INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Guitar Player JUNE 1985 - by Tom Nolan and Jas Obrecht
THE EDGE OF U2
"What do I find challenging?" poses The Edge. "Tearing up the rule book and saying, 'Okay, given that this is my instrument, what can I do with it that no one else has done before?'"
In an almost classical sense, U2's guitarist has turned limitations to his advantage, using simple techniques and abundant imagination to produce one of the freshest styles in years. He displays little evidence of formal training, theoretical sophistication, or extraordinary dexterity, yet he has etched an instantly familiar style and sound of his own. It's perfectly suited for U2's intense, uplifting music. And while Edge strives to stay original, others now imitate him: Witness ads in British and American music journals for "Guitarist, U2 style."
Despite U2's streamlined instrumentation - Adam Clayton plays bass, Larry Mullen Jr. drums, and The Edge doubles on guitars and keyboards - the band fills a huge amount of space beneath Bono Hewson's passionate vocals. The Edge commonly uses partial chords, harmonics, and echo repeats to create sparse yet harmonically rich textures. Rather than concentrate on fast or flashy solos, he tends to create atmospheric backdrops using drone strings, slide, E-Bow, feedback, or other effects.
Like The Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin, U2 has attracted one of the most loyal followings in rock and roll. Lyrically, they are decidedly humanistic, unafraid to address such subjects as God, injustice, war, and how one ought to live. The band encourages introspection, experimentation, and courage. At a recent show in San Francisco, Bono spoke: "You don't need extensive equipment or a big PA to make music. You just need a guitar and a few simple chords." He then pulled a volunteer onstage, handed him an amplified acoustic, and quickly showed him the chords to Bob Dylan's Knockin' On Heaven's Door. One by one the other instruments dropped out, until only the fan remained, sharing the song with ten thousand voices. For U2, taste is more important than technique.
Dave "The Edge" Evans was born on August 8, 1961. "I've never lived anywhere but Dublin," he says. "Although I have Welsh blood - both of my parents are Welsh - in every other way I'm Irish." As a child, Dave took enough piano lessons to learn that he didn't appreciate musical regimentation. He got his hands on a guitar for the first time at thirteen, when his older brother Dick brought home a battered acoustic from a yard sale. He didn't begin to apply himself in earnest, though, until four pals from a multi-denominational school in Dublin's Ballymun district decided to form a band.
"Larry had some drums and decided that he wanted to form a garage group," the guitarist recounts. "I thought it would be good to play a few covers and do what we wanted - purely for the satisfaction of playing, rather than anything else. We were pretty disillusioned with a lot of the music that was coming out in the mid '70s. There seemed to be a lot of ground that had already been covered. So, there was a meeting between the people who wanted to be in a group. We sorted out who was good material pretty quickly, and it really boiled down to the four of us. None of us had equipment at that stage, but we didn't think that mattered. It was then that I bought an electric guitar. Once we had bought our own instruments, it was just a question of learning how to play them." From the beginning, Bono and Edge opted to keep the nicknames they acquired as kids knocking around the streets together. ("'The Edge,'" Evans recounts, "was a good-humoured jibe that was originally supposed to be a caricature of my appearance.")
Inspired by the individualistic sounds of the Patti Smith Group and Ton Verlaine with Television, U2 decided early on to avoid well-trod musical paths. "Their music was so new and different," Edge explains, "it made us excited and enthusiastic. As a would-be guitar player, I was struck by the fact that all these bands had a really well-defined sound that was like no one else's. So when we first started putting material together, trying out a few chords and what have you, that was always in my mind: 'We have to find out what we have to offer, what we can do that's different.'"
The first signals of what U2 could do differently were heard on their 1980 debut album, Island Records' Boy. Although the Irish teenagers had done brief sessions in the past (including a 1979 Irish three-track single, U23), The Edge remembers the album as "a total voyage of exploration. We had the time and, with [producer] Steve Lillywhite, the expertise to explore some of our more fantastic ideas. So, that record was great. In a way, Steve translated what was there in essence live onto vinyl. In so doing, he developed and enhanced all the qualities of the band that were already there." With Bono's commanding vocals and its lustrous guitar and percussion overlays, Boy drew critical praise for its originality. U2's first song on American airwaves, I Will Follow introduced The Edge's dramatic rhythm/lead guitar style.
After intermittent touring of the U.S. and Britain, U2 rejoined Lillywhite at Dublin's Windmill Lane Studios to record October during the summer of 1981. Bono's book of lyrics was stolen just before the sessions, and the band faced the further setback of having only six weeks to execute the album. Although October sold poorly and met uneven reviews, the band had a successful year on the road, playing two hundred and seventeen shows in eleven countries.
The opening military drum march of 1983's War announced the maturing of U2. The music was more urgent, the lyrics more potent Sunday Bloody Sunday provided a rallying cry for sanity amidst Ireland's explosive political strife, while New Year's Day was inspired by Poland's Solidarity movement. On the other end of the emotional spectrum were two of the band's tenderest ballads, Drowning Man and 40 (on which Edge plays bass). The Edge cut through War with a commanding presence, as vital and self-assured on lap steel and acoustic as he was on electric. The album reached Number 1 on the English charts and sold over a million copies worldwide.
War set the stage for U2's triumphant breakthrough tour of America. The band was in top form, with Bono dramatising the album's message by waving a white banner - "a flag drained of all colours." Their inspired June 5 concert at Red Rocks, Colorado, was videotaped and aired on MTV. Additional shows in Boston and West Germany were recorded for Under A Blood Red Sky. Produced by Jimmy Iovine, the mini-LP features powerful versions of Gloria, I Will Follow, New Year's Day, and 40. Released in November, it went gold and remained in the charts for nearly a year. At the end of 1983, U2 was named Band Of The Year by the Rolling Stone Critics Poll.
U2 toned down its aggressive side in favour of a more abstract, impressionistic approach for their latest studio LP, The Unforgettable Fire. Visionary composer/synthesist Brian Eno and partner Daniel Lanois were hired to produce and engineer, and portions of the sessions were held in Dublin's Slane Castle. In contrast to the sparse instrumentation of Under A Blood Red Sky, the new record features synthesizers and orchestration. Pride (In The Name Of Love) has become U2's biggest single, and The Unforgettable Fire has gone straight into Billboard's Top 15 (four U2 LPs were recently in the Top 200). Another indication of success: The March 14, 1985 Rolling Stone proclaimed U2 "Band of the '80s."
Unlike many acts that flee to large cosmopolitan areas at the first scent of success, U2's members still live in their hometown. "For us," Edge says, "Ireland is like a shelter from the storm. It's a place to escape, a refuge. It's also been one of the main reasons why the uniqueness of this group has never been compromised or diluted. Within a very short period of time, most of the groups that move to London start losing that individuality that sets them apart. The groups that succeed are the ones that stay where they are, where they've always been."
• • •
Is it an exaggeration to imply, as some accounts have done, that the four of you got together one day, picked up instruments and sounded like a U2 album?
When we got together and decided to be a group, none of us could play, but that was an important thing. None of us had ever been in a band before. In developing our musical ability, we developed a sound. But it wouldn't be fair to say that it all happened on the same day.
Did you go through a period of editing your playing? Were you ever one for long solos?
No. From the beginning, our music was very trim. The solos that I took were very short. And unlike what most guitar players were doing at that stage, they were quite melodic. I used to use a lot of harmonizsed strings, even in my solos - like droning, say, the E string against something I was doing on the B string [Ed. Note: I Will Follow is a prime example.] It had an interesting sound, twelve-stringish sometimes. I didn't use a distorted tone; it was very clean. And our music really needed more than just one-string solos of the blues variety. That sort of thing didn't work, and it also didn't interest me very much, because it was being done so well by other people.
Can you play conventional styles?
I could play in any style, but not to a very high standard. The most important thing with this group is that with everything we do, we try to maintain a certain originality, a certain challenge. Therefore, there's a high level of rejection for lines and songs. Nothing with this band comes without a lot of work. But it would be no contest to put me against a fast player like Gary Moore or any of those guys; I could not even begin to do anything like that. At a very early stage of my playing, I just decided that for me that was totally irrelevant. It may have thrilled listeners, but as far as I was concerned, that was something that had been done before and there was no need to repeat it. So instead, I put my energy into songwriting and approaching the instrument in a totally fresh way.
How do you develop a style like yours, which has little relation to blues or jazz? It just...
Sort of exists [laughs]. I think it's that I've never really had any guitar heroes. All of the guitarists that I've liked have been total anti-hero stuff. I think of Neil Young - that guy gets so much feeling into his playing, but he's stumbling around a few notes. It means so much, but it's so simple and basic. Tom Verlaine was never an incredible virtuoso, yet he revolutionised guitar playing, as far as I was concerned. He suddenly said, "Look, you can do something different. You don't have to do the same thing. This is nothing like anything you've heard before." There are bands to whom that is not an issue: it's not important for them to do anything new. But if you want to do something new, there is no reason why you shouldn't be able to. For us at our early stage, it was an important lesson. We've never as a group put up with anything that lacked that vitality, that originality. We've always dumped it if we felt it smacks of an era gone by or that it isn't musically relevant.
You've done well at turning your limitations into advantages.
That is true of the band generally, and I hope that we can continue in that vein. I'm almost scared to do some really serious practice because of what it might do. Whenever I start working on a song, I immediately try to forget everything, to empty my hands and head of anything that may be hanging over from another song or album. I try to approach it like, "This is the first time I've ever played a guitar. What am I going to do?" That's one way of getting straight through the conscious mind into the subconscious layer where the true creative spirit lies. I very rarely practice, but I think I might, just as an experiment, do some serious rehearsal by myself and see what happens.
Do you imagine parts before finding them on the instrument?
Not actual melodies; they definitely tend to be a product of playing. My parts come generally out of exploration; they come from improvisation and accident. My strength is seeing them when they conic out and capitalising on them. I have quite a good car for music, so when I hear something that interests me, I normally stop to develop it and bring it to a conclusion. So, the original idea very rarely comes before I've actually started playing, but ideas for new sounds and new approaches to the guitar do come before I start. I very rarely follow conventional paths in any aspect of my playing or writing. In fact, that's probably one of the most important things about why I play like I do. For instance, it I feel I'm getting into some sort of rut, I do something really radical, like change the tuning of the guitar.
Your playing took on new dimensions in The Unforgettable Fire.
Yes. See, I was experimenting a lot with damping my guitar strings, using felt or gaffer's tape over the strings near the bridge to give zero sustain. Using echo, I found some remarkable effects. The intro to Wire is a case in point: Having damped the strings with gaffer's tape and using a bottleneck and an echo setting. I got this incredible sound. It sounded quite Eastern, but really bizarre.
Do you understand what you're doing in musical terms?
No, we're self-taught. We learned by bouncing a lot of ideas internally around the group. You know, we haven't come from Berklee, and we're not developing some new theory in music. None of us can read music. It's all instinctive. You can know all the jargon, all there is to know about music, and still be impotent when it comes to actually creating something new. We are lucky enough to have developed a style that is natural. We never have to theorise about it or debate. It's funny. I was talking to a very talented drummer in Sweden, an Irish guy who is well into knowledge of theory and polyrhythms. I was sort of wistfully saying that I'd love to be able to read music and do all that, and he said, "Edge, if I ever saw you with sheet music in front of you, I'd break your leg." He was saying that it would not work well with my talent, and he is probably right.
Does playing guitar come easily for you or do you have to work hard at it?
I battle with it. I don't necessarily enjoy it so much as I see it as a struggle and a fight. Because I very rarely rehearse, at first I'm at odds with the guitar. It doesn't feel natural, but this means that my mind is open to new ideas. I haven't formed ruts down the fingerboard by playing the same things. It's still very much unexplored territory. Maybe that's why I don't feel that attached to my instruments. It's almost like I'm going to dominate them in some sort of way. I don't feel like they're part of me; they stand between me and something new.
How do you view the role of the guitar in U2?
To all intents and purposes, my guitar is the main influence in denoting a song's mood. I'm very aware of the tapestry of sound that it can produce. I like simple lines, simple guitar pieces that work with simple bass and drums. But often times we work with many layers, as well. It's a combination of simplicity and complexity.
What's your method of recording guitar?
We've done all of our albums - in part, at least - at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin. It's an excellent studio, but we've never found ourselves comfortable in the designated studio area. In fact, instinctively we've found ourselves drawn to the hallway and reception area, which is all stone. There's this thirty-foot high staircase which spirals up to the top floor, and we basically put all the guitar amps out there with some close mikes and some Crown PZMs stuck to the ceiling and floors to get some of the top end. There were also some microphones at the very top of the staircase. Armed with that array of microphones, we found the sound that made sense to us. In the dead environment of the main studio room, the sound never had room to breathe. It was like playing inside a vacuum flask. The splashes of sound I could get out in the main hallway were just perfect for what I wanted to do.
How do you lay down backing tracks?
For the three studio records before The Unforgettable Fire, we'd been working on a layered approach because the structures of the songs in some cases were not fixed. We'd record drums to keep, and the bass would be recorded, as well. We'd try to get as much isolation as possible and do just guide guitars. At the end of the day, if you needed to lose everything but the drums, that was possible. Then we'd take over the best-sounding part of the studio and do each instrument in turn. But for The Unforgettable Fire, we wanted to get a certain feeling that you miss with that sort of layering. It's intangible, perhaps, but when you play together, you lean toward one another musically. In purely feel-based music, I'm sure that would be far more evident than it would be with our stuff. But the vibrancy of what we did live sort of outshone what we had done on record. That's why we wanted to make The Unforgettable Fire as live as we could. So we rented some mobile equipment and went to an old castle north of Dublin to record all of our basic tracks. Most of the album has live takes. In fact, some of the songs had no structure to them until we started playing; we actually improvised them as we were working. Bad is an example.
The instrumental 4th Of July is unusual.
Unbeknownst to myself and Adam - we were playing away inside, just working on a little improvisation - Brian Eno was next door recording what we were doing through a series of treatments that he had set up for the vocals of the previous song. He thought it was so nice that he didn't bother even putting it onto multi-track. He put it straight onto quarter-inch, and that was it, the final product. We just snipped out a three-minute section that we thought was the best and stuck it on the front of side two.
Could you detail what's going on in that track?
I don't remember all the details. I was a little tired of playing normal finger stuff, so I used a bottleneck. I was probably working with an echo in triplets with what Adam was playing, and he was in a very unusual time signature - something like 13/8. Adam finds 4/4 not only boring, but extremely difficult to maintain. He moves in these natural rhythms that to everyone else seem totally weird and experimental. Playing against that time signature, I started working with the bottleneck and some harmonics. I may have detuned one of the strings, but it's a kind of instinctive thing. Immediately when Adam started playing his line, I knew there was something there that we could work with. Everything went on in that split second. It's a mixture of serendipity and intuition.
What was your approach on Pride?
Well, I wanted something very percussive, because the whole rhythm of that song hinged on the guitar's sixteen-to-the-bar beat. It just made it skip along in a certain way. So, that was the main consideration for that piece. We started with a bass guitar chord sequence with some drum lines to it. Once we had the chord sequence and that guitar line...
What is the chord sequence?
[Laughs] Adam's in charge of chord sequences, because I haven't played a proper chord in years. It's B to E to A to F#. It's quite a traditional sequence in a funny way, but it just works well against what Edge is playing.
You don't seem to play standard guitar chords very often.
No. I don't play proper guitar [laughs]. For a start, I avoid the major third like the plague. I like the ambiguity between the major and minor chords, so I tread a very fine line sometimes between the two. I tend to isolate the chords down to two or three notes and then octaves of the notes. Like for an E chord, I play just Bs and Fs, including my big E string. With Pride, for example, it's really just a couple of strings. The critical thing is the echo. I'm playing sixteenth notes, and the echo device supplies the triplet, so it's a very fast thing.
Early in your career, you used an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man Deluxe for the echo effects. Is that still part of your setup?
That's been put out to pasture at this stage. It was getting so old and battered that our stage manager was having to dismantle it every night to try to get it to work. It was on a life-support system, the poor thing, by the time we stopped using it. Now I've got two Korg SDD-3000 digital echoes. They have the same sort of features as the Electro-Harmonix, but with a digital clarity. At first, I couldn't get used to digital because it is so clean. There were all these frequencies that I hadn't heard for years coming out of my amplifier. And the definition of the repeats was so clear that it was off-putting. What was an atmospheric thing from the old analog suddenly became a very scientific, precise repeat. I never find myself using the far reaches of the Korg's echo potential; I tend to stay within the mid-area, between the parameters of about fifty and four hundred milliseconds. I began using the Korg at the start of the War tour.
Did you use it for Under A Blood Red Sky?
For some of it. but I did bring out the old Electro-Harmonix for some of the recording sessions. The great thing about that old unit is that it emits this whistle, which goes up and down in frequency relating to where you are on the echo knob. So if you've got a very long delay, you hear this low-pitched whistle that's reminiscent of the whine from a TV set. This used to really freak out our engineer; he'd listen to the guitar und suddenly get this high-pitched "oooooh." Not a way to ingratiate yourself with a studio engineer.
Do you ever add effects during the mix?
No. I really hate this engineer job - you know, "We'll fix it in the mix. We'll put that echo back on later." I don't use the echo as an effect that is put on top of an already constructed guitar piece; it's actually an integral part of the guitar figure itself. I always record with my echoes; they go straight to tape with the guitar. Very rarely would I let an engineer have a clean guitar sound. The treatment is as much a part of the sound as the playing or the guitar tone itself. For me, when you're being creative in the studio or writing, the most important thing is being inspired by your equipment.
Do you prefer playing in the studio to the stage?
They are very different disciplines. I enjoy the challenge in the studio of working at new things. You've got to be fresh and creative and on form. On a stage, it's a question of reproducing something you have already done, or in fact, developing it, because it's often very hard to reproduce something perfectly accurately. But I equally enjoy the challenge of playing onstage. Live can become a little bit of a treadmill unless you're very careful to avoid it. For that reason, I find recording more fulfilling generally, but because you meet such great audiences being in this band, touring is such a thrill, I've never understood bands who say that touring is boring or stagnating. There's absolutely no reason it should be that way.
During a recent concert, you played guitar and piano at the same time.
Yes. Obviously, there's a limit to what you can do on the guitar with one hand. I generally hit a chord and leave it to sustain while I do something with my left hand on the piano. And sometimes I just alternate between the two instruments, playing a verse on piano and going to the guitar for the chorus. I do that on New Year's Day, and I used to do it for I Fall Down and The Unforgettable Fire.
Why do you play bass onstage during 40?
As that song was recorded in the studio, I played the bass. It seemed like a more interesting approach to make Adam learn the guitar than to make him learn my bass parts, and it's worked out very well. He's come up with his own approach to the guitar parts that I did in the studio. I think it's an interesting visual thing to see us changing instruments.
You seem to change guitars a lot. Is this due to different tunings?
It's really because each song suggests to me a different guitar sound. The strange tunings that I have are for the lap steel and the Fender Telecaster. The Tele has a very odd one that I made up: F, A D, D, G, D. As I was putting down some guitars on The Unforgettable Fire, I was having a little bit of difficulty coming out with something I was pleased with. So I decided as a radical change of approach to just tune the guitar up to the notes that seemed right. It was pure chance, but it does sound a beautiful chord in relation to the song. I play The Unforgettable Fire onstage with the Tele and an E-Bow. I used E-Bow for another few tracks that didn't make the album. It's an interesting device, but it tends to make everything sound the same. So whether or not you get a nice, pleasant effect or that same whiny sound is really down to how you treat your sound after the guitar. [Ed. Note: The E- Dow is a small, hand-held electromagnetic bowing device for guitar.]
What kind of lap steel do you use?
I bought an old Epiphone, dating from 1945, in Nashville around 1982. I used that on the War album, and I use it live for Surrender [Under A Blood Red Sky]. It's a great old thing, tuned in a very unusual way. When I first got it, I researched the tunings a little bit and found them all to be extremely uninteresting for me - I mean, they were country tunings. So I made up my own. I put the strings in couples an octave apart: The first and fourth strings are the same notes, the second and the fifth are the same, and the third and the sixth. So there's basically three notes making a minor chord with a ninth or a seventh. On standard guitar, I play slide in regular tuning, using a piece of chrome on the middle finger. A lot of good slide players use the trailing finger to stop any resonance in the strings behind the bottleneck. I don't do that. I control some of the problem with my picking hand, but I like the rest of the effect it gives, the sort of strange ambience.
What kind of tremolo unit does your black Strat have?
It's a standard Fender tremolo. Sometimes I shake it. On the Explorer, which doesn't have a wham bar, I shake the neck. [Ed. Note: This is not a recommended technique, since it could bend the neck or cause it to snap off.] This is not to get a very exaggerated effect, but just to give it that natural modulation. If you have an echo on, a slight shift will give quite a nice sweeping feel.
Is the Gibson Explorer your favourite guitar?
I go through phases. I really like the Fender Telecaster at the moment. Sometimes you pick up an instrument and find that it has a natural balance and feel, und the Tele is one of those guitars. It's not a very old one - I think it's a 1970 or something - but it has that great quality that a good instrument should always have, which is that it inspires you. You pick it up, and you just know that you're going to do something good with it. The Explorer is like that, too, but I find I'm moving away from its sound as time goes on. It's great if you want a sound that is aggressive and yet not a cliche. It has a very individual quality, yet at the same time it has stock Gibson humbucking pickups, which give you that pleasant overdrive - not that awful heavy metal whine that so many new guitars have, which I think is so cheap. I also prefer wide fingerboards, and the Explorer's is really wide. I've bought a few guitars that I haven't really gotten into yet. I have an old Gretsch White Falcon that I've used a little bit in the studio. I've never felt confident enough to bring it out live, because it's such a different instrument than the rest of the things I play. It demands a different approach to amplification, and things like feedback become more of a problem.
Has it appeared on any recordings?
Yeah, I used it on The Unforgettable Fire sessions for Indian Summer Sky and stuff like that, as well as on a couple of songs that we didn't put on the record. It's a very versatile guitar with a really nice selection of sounds. It has the advantage of split pickups between the top and bottom strings, so you can change the overall emphasis of chords by tuning down, say, the bass or treble strings.
Is your Washburn Festival amplified acoustic guitar modified?
Yes. It's a compromise guitar, really. It doesn't sound like an acoustic, but I'm using it as one, which isn't exactly perfect. I like the feel of the guitar, but I was always let down by the sound. So I decided that the best way around it was to put in a Lawrence pickup over the soundhole, and now it is a very unique instrument. Apart from its shortcomings as a replacement for an acoustic - which I think are obvious - it is very, very interesting. I've used that an awful lot on the recording sessions. It can get that nice, sort of Rolling Stones clean sound and things that you can't even describe - beautiful, subtle tones. And it always sounds very warm.
Have you tried guitar synthesizers?
I've dabbled, and I've really not been inspired or impressed particularly. They make the guitar sound like synthesizers, which is totally ludicrous as far as I'm concerned. They have versatility in neither sound nor use. There are only certain playing techniques that are picked up well by the guitar synths. In the future, maybe. I'm interested in the new Roland with MIDI; I could get some good sounds that way. But to make a guitar sound like a synthetic trumpet or flute really doesn't interest me much. A police whistle, you know - what's the point? Guitars sound perfectly fine as they are. The last thing I want to do is make them sound like cheap synthesizers.
How do you go about choosing guitars?
I've never really been into the jargon. As a band, we've never really been into gear or guitars and stuff. A lot of my guitars are off the shelf. They're not vintage or anything. That's something that may change - maybe it's due to my inexperience - but at the moment, I've never found any vintage guitars that I really felt were worth the money. So, I've been happy to stick with the production ones. Obviously, it's down to personal taste. My stuff is not worthless by any means, but certainly not irreplaceable. But there is one thing I'm thinking about doing. It isn't actually my idea, so I don't know if I should explain it fully. But it's a guitar that plays itself [laughs]. You just depress the string, pluck it once, and get infinite sustain. I haven't actually perfected it or finalised the physics involved, but the principle should work. I can't wait to try that.
Who takes care of your guitars?
Steve Rainford, U2's technician, does the setting up himself. There's a great guy in Dublin whom I use if I want anything really crucial done. His name's Derek Nelson, and his company is called Danvel Music; he is the best guitar guy in Ireland that I know of. They call him the Guitar Doctor because he has this marvellous bedside manner with guitars [laughs]. He's so gentle and understanding. No matter how badly damaged your guitar is, whenever you bring it to him, you always get that feeling that it's going to be alright.
Could you describe your right-hand picking technique?
The only interesting thing about my picking technique is that I strike the string with the grip part of the plectrum rather than the pointed end. These are West German picks that have dimples to aid your grip, and I use the dimples to hit the strings. It gives a certain rasping top end that I've always liked. That's a really tough piece of plastic, and I use very tough strings as well: Superwound Selectras, gauged from .010 or .011 to .054. When I first started playing, I was lent this Les Paul copy that had the most awful flimsy sort of strings - .007 to .032. It was like playing with rubber bands. You had to stand perfectly still, or else you'd go wildly out of tune. I found that the heavier strings give a much better sound.
Do you ever bend strings?
Since I use quite heavy strings, I don't bend as much as modern guitar players. In fact, I do it quite rarely. I do add a lot of vibrato with my finger, especially in any sort of lead section where I'm playing a high melody.
When you're just strumming for a percussive effect, do you ever catch your finger on the strings?
Yeah, I do that all the time, especially on the nail. The nail eventually goes flat and breaks, and I get a very sore blood blister. It's all that flailing wrist on things like The Electric Co.. During a tour, those nails get very thin.
What's your approach to playing harmonics?
I don't play them in any unusual way. For me, harmonics are approaching the most pure sound available to a guitarist. There's no frets involved, so the tone of the harmonic is... I mean, I love it. It's one of the nicest sounds you can take from a guitar. I've taken it a step further with various different tunings and treatments. There are some sounds from a guitar which don't work with echoes or reverb or chorus. Big, fat chords sound like a mess; they just don't work. There's something about the purity of the signal from a harmonic that becomes such a big sound when it's treated well - very bell-like in many ways. They are very inspiring. I remember Steve Howe used to play harmonics when he was with Yes. I was interested by that sound because it was very delicate. They seemed like natural components for the sound of the group when I was putting together lines for our songs.
What would you advise young players trying to break out of stock playing patterns?
One of the best ways of developing an individual style is to start writing songs. It was actually in the development of songwriting that my playing style came. I would credit the other members of the band as having quite an influence, because there was a lot of chemistry. Being with other musicians is a very healthy thing.
Do you do any playing outside of V2?
Occasionally. I did a project with [bassist] Jah Wobble called Snake Charmer; that was interesting. It also had some German musicians, ex-Can members Holger Czukay [on French horn, guitar, piano, and Dictaphone] and [drummer] Jackie Leibezeit. I'm interested in meeting guys who come from different backgrounds. It's very stimulating. I'm not so interested in the conventional jamming of other people's material in clubs and the like. That seems to be a form of relaxation for a lot of guitar players.
What are your goals? Is there anything you hope to accomplish?
As a band, we have a kind of image of what the perfect album is. We're always striving towards that. Innovation and originality are important, but we're not interested in the idea of a cult music form for the chosen few. We're interested in music that has the power to touch everyone. We're always getting closer to it, but we probably will never attain that standard. In fact, it's not really important that we do. It's the trying that's important. It's almost an impossible standard to attain. It's like all your favourite groups rolled into one, with none of their faults. If we ever did make the album, we'd probably stop.
Have other artists achieved the perfect musical statement?
In moments, but those moments aren't really consistent. Strawberry Fields Forever [The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, Capitol, SMAL2835] might be a peak, or [Bruce Springsteen's] Born To Run [Columbia, JC337951]. There are other tracks which have great power to communicate and stimulate.
What would you list among the essential Edge tracks?
It's funny, The Unforgettable Fire was an experiment in staying clear of the guitar for the most part. I did an awful lot more keyboards and general atmospheric work on the guitar rather than taking it to the forefront. The tracks that display my playing the best are Pride and Wire. Wire is interesting because of the new techniques being used. The intro has quite an unusual guitar sound that a lot of people think is keyboard. It's actually guitar with damped strings, echo, and bottleneck. That was a thrill for me because it was such a great sound. Pride was transformed when the guitar line came. Again, it's another use of echo from the digital delay, and it's very rhythmic. Those two are the strongest "Edge as Edge is" guitar playing. On the next album, I'll probably be doing something different. But The Unforgettable Fire was an important album; it opened up a lot for me to explore in the future. It's sold more than War so far, which is incredible, considering that it's quite a difficult album to come to terms with immediately. It does take a few listens to really get to know it.
Does it bother you to see advertisements for guitarists who play like The Edge?
No, not really. I think they've missed the point, actually. If there's anything that's good about my playing, it's because I'm me, I'm different. If somebody is trying to sound like me, then they really haven't understood me very well. I'm more interested in what Joe Blokes down the road in this garage band is doing than, say, what the new Jeff Beck album is like. Not that I don't respect Jeff Beck, who's an incredible musician. But I think we've seen what he can do, and there's a lot of guitar players out there that we haven't heard. A certain amount of that is because they are too busy trying to be Jeff Beck or whatever. If you do what a lot of players do - pick up a guitar and start playing lead blitzes, copying Eddie Van Halen or whoever else - you set off on a path which for me is a cul-de-sac. It's far more interesting to empty your head of anything anyone else has done and just start feeling sounds and making musical figures you can call your own. What I'm trying to say through my guitar is that everybody is different and can sound different. There's no reason on earth why guitar players should copy one another and end up sounding the same.
THE EDGE: A SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY
With others - Snake Charmer