How The Edge Created a Classic Guitar Sound
Not many people can boast about being in the same band for thirty-five years, with the same three guys you met in school. But that is the case for Dave Evans, or The Edge as he is more commonly known. The U2 guitarist started playing with Bono, Larry Mullen Jr., and Adam Clayton while at the Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin, Ireland. The four pretty much learned to play their instruments after forming the band. The Edge and his brother Dick, who initially played with the band, had actually built their own guitar that they would take turns playing. It took a while for The Edge to develop what is now the classic U2 guitar sound. In the beginning his playing style was more blues-rock oriented, like that of fellow Irishman Rory Gallagher, which can be heard in the early U2 song “Street Mission,” that was scrapped before time came to record their first album.
The Edge would acquire the first piece of the puzzle to his guitar sound when he went on vacation with his family to New York City in 1978. He ended up buying a 1976 Gibson Explorer Limited Edition. The Edge paid $248.40 for the Explorer (there's a picture of the receipt in U2's autobiography U2 By U2), which was most likely a substantial amount of money for the young guitarist in those days. But today it's safe to say that it is a priceless instrument, considering its significance in creating U2's sound and it's use on countless recordings.
When The Edge put up his 1975 cream Gibson Les Paul for auction in 2007 it brought in $240,000, and while that guitar had been used by him on tour since 1985 it still does not even come close in terms of importance to the U2 sound, since the Explorer was around from the very beginning. The Edge talked about buying the guitar, and his band mates reaction to the instrument in the BBC series The Story of the Guitar: “I just picked it up in the store and it felt so great, this is it. I actually went in to buy, I think I was going to buy a Les Paul, but I just fell in love with this guitar. I brought it back and I was slightly like...it's a little strange looking...are the guys in the band gonna look at it and go 'what?'...there's a few strange looks for the first day, but everyone just loved the sound of it. I think it became like a signature look, no one else was playing Explorers at that point, and so quite soon it became the thing we were famous for. Apart from a few other things obviously.”
The Explorer has taken a bit of a beating from all its years on the road, with one particularly nasty accident, as told by The Edge in The Story of the Guitar “It's had a few accidents over the years. This happened in Radio City about the mid eighties. We were playing a show and the bouncers were particularly heavy in the venue, and there were some kids in the front getting pummeled. So I actually threw the guitar off, sort of to intervene, and stopped it. Bono stopped the show and we got it sorted out, but I came back, picked the guitar up and the head was hanging off. It was totally broken...We got it repaired. I'm not sure it has affected the sound, I couldn't tell the difference when I got it back.” But the repair is quite visible on the back of the neck, since the replacement piece of wood is newer, and has assumed a different color over the years.
The Edge still use his original Explorer to this day, but it has now been relieved from touring duties, and is only used in the studio, explains Dallas Schoo, The Edge's guitar tech, in an interview with MusicRadar: “We finally retired it. It's such an important guitar for recording that I finally convinced him to leave it home. Nothing serious ever happened to it, but it's spent years in the sun, getting rained on - outdoor shows do that. I wanted to nip things in the bud while I could.”
But if you thought any 1976 Explorer would do, you'd be sorely mistaken, as Schoo explains: “The right ones are hard to find because Gibson had two different Explorers in production that year. The ones that were produced from June through December had a thin neck, but the models that were produced during the first part of that year had a thick baseball bat neck. Those are the ones Edge prefers. Gibson didn't make many of them, only about 1800 of them or so, and people hang on to them.”
The second piece of the puzzle in creating the classic U2 sound came in the form of an echo unit. The Edge got himself an Electro Harmonix Memory Man Deluxe, a delay pedal that allows you to modulate the original tone with a chorus or vibrato effect. Edge experimented with different delay intervals, and changing the modulation of the original tone. The one most closely associated with the U2 sound is perhaps the dotted eight-note delay heard in “Pride (In The Name of Love)” and “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.”
Since it is quite tricky to set a specific delay time on the Memory Man, The Edge would switch to using two Korg SDD-3000 digital rack processors instead sometime in the mid eighties, later also incorporating the TC Electronic 2290 Digital Delay. He has two processors since some of U2's songs, like for example “Where The Streets Have No Name” use two parallel delays with different delay times.
The final piece of the puzzle for that early U2 sound came in the form of the amplifier The Edge has been using for decades. It's a 1964 VOX AC30 Top Boost chassis in a 1970s cabinet. The Edge would stay with this signature sound, or variations thereof, for all of U2's recordings during the 1980s. During the nineties The Edge and the rest of U2 felt the need to reinvent their sound to great success, especially on their 1991 album Achtung Baby. But The Edge has since returned to the classic delay driven AC30 sound on some songs on the albums All That You Can't Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb - guess you really shouldn't mess too much with a good thing.