It’s often said that a good picker can make a guitar talk, but with the invention of the guitar effect known as the “talk box,” that became a literal possibility.
There’s a host of famous talk box users in rock – Joe Walsh, Peter Frampton, Kirk Hammett, Jeff Beck, Adam Jones – but did you know the device was first used in the 1930s? And while it’s changed and improved over the years, the basic concept has remained the same. The sound from an amp is channeled to the player’s mouth via a tube, and the sound is essentially filtered by the shapes the player makes with his or her mouth, and then picked up by a microphone.
Really, the device can be employed with any electric instrument, but since 1939, when pedal steel innovator Alvino Rey deployed a crude version of the effect using a carbon throat microphone made for military pilots, it has been indelibly associated with the guitar.
And these are 10 of the songs that created that enduring association:
10. Alvino Rey, “St. Louis Blues”
Okay, “Stringy”, the talking guitar, might give you nightmares, but it’s still a gas to hear and see Rey and his big band swing and sway as their leader gives speech to this six-stringed relative to Charlie McCarthy. Since Rey didn’t sing, his wife was the wizard behind the curtain who literally put words in Stringy’s mouth while her husband plucked at his peddler.
9. Peter Frampton, “Do You Feel Like We Do”
Despite its seven-minute length, this talk box classic reached the top 10 in 1976. It was the third single from Frampton’s shockingly popular Frampton Comes Alive! but originally appeared on 1973’s Frampton’s Camel. Why Frampton, who was pictured on the album’s cover with his trademark Les Paul Custom, had a camel isn’t clear, but after selling six million copies of Frampton Comes Alive!, he could afford an entire menagerie of exotic critters.
8. Joe Walsh, “Rocky Mountain Way”
This 1973 gem may be the heaviest talk box tune ever recorded thanks to the lavish, big-boned Gibson Les Paul Standard slide guitar Walsh plasters all over its skeleton. And while his performance is nothing less than crushing, there’s a molasses edge to its pace that makes Walsh’s slide and his talk box break slither through the mix like a 10-ton lizard.
7. Stillwater, “Mind Bender”
This yarn about finding a talking guitar in a pawnshop put these Southern rockers on the map in 1975. “My daddy was a Gibson,” the six-string-speakin’-thing relates via talk box, and the rest is history. The group released four albums, but remain one-hit wonders. An interesting note, however, is that the name of the band in director Cameron Crowe’s love-letter to the classic rock ’n’ roll era, Almost Famous, is also Stillwater.
6. Pete Drake, “Forever”
More proof that the talk box is not rock’s alone. Like Ray, Drake was a pedal steel player – one of the all-time Nashville greats known early in his career for session work on tunes for Roger Miller and Joe South. When “Pete Drake and His Talking Steel Guitar” made the album Forever in 1964, the title track briefly elevated him from the ranks of session man and producer to hitmaker, reaching #22 on the Billboard top singles charts. Thus lifted into the pop world, Drake went on to play on such classic albums as Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. It’s all proof that when a guitar talks, people listen.
5. Metallica, “House That Jack Built”
This soul-searching tune about drug abuse and emotional torment features a scalding talk box solo and passages of squawking color from Kirk Hammett, the group’s lead axe man. It captures the spirit of self-discovery the band was exploring on 1996’s Load and the talk box effects make it clear that was a thorny journey.
4. Steppenwolf, “Hey Lawdy Mama”
Okay, so the talk box break here sounds kinda like a car horn. Everybody can’t be genius at manipulating the tricky effect. Nonetheless, this 1970 single by the premiere American biker band of its day introduced a lot of listeners to its scrappy speech-like sound.
3. Scorpions, “The Zoo”
Lead guitar slinger and Gibson Explorer maven Matthias Jabs stepped up to the plate in full on 1980’s Animal Magnetism, helping to make the album a platinum breakthrough for the Scorpions, a one-time psychedelic band turned pop-metal by the time of this outing. Jabs’ talk box showpiece “The Zoo” is heavy as a 40-foot python slithering through the Amazon jungle.
2. Guns N’ Roses, “Anything Goes”
Slash brilliantly used a talk box in the GN’R song “Anything Goes,” from the bands seminal album Appetite for Destruction back in 1987, and used it for live work with the band, perfecting the art as this live clip from Japan proves.
1. Jeff Beck, “She’s A Woman”
Arguably the best talk box guitar lines ever recorded reside in this Beck classic from Blow by Blow, a reggae-fusion instrumental adaptation of The Beatles’ classic. When Beck steps to the box to make his legendary Gibson Les Paul sing the tune, his execution is breathtaking. And why wouldn’t it be? He’s Jeff Beck!