The National’s 20 greatest guitar moments, ranked

The National’s intricately crafted slow-burning melancholia has seen them ascend to the indie-rock big league. We take a deep dive into the work of their superlative twin guitarists, Aaron and Bryce Dessner.

The National

Image: Andy Sheppard / Redferns

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Since forming in Brooklyn in 1999, The National’s rise to prominence has been a slow, incremental journey, short on hit records and guitar solos. But two decades since their self-titled debut album, they’re one of the biggest guitar bands on the planet, while remaining unswervingly creative and experimental. Alongside the rich Malbec-coated baritone of their lead vocalist Matt Berninger, the key to The National’s slow-seep appeal is the ornate sonic structures woven by their twin brother guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner.

Theirs is a subtle brand of virtuosity, the conversation between their polyrhythmic patterns and hocketing phrases near-telepathic, finding space in expansively orchestrated songs for their vintage Fenders and Gibson Firebirds. Josh Kaufman, who worked with the band on 2007 album Boxer, summed up the Dessners’ approach when he told Guitar.com: “Aaron is such a beautifully texturally minded guitar player. He always finds a little spot that’s missing some light and he just shines it in that perfect little spot.” From the garage-rock romance of 2005 breakthrough Alligator, via stately standout Boxer and the grand, anthemic High Violet to the collaborative experimentation of their latter albums, they’ve found new and interesting ways to use the guitar and continue shining that light. So sit back, charge your favourite glass and immerse yourself in their 20 essential moments.

20. Turtleneck

This angular, frantic anomaly bears the influence of Berninger’s side project band EL VY and was one of the first songs recorded for 2017’s creative left-turn Sleep Well Beast, an album infused by improv sessions at Berlin’s electronic music hub the Funkhaus. Inside Aaron Dessner’s Long Pond studio, Berninger was trying to coax the band towards something less cerebral and more punk-rock in spirit. Aaron had been playing around with a raw rock riff and Berninger was egging him and Bryce on from the control room. “Matt was coaching us over the headphones, telling Bryce and I to duel, almost like it was a game between twins,” recalls Aaron. A riotous collision of exploratory soloing and overdriven palm-muted rhythm, it’s a not even thinly veiled swipe at Donald Trump: “Just another man in shitty suits, everybody’s cheering for, this must be the genius we’ve been waiting years for”.

Did you know?

Sleep Well Beast was the first National album recorded at Aaron’s Long Pond studio in upstate New York, which would later play a significant part in the recording of Taylor Swift’s Grammy-winning Folklore.

19. I Should Live In Salt

The opening track from 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me album finds the Dessners playing with time signatures, shifting between 4/4 and 9/8. The band had planned to take a hiatus after High Violet, but Aaron came up with the sketch for this song and its irregular feel caught Berninger’s ear. “Because that song has a funny extra beat and a different feeling to anything else we’d done it got me kind of excited,” he said. Initially titled ‘I Should Leave Us All’, it’s an expression of the singer’s feelings of guilt for a 20-year estrangement from his brother Tom and finds him singing in a higher register than on previous albums, influenced by his love of Roy Orbison. The brief lacerating solo, Bryce’s icy high notes offset by an overdriven lower phrase, clinches its place in the top 20.

Did you know?

Tom Berninger worked briefly, and disastrously as a roadie for the band, before being sacked. His experience was captured in the 2013 film Tom co-directed, Mistaken For Strangers.

18. Racing Like A Pro

Some of the finest fingerpicking work in the Dessners’ catalogue appears in this piece of smouldering elegance from 2007’s sublime Boxer album. Played on nylon strings, the cycling minor-key pattern with descending bass notes runs all the way through the song, underpinning the graceful piano melody, strings and swells of regal brass as Berninger sings wearily of a once “glowing young ruffian” who has changed beyond all recognition. Boxer was a painstakingly crafted record that nearly broke the band, as documented in Vincent Moon’s artsy A Skin, A Night film, but this refined composition shows the studio hours and simmering conflicts were all worth it. Berninger’s titular phrase has been misheard many a time as ‘racing like a pronoun’, but this is not in fact a song about grammar.

Did you know?

Among the acoustics in Bryce and Aaron’s collection are a pair of 1960s Silvertones customised by Reuben Cox of LA’s Old Style Guitars and a 1965 mahogany Guild M-20.

17. About Today

After releasing two albums (The National and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers) that failed to permeate the public consciousness, the Cherry Tree EP served up the first evidence that the Ohio-born five-piece were developing something special. One of the EP’s highlights is this reflective and candid conversation between two lovers, an exercise in restraint that never quite catches fire in this incarnation. Played live, it takes on a new life, often appearing in the band’s encores and opening out into a huge, prolonged wall of sound, with both guitarists sending out towering waves of tremolo-picked aural ecstasy verging on post-rock. The main fingerpicked acoustic part, starting with an Fadd9, is a delight to play, too.

Did you know?

An alternative seven-minute recording of About Today, more in keeping with the live version, appears on the soundtrack to 2011 movie Warrior, directed by Gavin O’Connor.

16. Looking For Astronauts

Alligator was the album that saw The National deliver on the promise of the Cherry Tree EP, a series of nuanced sketches that captured the grit and burnished romance of life in Brooklyn in 2005 as the band were struggling to make their breakthrough. Track four is an early example of the fluid conversation between their twin guitarists. The fingerpicked Bm/D pattern bubbles along apace, with Bryce and Aaron exchanging notes and phrases intuitively. “A lot of our good songwriting, there’s harmonised guitar,” Aaron told Guitar.com. “It might be me fingerpicking bass [notes], and Bryce will be playing off me, or playing a harmony, but it almost sounds like the same person playing one part.” Berninger’s “You know you have a permanent piece of my medium-sized American heart” is a classic National line.

Did you know?

Bryce has a Masters degree in Music from Yale, where he studied under the tutelage of veteran classical guitarist Professor Benjamin Verdery.

15. Rylan

Fans had begun to think cult favourite Rylan might never get an official release before it finally appeared on 2019’s I Am Easy To Find, a sprawling double-album featuring a cast of female vocalists and fewer overt guitar moments. The song dates back to the sessions for High Violet a decade earlier and had made regular appearances in the band’s live sets, but they’d never nailed it in the studio. “It was fun to have a song we played live and didn’t put out,” says Berninger. “We could tell it was getting better.” Rylan opens out from a heavily treated drum pattern, swirling electronic noise and piano chords, as This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables shares vocals with Berninger. The palm-muted guitars are left to kick around the fringes before taking centre stage in the stirring final chorus, typifying the Dessners’ appreciation of subtle dynamics. It’s worth the wait for Bryce’s gorgeous high lead line picked out on his 1965 Gibson Non Reverse Firebird.

Did you know?

Both Aaron and Bryce own Non Reverse Firebirds, Bryce picking up his for $200-300 on eBay, stripped of its electronics and covered in stickers, but comfortably worth 10 times the figure he paid.

14. Sea Of Love

Starting out as a rough grungey sketch that sounded like “Nirvana playing Crazy Horse” according to Aaron, Sea Of Love appealed to Berninger because of its “ugliness”, contrasting Trouble Will Find Me’s otherwise sonically lush melancholia. Insistent 16th-note strikes on the snare give the song a feral mood, with the Dessners laying down a tangled web of guitar parts in a hotel in Berlin. Their chords, played alternately on the down and upbeats answer each other, Bryce’s sizzling slide part and a harmonica played by Aaron also thrown into the seething mix. Berninger had been listening to Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe and included the name in his lyrics as a placeholder that never got changed. It’s “a big murky mess of all the feelings that happen between human beings when romance runs away with our hearts,” the singer explains.

Did you know?

The band opened their 2017 Glastonbury Festival Pyramid Stage set with Sea Of Love, playing between Katy Perry and headliners Foo Fighters.

13. Abel

In a catalogue dominated by cerebral sophistication, Alligator’s lead single is a bona fide garage-rock juggernaut. Coarse open-chord strums from Aaron are elevated by a scintillating performance from Bryce that flashes between a persistent high-e-string riff, scorching soloing and a wave of fiery tremolo picking, with the occasional howl of feedback thrown in for good measure. Berninger is at his most unhinged, too, howling barbarously “my mind’s not right” through the chorus. With their pedalboards including a pair of ProCo RATs, Tube Screamers, Sarno Earth Drives and a Klon KTR, the Dessners show here that they can mix it with the loudest of them, and Abel is a visceral highlight of their live shows.

Did you know?

Aaron and Bryce curated a 59-track Grateful Dead tribute album titled Day Of The Dead featuring artists including Wilco, Flaming Lips, The War On Drugs, Perfume Genius, Lee Ranaldo, Jenny Lewis and Justin Vernon.

12. Guest Room

A less celebrated selection from Boxer that’s an exercise in layered dynamics. It unfurls steadily from a fingerpicked rhythm lashed with tremolo, most likely using the Boss TR-2 that features on both guitarists’ boards. The atmosphere is brooding, Berninger conjuring tales of deviant behaviour and singing “just tie your woman to your wrist/ give her room to tie the other” as guitar phrases ebb and flow, adding to the sense of unresolved tension. The chorus has a strangely euphoric feel, with a riff sumptuously coated in slapback delay coruscating away above Berninger’s sleepy croon. Finally, the Dessner twins are unleashed into a multi-layered instrumental outro that shows off their accomplished interplay in all its glory.

Did you know?

Much of Boxer was recorded in the attic of Aaron’s Brooklyn house after earlier recordings were scrapped. “People’s lives were falling apart a bit, it was very hard and we were holding things together and holding each other up, doing it because we loved it,” Bryce has said of making the album.

11. Mistaken For Strangers

The National channel Joy Division on Boxer’s shadowy second track. Drummer Bryan Devendorf’s exuberant, idiosyncratic clatter and a probing bassline from his brother Scott propel the whole thing along, but the clangorous guitar hooks are the highlight. The chord voicings in the verses are unusual and complemented by a serrated riff and glinting harmonic arpeggios that dovetail enchantingly. The chorus switches to more conventionally voiced open Dm/F/Bb/F/Am7 chords, Berninger delivering the brilliantly enigmatic line “you wouldn’t want an angel watching over you/ surprise surprise they wouldn’t want to watch”.

Did you know?

Sufjan Stevens makes a couple of cameo appearances on Boxer, playing piano on Racing Like A Pro and Ada.

10. All The Wine

First previewed on Cherry Tree, All The Wine has become one of The National’s most celebratory anthems. It captures the fleeting sense of heightened bravado that comes with a couple of glasses of your chosen poison. Berninger, a man who famously enjoys a bottle (“either flavour, red or white”) is seemingly invincible as he drawls of his “wingspan unbelievable/ I’m a festival, I’m a parade”. The melodic guitar interplay between Aaron and Bryce is equally memorable, a ringing high-register riff that nods to The Edge introducing the song before being joined by a second, lower phrase that swirls around it, joined by rich strummed chords in the chorus. Live, bassist Scott often takes over on guitar for this song, with Aaron playing bass – the band’s original format.

Did you know?

Alligator’s The Geese Of Beverly Road is named after a street in the Ditmas Park area of New York where the band were living. “It feels more like Savannah, Georgia than Brooklyn,” according to Berninger.

9. I Need My Girl

The fifth single from Trouble Will Find Me is a simple and touching love song, the Dessners’ hammer-on and pull-off phrases answering each other in opposite channels. Played live, it’s a perfect embodiment of the twins’ natural call and response. “We don’t have to teach each other a song,” Bryce told Guitar.com. “We can walk into a room when one of us has been working with musicians for two weeks and we’ll know more in an hour than the musicians, just on the basis of our shared intuition.” Stripped of the elaborately spun metaphors typical of Berninger’s writing and exploring his guilt at spending so much time away from wife Carin Besser on tour, it is he says, “just a song about missing your wife, girlfriend, whoever.”

Did you know?

Live, Bryce uses an early-60s Silvertone bought from Chelsea Guitars in New York on this song, purely to drop it on its headstock and generate a plume of controlled feedback.

8. Afraid Of Everyone

An insistent muted bassline and haunting harmonium played by Sufjan Stevens usher  in this brooding anthem to existential fear and parental angst, but it’s the distorted hammer-on and pull-off riff and chiming high-register notes the brothers exchange that capture the attention, beneath Berninger’s pleading “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out” and “your voice is swallowing my soul” evocations. Stevens’ ghostly harmonies and a wash of instrumentation pile in as the song rises to its stirring conclusion, the riff giving way to explosive tremolo-picking, the brothers tap dancing on their pedalboards – with an array of atmospheric options including Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Boys, Line 6 DL4s and Boss Digital Delays.

Did you know?

The Dessners’ favoured amps include a ’59 tweed Fender Champ,  blackface Fender Super Reverbs, Fender Bassman, Fender Twin Reverb, Fender ’65 Twin Reverb reissue and a pair of Penn Pennalizer combos.

7. Slow Show

This hopelessly romantic song from Boxer appears to be simplicity itself, but listen closer and the strumming pattern is surprisingly complex. After a swell of broiling ambient noise shrouded in reverb creates an air of tension, the main acoustic rhythm enters the picture, played with a capo at the fourth fret.  The chords are C♯minor/A/E/A/B in the verse, with the chorus introducing an E with a B in the bass. “It’s all in the right hand,” says Aaron of the driving syncopated pattern. Berninger’s “You know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you,” line is exquisite devotional poetry, complemented by beautifully dulcet thudding toms and sonorous piano notes, the reference to his penis not so much.

Did you know?

Boxer’s album cover is a shot of the band performing Alligator’s The Geese Of Beverly Road at producer Peter Katis’ wedding.

6. Fake Empire

The tortured, drawn-out recording of Boxer nearly broke The National, but there’s no hint of that tension in the record’s stately escapist opener. Built atop Aaron’s instantly memorable piano part, this great American ode to staying out late is based around the liaison between the keys and guitar, the central phrase a polyrhythm of 4/4 over 3/4. The three is in the bass notes, which Aaron plays with his thumb and the four in the higher C/F/G progression played with his fingers. Berninger’s lyrics are supremely evocative as he sings in the verse, “tiptoe through our shiny city, with our diamond slippers on/ do our gay ballet on ice, bluebirds on our shoulders”. It’s one of the band’s most affecting moments.

Did you know?

Fake Empire was used in a campaign ad during Barack Obama’s successful run for presidency in 2008 and The National played at a number of his rallies and subsequent midterm events.

5. Carin At The Liquor Store

Again led by Aaron on the piano, this stunning romantic waltz from Sleep Well Beast gets a top-five place for the solo alone. Played by Bryce on his non-reverse Firebird, the distinctive sparkling woody tone of its Lollar pickups is enhanced by using an effect that sounds all at once like a filter, bitcrusher and cocked wah. Whatever it is, the result is wonderous. Melodically, the song is a close cousin of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors and lyrically it finds a love-struck Berninger, “seeing stars in the air” as he probes the minutiae of his marriage for material, as well as throwing in a reference to the late American novelist John Cheever.

Did you know?

The song is named after Berninger’s wife Carin Besser, a co-writer on the band’s albums since 2007. She’s also referenced on Karen, from 2005’s Alligator.

4. Terrible Love

As the writing sessions for High Violet began, Berninger wanted the Dessners to conjure a rawer sound that felt like “loose wool and hot tar”. Terrible Love is Aaron’s attempt to fulfil that vague metaphorical brief, using a Boss TR-2 and Line 6 DL4 plugged into a Penn Penalizer, and tuning his A string down to G. “I created this effect, turned the amp up beyond loud, and just had these harmonic pedals on that make it sound weird,” he recalled. The cycling G and C chords form an unsteady, gritty soundscape that underpins this gradually-building album opener and live favourite. It rises to an epic climax, Berninger screaming of “a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders”, usually from somewhere deep in the crowd. You’ll find an alternative version on the expanded edition of the album.

Did you know?

Berninger is the one member of The National who doesn’t play an instrument, and his aggressive editing of the Dessners’ demos has earned him nicknames in the band of “Naysayer”, “The Dark Lord” and “Mr Sony Headphones”.

3. Bloodbuzz Ohio

The National have largely been strangers to the hit parade, but this High Violet single that articulates mixed emotions about Berninger’s home state and trying to reconcile the different versions of yourself, came close. Introduced to the band’s live shows by the stage lights turning red and Bryce Dessner’s rousing EBow howl, it’s built on a simplistic three-chord structure, but as so often with The National, the beauty is in the detail, with the strumming pattern a hemiola (a 3/3 feel in 4/4 time). A jagged tremolo-soaked part lies somewhere in the swell as the song grows in stature and reaches a cacophony of delay-bathed leadlines. Berninger’s decision to remove an already fully tracked horns section from the final version at the mixing stage nearly caused a diplomatic meltdown within the band.

Did you know?

The National’s five members hail from Cincinnati, Ohio, with Berninger and Scott Devendorf meeting at the University of Cincinnati, where they formed the band Nancy before The National was born in Brooklyn.

2. Mr November

Like Abel, Alligator’s closing track and the band’s calling card is a rarity in their urbane oeuvre, a strident rock song that bristles with frustration and pent-up energy, with former high school quarterback Berninger recalling wistfully “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders”. It’s overtly political, too, referencing John Kerry in the line “The English are waiting”, also a reflection of the destabilising pressure the band were feeling to deliver their first album on UK label Beggars Banquet. The version from Glastonbury 2010 is well worth finding on YouTube, Bryce and Aaron slicing out the chordal flourishes and melodic lead parts on an early-70s Les Paul Deluxe and a 1979 Epiphone Sheraton respectively and Berninger plunging into the sun-drenched crowd. “It’s hard to sing a song when you’re desperately trying to keep from having your belt undone by some drunk dudes,” he says.

Did you know?

The band released T-shirts in 2008 bearing Barack Obama’s face and this song’s title.

1. The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness

Nearly 20 years into a recording career almost entirely devoid of guitar solos, came this absolute corker two minutes into the lead single heralding seventh album, Sleep Well Beast. Strangely unorthodox, politicised and yet swaggeringly confident, this snappily titled monster was recorded using the bridge pickup of Aaron’s 1963 Jazzmaster plugged straight into a cranked 1959 tweed Fender Champ bought from Chicago Music. It’s a ragged, scintillating masterclass, rooted in the minor pentatonic scale, Dessner alternating between digging into the staccato notes and strumming the chords.

“We were drinking beer one night, joking around,” recalls Aaron of the moment he laid down the part at his Long Pond studio. “I wasn’t like, ‘oh here I’m going to play this epic guitar solo’. It was more like, ‘I’m just going to impersonate Keith Richards for five minutes and see what happens’.” After Berninger’s impassioned chorus lyric of “I can’t explain it, any other way” Dessner is hoisted into the spotlight following a short funky breakdown. His delivery is thrillingly forceful, abrupt and unpolished in all the best ways, like a great Neil Young solo.

The song’s main guitar hook isn’t bad either, Aaron playing with a capo at the third fret, palm muting the chords and hammering on and off the A and D string at the sixth and eighth frets respectively to produce the sort of riff stadium crowds can chant. Finally, these reluctant guitar heroes had their moment in the sun, The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness landing the band their first Billboard No.1.

Did you know?

Sleep Well Beast won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album at the 60th Grammy Awards.

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