People come to the gigs and they start taking iPhone photos of [my pedalboard] and I’m like, ‘I don’t really have much to show here,'” Moore told Guitar World. “For me, I’ve always liked that purity of guitar/amp action. The more that I can get to that, the better I feel.”

To try and tap into Thurston Moore’s signature guitar playing style requires an embrace of chaos and happenstance. Improvisation filters into just about every performance that Moore has ever done in his nearly 50 years of guitar playing, and when paired with an ear-splitting combination of distortion and alternative tunings, you too can arrive at Moore’s singular sound.