The Edge brings the U2 sound full circle
by Darrin Fox
Guitar Player, Jan 2001
The list of players who have reinvented rock guitar is a short one. Narrow the list down to the past 20 years and it gets even shorter. Whittle it further to players who have pushed the boundaries while attaining--and maintaining--commercial success, and you've got a virtual ghost town. All of this makes The Edge's contribution to the guitar vocabulary all the more astounding. His signature chimey tone, coupled with clever use of delay and sparse chord voicings, has spawned countless imitators. And the tone that resonated with millions--old-school rockers and defiant punks alike--sprung fully realized from U2's first album, Boy, in 1980. Incredible as that achievement is, The Edge has continued to refine and redirect his sound to serve the band and its creative evolutions--most notably for the edgy, lo-fi sonics of Achtung Baby (1991) and Zooropa (1993).
On U2's latest album, ATYCLB, The Edge displays a more organic tone--even to the point of reactivating the Gibson Explorer that propelled the band's early tracks. That being said, ATYCLB is not an attempt to relive the sound of 1983. It's the sound of four men--(The Edge, singer Bono, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen
Jr.)--who have created one of the most identifiable band sounds in modern pop music, clearly enjoying their musical interplay.
At the time of our conversation, The Edge was in Dublin rehearsing for U2's upcoming tour. It was evident that he is excited about music, the new U2 record, and the instrument he helped redefine.
GP: Did you intend to go for a more stripped down sound on ATYCLB?
Edge: We're the kind of band that has a chemistry and a vibe when we play together, so we wanted to start the whole writing process with the band in a room. We quickly found our band sound to be very fresh--especially after the more electronic leanings of the last two albums.
GP: This album seems to meld the other, more organic U2 sound with some of the electronic elements of Zooropa and Pop.
Edge: ATYCLB is not a roots record. We realized at a point during the Pop album that we were getting into musical areas that are not what we do best. As we delved more into the beat-driven sound, we had taken the sound of the band further and further away. The organic sound is what made us unique in the first place.
GP: What were some of the things you learned from the dance influences that carried over to the new record?
Edge: We were given a huge education in rhythm--pure and simple. Rock and roll started out as dance music, but somewhere along the way it lost its hips and became rhytmically simplistic. The emergence of hip-hop and dance culture has upped the ante in the rhythm department--and there's no going back. Listeners aren't going to accept lazy rhythms anymore.
GP: Is there a song you can point to on the record that reflects that aesthetic?
Edge: "In A Little While" is one. That track started out as just a band number, but when we finished, we felt the tune was a little too traditional--it hadn't found its own uniqueness. We put a drum loop on top of Larry's drums and then the song really came together. From our point of view, melding those elements is an incredible challenge.
Now instead of building from electronic tools, we build up the material organically, and then add more modern elements on top of it.
GP: Were Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop such departures because you were looking to keep your music fresh?
Edge: Yeah. We were very inspired by what was happening in dance music and hip-hop. Technology has always been a very important dynamic in pushing music forward. You can point to almost every important developments in music and see a technology that went with it. The fuzzbox launched rock and roll into the '60s. So for us, it seemed perfectly natural to be up to speed with the state-of-the-art technology happening in the dance culture. In that blend, we hoped we could hold on to the essence of what U2 is about. That's been, at times, a fine line you draw. We felt we crossed it ruding the making of the Pop record, and we had to bring things back a bit.
GP: Did the more traditional band approach for ATYCLB make you look at the guitar differently?
Edge: Yes. It put a lot of emphasis back on the guitar--the parts and the sound. On the last few records, I used the guitar principally to create textures that add light and shade. But o this album everything rested on the original band arrangement, so the guitar parts had to
be in place first. I think the end result is our most "guitar" album since Achtung Baby.
GP: Did you take a different tonal approach?
Edge: In most cases, the tones and treatments on this record have been kept as simple as possible. In the past, I would often use effects as a tool to inspire a different way of playing and not be a traditionalist. But in many cases on the new record, my tone is just guitar and amp. That's kind of new for me, and it was a real challenge. I discovered a whole new side of what I can do, which was
GP: There are quite a few solos on the record.
Edge: Sometimes a solo will present itself as an option--or even a necessity--and I'll happily take one. However, for the most part, I'm a minimalist at heart. If a song doesn't need a solo, I'm not going to force one into it. It's always the music that dictates what I play. I never want to feel that I'm playing anything gratuitous. I
get off on finding the perfect tone for the perfect part.
GP: So the songs that have solos were just begging for them?
Edge: I think they were. For instance, "Kite" originally didn't have a solo. We had the tune almost finished, but we weren't quite happy with it--it needed a twist. So we edited in a section, I plugged my '64 Gretsch Coutnry Gentleman into a cool fuzzbox--and Ampeg Scrambler--and a Vox AC30, and I came up with a solo for it. It really made that part of the song come alive. that's a case-in-point where the decision to do a solo came from the sense that something was missing in the tune.
GP: Do you have a guitar setup for slide?
Edge: No. I play slide on various guitars in standard tuning.
GP: You really mixed up the tones on this album.
Edge: Well, I'm a fairly well established AC30 man, but lately, for a bit of variety, I've been moving away from the Vox. I used a 70s Hiwatt commbo for a lot of the distortion tones, and for many of the clean tones, I used an old Fender Bassman.
GP: You can hear the Vox all over the record, though.
Edge: I still used them quite a bit. I love the bell-like quality of the AC30. It has become a part of the way I play guitar.
GP: "Elevation" has some amazing distortion tones.
Edge: I used a Gibson SG through an old fuzz pedal of Daniel's into the Bassman. He said, "What do you think of this?" Within ten minutes, I had the riff that became the stepping off point for "Elevation". Inspiration can come from anywhere, and a fresh sound can be just as inspiring as a great hook. To me, sounds *are* hooks. That tone presented a whole world of ideas to me, and we got a song
out of it.
GP: What is that huge distortion sound that barges in during the main riff?
Edge: That's the Hiwatt.
GP: What were your main fuzzboxes?
Edge: The Ampeg, a Tube Screamer for a good general distortion without being too in-your-face, and an old Manny's Fuzz--which is really extreme. I also used this really obscure Japanese pedal called the Sobart for the heavy sections of "New York." That pedal is so extreme. You step on it and all hell breaks loose. On "When I Look
at the World", I'm using an Electro-Harmonix Micro Synthesizer for that mad distorted tone.
GP: What's the massive wah-wah at the end of "Elevation"?
Edge: That's us filtering the tone after the fact with an Electrix Filter Factory. A wah pedal is great for certain sounds, but many times dedicated filters--DJ-type boxes--have a little more to them.
GP: How did you get the lovely clean tones in "Stuck in A Moment" and "In a Little While"?
Edge: I have a great '50s Strat, and I plugged it straight into a Bassman. On this record, I often found myself simply enjoying the pure tone of the instrument. Again, that's kind of new for me.
GP: Why do you think you enjoy the natural sound of guitar more now than 20 years ago?
Edge: I suppose since we came out of this period in the late '70s and early '80s when punk was happening, some of the punk ideals really struck a chord with us. Things like moving away from the rock aristocracy of the time were a big part of how I played then. I wanted to step away from the prototypical rock guitar thing, and making the guitar tones more abstract was a way to do that. But now, it feels so fresh to really explore the natural tone of the guitar.
GP: "Walk On" has some very classic Edge sounding parts.
Edge: I mostly used a white Les Paul that I've had for a long time through the AC30. The solo on that tune is my Gibson Explorer through the AC30.
GP: Your old Explorer?
Edge: Yes. I used it quite a bit on this record. It's the same one I used for all of the first record and most of the first three tours. It's odd, around the time of The Unforgettable Fire, I began to extend my collection to include more Teles and Strats, and the Explorer became less in favor. But now--maybe because we've gone full
circle musically--I'm drawn back to the Explorer. In fact, if you listen to the echo guitars towards the end of "Beautiful Day" the tone sounds like it could have come from the first record. It's so "that" tone.
GP: What's so special about the Explorer?
Edge: It just has this unique tone. In fact, I was surprised by how much the guys in the band enjoyed the sound of it. Adam, in particular, was so delighted to see it out again. He said, "This thing sounds like nothing else on earth!" It's a pretty special guitar.
GP: You were the first guy a lot of people heard use the Whammy pedal. What attracted you to that effect.
Edge: It was just such a dramatic, extreme effect. That being said, there are very subtle, beautiful things you can do with it. I used it on "Peace on Earth" for this bizarre, atmospheric, almost Chinese-sounding part. It's a 5th below and a 4th above.
GP: You use the Whammy pedal in a more extreme way on "When I Look at the World".
Edge: Yes. In the middle solo, I'm using it with an echo in the choruses.
GP: Are you still using the Korg SDD-3000 delays?
Edge: Yeah. Even though they are digital, they have a warm and musical tone. I find most digital gear very hard to deal with because the natural musical quality of the guitar is compromised. It takes all the beautiful texture away and replaces it with this glassy, artificial sound. That makes it gough to get inspired.
GP: And do you stil run out of the +4db output of your Korg to push the front of your amps?
Edge: I do sometimes.The unit has output attenuation controls, and I mess with those. It's a great way of giving yourself a cool gain boost. I did that with all the amps.
GP: So even though you guys went for a more organic approach, it didn't go as far as recording to analog tape.
Edge: No. We recorded to an Otari Radar hard-disk system. The benefit of a hard-disc system is that we could take a 25-minute band improvisation, move parts around without destroying the original take, and not lose any sound quality. That was always the problem with analog tape. We would have loved to work like this in the past, but it was never possible because the minute you made a transfer to
another tape machine, you'd lose a generation of audio quality.
GP: How was cutting tracks for the new record different than, say, the War album?
Edge: We learned a new way of recording when we began working with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois on The Unforgettable Fire--we don't go into the studio with completely finished tunes. We'll play around with a chord progression, a beat box beat, a guitar
lick--anything--and build up from that.
GP: How does that approach make the material stronger?
Edge: Everyone is listening in a different way because they are genuinely ucertain of what is going to happen next. You're able to work off the sense of discovery. There's a feeling you can only get from playing something for the first time. It's very exciting, and occasionally we'll hit on that feeling during the making of an album.
GP: What's a good example of that on the new album?
Edge: "Kite" was one. I had a string arrangement worked up on the sequencer, and I played it for the guys. They really liked it, and they started playing around with it. It really took off on the first attempt, and that became the basis of the backing track. that is that band at its best--when there is a sense of excitement and discovery
in the room.
GP: It sounds like the guitar stil excites you.
Edge: I find it to be an ongoing challenge to keep the guitar from becoming too traditional--which can happen to even the best ideas and the best styles. They eventually lose their fire and their ability to reach you because they get overused. I'm constantly trying to find uncharted territories by looking for sounds and tones that inspire
new feelings and stop me from becoming too staid. Ironically, on this record that meant plugging a beautiful vintage guitar straight into a lovely vintage amp. That was pretty inspiring for me.
GP: Do you see the guitar getting phased out of pop music?
Edge: Pop music is a strange thing. I cant' say guitar will always be a part of pop, but I think that guitar music will always survive and have a particular place in contemporary culture. I can't see that going away. It's the instrument that has always been at the forefront
of rock and roll, and it *defines* it.
GP: What is it about the guitar that still resonates with people?
Edge: I think it may have something to do with it standing for freedom in some weird way--somewhat like the automobile has meant freedom for people over the last century. Since the invention of blues and rock and roll, the guitar has inspired that kind of feeling in people. And it probably always will.