The Sonic Youth guitarist revisits his beginnings.
This article with originally appeared in AdHoc Issue 17. Download a PDF of the zine at this link, and look out for physical copies both at our shows and at record stores, bookstores, coffee shops, and community centers throughout the city. (Those of you outside New York City can order a copy here as well.) Lee Ranaldo plays The Park Church Co-op with Steve Gunn and Meg Baird on January 22.
Lee Ranaldo was seven or eight years old when he got his first guitar—“That is, one that wasn’t a tennis racket,” he says. It was a pink plastic ukulele silk-screened with pictures of the Beatles, acquired after Ranaldo saw them play on Ed Sullivan in 1964. Later, during his high school years, he graduated to a larger-body, Japanese Martin D-18 copy, on which he would learn Beatles covers and folk songs. And although he would eventually come to be known for his work with Fender Jazzmasters and Gibson Les Pauls, Ranaldo has been collecting acoustic guitars ever since.
In recent years, the Sonic Youth guitarist has been revisiting his beginnings, eschewing the noise- riddled sounds of that band and early solo efforts like 1987’s From Here To Infinity in favor of acoustic-driven, Americana-inspired songwriting. Calling from his Manhattan home, he says he’s especially interested in the stories of the people who make them. Here’s one he told us about legendary luthier Michael Gurian.
Lee Ranaldo: A friend of mine recently started bugging me about this early ’70s guitar-maker named Michael Gurian. As it turns out, some of the best guitar-makers trained in Gurian’s shop. The shop was on Carmine Street in the West Village, and as far as I know, he began building guitars there. When he started to get a little more serious, he had a shop on Bedford Street, also in the West Village, and built guitars there for a while. He later moved to New Hampshire and built guitars there. But all in all, he built guitars for about 10 years, and then quit.
About a year ago, I started looking around for a Gurian guitar online. Eventually, I found one on eBay. With these guitars, there are two primary models: they all have spruce tops, but the back and the sides can either be mahogany or the rosewood, which have their own, unique tonal qualities. This was an S3M—a medium-sized mahogany model— and it’s one of the best guitars I own. This guitar was made about ten blocks from here, on Bedford Street, in 1970 or 1971. It’s a 45-year-old instrument made locally, which, to me, is pretty cool—a guitar crafted just a stone’s throw from home.
I like to describe the sound of my S3M as “evenly balanced across the whole range,” in a specific way. You can hear everything clearly. I played it for a few months, and kept thinking about this issue of the mahogany versus rosewood. Rosewood guitars are the next level up, and they have a much deeper sound. So I began searching for a Gurian S3M rosewood guitar, and I found one. The difference was pronounced. The second guitar had a darker, more mysterious sound with a full bottom-end, like it was growling. The first one—the mahogany one—is great for picking when you want to hear every note in a chord, and the rosewood is more smeary—more rock-sounding in a way, since it has this heavy bottom sound.
I’ve gotten geeky enough that I have one of those mirrors on a stick for checking out acoustic guitar interiors. The ad for my rosewood Gurian had indicated that the guitar had been damaged, although it wasn’t clear how seriously. I decided to chance it. When it arrived, I noticed a patched side, covering a big crack, which isn’t uncommon for older instruments, between humidity and the ways guitars can be beat up over the course of their lives.
As I kept inspecting, I noticed more issues. Its bottom had obviously been smashed and repaired. The heel looked as though it had been re-fabricated, and one of the braces that ran along the top and back of the guitar—keeping the two pieces of wood together, so they resonate—had been lost. As a replacement, someone had carved a crude brace and sloppily glued it in. Additionally, behind the sound hole on most guitars is a place where two braces cross—it’s a critical place. I noticed there was a huge crack in this cross-brace. It seriously needed repair.
I wrote the guy who sold it, and he said he’d take it back. I thought that would be the end of it—but I kept playing the guitar, and the more I played it, the less I wanted to return it. I loved the way it sounded. In the end, I got an estimate of what it would cost to fix, and told the seller, who knocked that off the price.
Now, I’ve got these two Gurian guitars. The rosewood guitar, apparently, was made in New Hampshire. Pretty soon after Gurian moved there, he had a massive fire, and the whole factory burned down. He rebuilt the factory quickly, and continued to build guitars for another two years, and then said, “I’m done,” and stopped and walked away from the whole thing. These days, he lives on a houseboat in Seattle, supposedly. He doesn’t build guitars anymore, but does decorative work for guitars.