The histone code is among others established via differential acetylation catalyzed by histone acetyltransferases (HATs) and histone deacetylases (HDACs). To unambiguously determine the histone tail specificity of HDAC-containing complexes, we have established an in vitro system consisting of nucleosomal templates reconstituted with hyperacetylated histones or recombinant histones followed by acetylation with native SAGA or NuA4. Selective targeting of the mammalian Sin3/HDAC and N-CoR/SMRT corepressor complexes by using specific chimeric repressors created a near physiological setting to assess their histone tail specificity. Recruitment of the Sin3/HDAC complex to nucleosomal templates preacetylated with SAGA or NuA4 resulted in deacetylation of histones H3 and H4, whereas recruitment of N-CoR/SMRT resulted in deacetylation of histone H3 only. These results provide solid evidence that HDAC-containing complexes display distinct, intrinsic histone tail specificities and hence may function differently to regulate chromatin structure and transcription.