When it comes to guitar effects, there’s something about the “talk box” that listeners especially love. A collective roar still rolls through the crowd whenever Peter Frampton breaks out the unit during live shows.
The sound never fails to intrigue when Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way” pops up on classic-rock radio. Considering that the talk box has been around for several decades, it’s remarkable how few musicians are familiar with the history of the device.
Intricate details about the talk box’s various configurations are a story for another day, but the way in which the unit functions is basically the same, no matter the design. In essence, the talk box allows a musician to shape a sound, usually originating on guitar, via a plastic tube running from the effects unit into or near the performer’s mouth. The musician “mouths” words in such a way that an instrument/vocal hybrid is produced and the guitar appears to “speak.”
The earliest known variation of the talk box dates back to 1939, when pioneering pedal steel player Alvino Rey attached a specially-wired microphone – designed to modulate his instrument’s sound – to his wife’s throat. In performance, his wife hid behind a curtain and “mouthed” Rey’s guitar lines, creating what was called a “singing guitar.”
This novelty presaged the development of the Sonovox, a device that used small speakers – again, attached to a performer’s throat -- in place of a microphone. Several Hollywood films made use of this device, but for rock fans, its most notable moment came when it “spoke” the days of the week on The Who’s 1967 album, The Who Sell Out.
The back story for the modern-day version of the talk box begins in the early ‘60s, when Nashville steel player Pete Drake first used it on an album titled Forever. Designed by fellow pedal steel player Bill West, the contraption consisted of an 8-inch paper-cone speaker attached to a funnel from which a plastic tube emerged. Speaking with M – Music & Musicians in 2012, Joe Walsh revealed how this version of the talk box fell into his hands a few years later.
“The James Gang used to play in Nashville,” explained Walsh,” and I became good friends with Dottie West, the famous classic country singer. We would go to her house and people would come over, and we would sit around with an acoustic guitar and pass it around. That could be anybody – Chet Atkins, Glen Campbell, Roger Miller -- whoever was in town. Dottie’s husband, Bill West, was a pedal steel player. He actually invented the talk box that was used on Pete Drake’s album. One day, while I was at Dottie’s house, Bill went out to the garage and got it and gave it to me. He said, ‘Here, you plug this end into your mouth. You’ll figure it out.’”
Walsh said it took a couple of months for him to become proficient with the device. “After I got the hang of it, I then figured out how it was built. I went to a hardware store and got some parts and made one for myself. ‘Rocky Mountain Way’ was the first time I used it on record. I showed it to a friend of mine named Bob Heil, who has a manufacturing company, and he [started making] them. I still have the original -- the one Bill West gave me -- tucked away in a storage locker.”
In fact, the original talk box used on “Rocky Mountain Way” had only enough volume for studio use. Together, Walsh and Heil developed a unit powerful enough for live shows. In a 2010 interview with Musician’s Friend, Heil explained: “Joe had recorded ‘Rocky Mountain Way’ using an 8" speaker and a funnel, a device used in Nashville by the steel guitar players. Well, it wasn't very loud so you couldn't use it live. So here we are, two ham radio operators on a Sunday afternoon out in my plant. We grabbed a 250-watt JBL, built a low-pass filter, got all the plumbing together, and voila -- the talk box. That's how it started. After that tour, everybody's going nuts! ‘What's this thing he's got?’ So I put together a commercial unit called the Heil Talk Box. Then Peter Frampton's girlfriend called me wanting a Christmas present for Peter. So I sent a Talk Box. The rest of the story writes itself from there.”
Interestingly enough, Frampton had first seen the talk box back in 1970, when he played on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album. Speaking to Premier Guitar in 2012, he explained: “Peter Drake was also on the record. During a slow moment in the studio, he got out this little box with a pipe, plugged in his steel and started playing. I asked Peter where he got it from and he said he made it, so that was a bummer. But not long after that, Bob Heil, who had done Humble Pie’s sound, started making talk boxes and gave me one as a present. I used it right away in the studio for ‘Show Me the Way’ before the Comes Alive! LP came out, but it wasn’t until I brought out the talk box live that I realized its full power.”
Through the years, use of the talk box has cut across generations of players, in a variety of genres. From Rufus’s 1974 funk smash, “Tell Me Something Good,” to Avenge Sevenfold’s “Lost,” from their 2007 self-titled debut album, the device has always found a place in contemporary music.
As long as audiences continue to come alive when it’s used, the device will always have its place. “They [still] laugh and hoot and howl … to this day,” Frampton says. “I recently ran into Joe, and we started talking about being the two guys known for the talk box. We shared a laugh about how audiences are still like, ‘What the hell is that?’”