There are few artists more associated with alternate tunings than Sonic Youth. Though many folks musicians like Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake are known for their weird tunings, not as many rock bands have made them a key part of their sound. But Sonic Youth is not like other bands, and their music would not be possible without alternate tunings.
Sonic Youth has used dozens upon dozens of different tunings over the years, starting out with little knowledge of theory and making their own tunings. You could easily spend years devoted to analyzing and learning about the tunings they used. We don’t have time for that right now, but we do have time to look at a few of their tunings.
In today’s article, we’ll look at some of Sonic Youth’s most iconic and interesting tunings. We’ll cover what they are, what they’re good for, tips for tuning, and more. So grab a tuner and get ready to have some fun with alternate tunings courtesy of Sonic Youth.
Five Sonic Youth Tunings
Before we start retuning guitars, there’s a couple things we should go over first. Because many of these tunings deviate pretty far from standard tuning, you may need to do more than just retune.
Due to the big changes in string tension some of these tunings cause, your guitar may need to be adjusted to handle these tunings well. Just keep an eye out for things like action, neck relief, and string tension as you change tunings. If you notice any issues, be sure to address them right away by making the necessary adjustments.
Speaking on strings in particular, you may want to consider using custom sets of strings. Certain tunings that require strings to be tuned up or down greatly may benefit from using different strings. For example, you may want to use a smaller string for your high E if it’s getting tuned up high. And if you’re tuning that same string down multiple whole steps, you may want to use a heavier string.
Also, many of these tunings rely heavily on texture. The tunings with multiple strings tuned to the same note in particular emphasize texture, and many players like to use custom sets made by mixing and matching packs of strings. In the spirit of Sonic Youth, don’t be afraid to mess around with your string gauges a bit for the sake of texture. Just remember to keep an eye on your guitar so nothing gets damaged.
Last but not least, I’d like to acknowledge all the hard work put into this website. This site compiles tuning and other information about every Sonic Youth song/album. It is an incredible resource for anyone interested in Sonic Youth, their tunings, and their other techniques. It was a great help for this article, and it’ll save you lots of time and frustration trying to figure these tunings out on your own. So thanks to the folks who put that website together, and let’s get started.
F# F# F# F# E B
First up is F# F# F# F# E B. This is a staple for Sonic Youth, and it’s been used by both Thurston Moore and Lee Ronaldo on nearly every album since Bad Moon Rising.
As is obvious, this tuning involves tuning your four lowest strings to an F#, with the higher two being E and B. That may sound odd if you aren’t used to alternate tunings, but this is a surprisingly versatile tuning despite the four drone notes.
A big part of this tuning’s appeal are the drone notes. Having four F# means you can get some huge sounding drones. And since the two higher strings are different, you can easily use them to make chords and melodies based off the F#.
Another thing you can do with this tuning is play melodies and riffs by barring the four F# strings. You can get a huge sound by playing them all in unison, and it’s easy to move around quickly since you’re just playing a barre.
The song below, “Starpower,” is a good example of this versatility. They use the tuning to create big atmospheric soundscapes, as well as to play pretty and ugly melodies.
G G D D D# D
This tuning has been used by both Ronaldo and Thurston since Kill Yr Idols, and it’s also one of their more abrasive alternate tunings. As you might’ve already noticed, this tuning uses three Ds and a D#. That half-step interval can be quite ugly, but it also opens up new sonic possibilities.
Despite that odd interval, this is a fairly versatile tuning as well. The double G and double D essentially give you a four string power chord, which is incredibly useful for playing riffs. And since both notes are doubled, it sounds much bigger than a regular power chord.
With the D# there, you have easy access to some more abrasive extensions, as well as other less abrasive chord voicings. Like the previous tuning, the D# can also work well for playing melodies while droning all the other strings (they are just a big power chord after all).
“Bull in the Heather” is a great example of what you can do with this tuning. Thurston makes great use of the four string power chord, but he also utilizes the D# interval with harmonics and while playing behind the bridge on a Jazzmaster.
G A B D E G
This tuning has only been used by Sonic Youth three times, of all which were Thurston. However, this tuning was used on two of their most well known songs—”Teenage Riot” and “Hey Joni.”
In the grand scheme of things, this is one of their more traditional alternate tunings. It is a less harsh tuning compared to many of the others, and it often lends itself to more upbeat and melodic sounding melodies and riffs.
You can hear this pretty clearly on “Teenage Riot.” Thurston uses the tuning for the main riffs throughout the song, and they have a very particular tonality that’s a result of the unique tuning. This tuning is one of the few that’s pretty immediately identifiable. And since they only used it a few times, there’s plenty of potential to be unlocked with this tuning.
A F# E F# E B
This tuning was used by Ronaldo on Washing Machine, an album that inspired a whole new wave of Sonic Youth fans. This is a very unique tuning, and it’s another one that has a very distinct sound.
Tonally, it has a very open kind of sound. It has a lot of tonal character, but it also doesn’t necessarily lean in any specific direction. That means it’s a very versatile tuning that can be used in a lot of different harmonic contexts.
This can be heard on Washing Machine; “Panty Lies” and “Saucer-Like” are both more open and atmospheric, while “Becuz” and “Skip Tracer” are a bit more abrasive and dissonant.
E G D G E D
One of the few alternate tunings utilized by Kim Gordon as well as Thurston, this one was used on every album from Goo to A Thousand Leaves. This is an interesting one because it’s essential just an Em7 chord, but without the fifth (B).
As a result, the tuning naturally has a sort-of dark and mysterious sound, though it can be used for other things as well. Sonic Youth often used it for darker, spacier kind of songs, as well as more “traditional” sounding songs.
“Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsburg)” is a good example of this tuning in use. Thurston uses it to create more classic rock leaning Neil Young-esque riffs, but with a good dose of Sonic Youth noise and weirdness.
C G D G C D
This tuning is often called the Murray Street tuning since it was used heavily on that album, and it’s one of my favorite Sonic Youth alternate tunings. It’s also one of the easier ones to tune to, meaning you don’t need to worry much about different strings or string tension.
This is another fairly versatile tuning, but it also still has its own distinct sound. It has a jazzy feel, but it’s also relatively open and can go in a more major or minor direction. It can work great for playing big and powerful riffs since there are two of each note. It lends itself well to melodies as well.
You can hear all of this on “Karen Revisited” from Murray Street. Thurston uses it for an upbeat yet melancholic riff, and that riff is pretty melodic too. But it also works great during the improv portion of the song where things get noisy, abrasive, and spacey.
Exploring Alternate Tunings With Sonic Youth
With this article, we’re only scratching the surface of Sonic Youth’s alternate tunings. They’ve come up with and used dozens upon dozens of alternate tunings over the years, and their creativity is still astounding to this day.
From ugly and abrasive tunings for the noisiest of noise jams to open and jazzy tunings for pretty riffs and melodies, the world of Sonic Youth’s alternate tunings is vast. Though we only covered a few of them here, hopefully you learned a bit more about their use of alternate tunings.
Ultimately though, the fun of alternate tunings is using them. Grab a guitar and start experimenting. Maybe you’ll try one of theirs, or maybe you’ll follow in their footsteps and make your own. Whatever you do, just have fun and experiment.
And if your strings happen to break from all the tuning (which will happen eventually), grab a set of Stringjoys. We offer custom sets too, so we have you covered if you want a custom set of strings that are tailored to your alternate tuning of choice.