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10 Things You Gotta Do To Play Like The Edge

November 1, 2008
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WHEN BOYHOOD MATES NICKNAMED DAVE EVANS “THE EDGE,” IT WAS a good-natured jibe at his angular facial features. Be it prescience or serendipitous coincidence, the moniker has proved the perfect précis for the legendary U2 guitarist’s sound, musical approach, and fearless spirit of sonic invention.

Starting with U2’s1980 debut Boy (recorded when the Irish guitarist was still in his teens), continuing through to 2005’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, the Edge has been one of modern rock’s greatest innovators via daring use of harmonics, drone strings, understated chord-voicings, and ambient effects. By fusing punk’s minimalist aesthetic, arena rock’s anthemic ambitions, and the timbrally detailed approach of artists like Brian Eno, Television, and Gang of Four, the Edge has forged a style that has earned him a place on the short list of guitar innovators. He’s even garnered a nod as one of the “25 Guitarists Who Shook the World” in GP’s 25th anniversary issue (January ’92) alongside such hallowed names as Hendrix, Page, and Van Halen.

Much of Edge’s fabled tone mojo is a result of his of signal-processing mastery, but critics who dismiss him as a mere knobtwiddler are completely missing out on one of the most singular sounds in guitardom. Despite all his electronic gadgetry, the guitarist never lets the medium become the message. Clever delay-generated notes and eccentric sounds are always used to underscore and enhance the larger meaning of U2’s music. Owning a battery of effects would no more make one the Edge than owning a black and white camera would make a person Ansel Adams.

In his June ’85 GP cover story, Edge articulated that for him, the challenge of guitar playing lies in “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?’” Completely relegating the rules to the trash heap is a tall order for even the most accomplished guitarist, so here’s a chance for us mere mortals to don a skull cap, put theory on the back-burner, tune our guitars a half-step below standard (Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Bb, Eb, low to high)—as per the majority of U2 recordings—and get a serious Edge-ucation. By following these ten steps (nine of which are paraphrased from U2’s lyrics), you too can push your playing a little closer to the Edge.

 1 CARRY EACH OTHER

The Edge, drummer Larry Mullen Jr., bassist Adam Clayton, and singer Bono formed U2 while still in grade school. Remarkably, the quartet is heading into its fourth decade of existence with the same lineup—almost unheard of in the annals of rock. U2 seem to possess an all-for-one, onefor- all loyalty and dedication to causes that allows them to circumnavigate the pitfalls of success (drugs, lawsuits, trashed hotel rooms, creative differences, nasty mediafueled breakups, and eventual accountantnegotiated soulless reunion tours) that have ensnared many great bands. The Edge, like his bandmates, has consistently avoided gratuitous displays of virtuosity in service to the music’s greater good. On their 1997 Popmart tour, the band even weathered the ultimate Spinal Tap moment—being stuck onstage inside of a giant lemon-shaped pod that wouldn’t open—with good humor. No surprise that their music sounds as fresh, urgent, and relevant today as it did some 30 years ago. The lesson is simple—being innovative isn’t mutually exclusive to being a team player.

 2 PRACTICE SLEIGHT OF HAND (FOR A TWIST 0F FATE)

Despite his reputation as an avatar of processed sounds, one integral facet of Edge tone stems from the little piece of plastic in his right hand—picks manufactured by a West German company called Herdim that are the same size and thickness as a prototypical plectrum but covered on the grip end with little rounded bumps. The rub is that Edge uses the dimpled end to actually strike the strings, giving his notes a sharper, raspier, almost chime-like attack. Having experimented with an inverted Herdim, I can attest to their overall, well, Edginess, and though it won’t translate to every style, it’s a cool tactic for giving singlenote lines some added bite.

 3 DREAM OUT LOUD

Edge’s onstage rig is so daunting it looks like you’d need the head of NASA’s mission control to help navigate it, (see Beautiful Gear, in the January ’01 GP), and while I won’t even pretend to be able to detail the precise signal chain on any given U2 cut, there are a few basic pieces of gear worth investigating to catch Edge’s vibe.

The Edge’s most iconic ax is probably the wood-finished 1976 Gibson Explorer he purchased as a teenager and has used fairly regularly since. During the ’80s, he relied on late-’70s-era Strats with Seymour Duncan pickups, a Washburn Festival acoustic, and a 1945 Epiphone lap steel. On more recent tours, Edge’s arsenal has expanded to include a ’67 Rickenbacker 12-string, a ’64 Gretsch Country Gentleman, a ’62 Epiphone Casino, and a ’65 Gibson SG, among others.

For amplification, the Edge is a selfdescribed “AC30 man,” employing several mid-’60s models of the 2x12 Vox classic onstage. His effect setup is an ever-evolving network of stompboxes and rack processors that generally includes an Ibanez Tube Screamer; a Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive; Lovetone Meatball, Big Cheese, and Doppelganger pedals; a Korg A3 processor; a Digitech Whammy pedal; a Dunlop CryBaby wah; and a Line 6 POD Pro, but the effect most-often associated with the Edge sound is delay. During U2’s early tours, Edge favored Electro-Harmonix Memory Man analog units. Since 1984’s Unforgettable Fire, he’s been a liberal user of the warm-sounding Korg SDD-3000 digital delay, often driving his amp with the unit’s +4dB output. More recently, Edge has shored up his live sound with TC Electronic 2290 delays. A major factor in Edge’s delay sound is the dialing in of a certain amount of slow, wide modulation on the delayed notes to create an ethereal pitch-shifted tonescape.

The Internet is populated with websites and user groups dedicated to the study of the Dave Evans tonal legacy, and you can even find video of his guitar tech Dallas Shoo offering up a pre-gig rig tour. Peruse any of these online resources and you’ll discover that while Edge takes the integrity of his tone very seriously, “Edge tone” is not a fixed signal chain but an ever-changing sound quest. So whether you rock a fully stocked rack with a MIDI controller or a few cheap stompboxes, keep experimenting and be creative. Tone is a journey, not a destination.

 4 RING TRUE

“For me, harmonics are approaching the most pure sound available to a guitarist,” notes the Edge. More than just a decorative gimmick, harmonics in Edge’s hands become the building blocks of melodies. Ex. 1a shows his classic clock chimes riff laid out completely in harmonics—a phrase Edge would drop into live versions of the song “11 O’clock Tick Tock.” On Ex. 1b’s lilting harmonic-laden “Sunday, Bloody, Sunday” chorus melody (from 1983’s War) the chords in parentheses are implied by Adam Clayton’s bass notes.

 5 DON’T EXPECT, SUGGEST

The Edge regularly eschews full chordal crunch for smaller, more harmonically ambiguous voicings. “I tend to isolate chords down to two or three notes,” he confesses. “Adam is in charge of chord sequences because I haven’t played a proper chord in years.” Play Ex. 2a, the droning riff to “I Will Follow” (from Boy), and experience an early example of alchemy à la Edge—the transformation of punk’s power-chorded downstrokes into a high-voiced Celtic-flavored clarion call.

 Conjuring the charisma of songs like “Vertigo” and “Miracle Drug,” Ex. 2b spices up an otherwise pedestrian chord progression in the key of D with a forward-moving double-stop riff. Make the lick extra crispy with some added attack on the downstrokes.

 6 SLIDE DOWN THE SURFACE OF THINGS

A restless quest for innovation has led Edge to experiment with every notegenerating device available from the EBow to the Fernandes Sustainer guitar, and although he’s not a slide player in the purist sense, the bottleneck has found its place in his arsenal of articulation. Unlike most slide practitioners, he often doesn’t dampen the strings behind his slide, allowing for an atmospheric milieu of fret and string noise. Catch the vibe of “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “The Fly” in Ex. 3 by muting the picked low-E string notes and then exaggerating your vibrato while strategically rocking a wah pedal forward and back during the slide-generated chord stabs.

 7 ARP-EDGE-IATE YOUR CHORDS

Forgive the bad pun above and instead focus on Ex. 4a below, perhaps the Numero Uno Edge lick of all-time— the intro from 1983’s breakthrough hit “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.” In order to play this simple-but-effective phrase correctly, keep your 2nd finger anchored on the 3rd fret of the second string and nail the D chord using a 1st-finger barre across the 2nd fret.

 Ex. 4b demonstrates another Edge-y arpeggiation approach that recalls such early U2 favorites as “Gloria” and “An Cat Dubh.” Dig how ringing open strings, clever voicings, and space between notes add up to harmonic bliss.

The gospel-tinged “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (from 1987’s The Joshua Tree) is culled from the unusual grips in Ex. 4c. Slap a capo on the 3rd fret—as the Edge does in the 1988 concert movie Rattle and Hum—and hear a I-IV-V progression transformed into something buoyant and majestic.

8 DIG UP YOUR SOUL

When Bono goads Edge to “play the blues” before the guitar break in “Silver and Gold” (from Rattle and Hum) it’s a bit surprising, because U2’s music generally seems far removed from the blues. However, diligent study reveals the band’s blues roots run deep. Case in point: The main chord progression to “I Still Haven’t Found …” is | I | I | I | I | IV | IV | I | I|, which derives directly from the first eight measures of a 12- bar blues, while the ensuing chorus effects a | V | IV | I | I | cadence—that’s right: a classic blues turnround. Try plugging the arpeggios from Ex. 4c into the pattern to hear how Edge handles these timeless changes.

 Now play the open-chord groove in Ex. 5a and you’ll undoubtedly peg it as Bo Diddley’s signature groove, the backbone of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” George Michael’s “Faith,” U2’s 1988 #1 hit “Desire,” and, of course, Diddley’s own “Who Do You Love.” The key to this inflection is the initial emphasis on the dotted-eighth-note that groups the sixteenth-note pulses in a more syncopated (translation “booty-shaking”) 3+3+4+2+4 series, incorporating the threeagainst- four grouping known among theory hawks as a hemiola. Having learned the lessons of the early rock master, the Edge cleverly updated this technique into chordal blasts like Ex. 5b, recalling the searing chorus to “Beautiful Day” (from 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind). Compare it to the previous example and you’ll notice the harmonic rhythm is identical but at a slightly slower tempo, and the accents have been evened out, sonically re-tooled for the new millennium.

 9 EXPLAIN ALL THESE CONTROLS

Perhaps more than any other guitarist in history, the Edge is identified with the use of the digital delay, both to sculpt tone and generate notes. A common Edge tactic is the use of dotted- eighth delay settings. This means the delay will digitally replay the original note a dottedeighth (three sixteenth-notes) later. If you’re vexed by delay’s mysterious ways, don’t fear— these secrets are fairly easy to unravel. Delays operate on three main parameters: Time, usually measured in milliseconds (ms), controls how long it takes for the digitally generated note to sound after the initial note fed into the delay is played; mix (or level) sets the volume of the delay-regenerated note compared to the volume of the initially played note; and repeat (or feedback) dictates how many times the delay-generated note is repeated.

 For Ex. 6a, set your time to about 350- 370ms, your mix to about 85 percent, and your feedback to allow one or two clear repeats, and play the straight eighth-note riff. Magically, the delay-regenerated notes that give songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name” their mystique reveal themselves. If dialing in milliseconds seems a bit of a brain-buster, many popular boxes, rack units, and software plugins offer a tap setting that lets users tap in the songs tempo then have the unit automatically calculate a dotted-eighth regeneration.

Keep your mix and feedback setting from the previous example but tweak the delay time down to about 441ms and groove on Ex. 6b, the stunning guitar break from the perennial U2 live favorite “Bad” (best experienced on 1985’s Wide Awake in America). In an amazing synergy of man and machine, Edge’s repeated three-note phrases blossom into a lush, ringing, digitally enhanced landscape of sound.

 10 KILL YOUR INSPIRATION

“It doesn’t really bother me when other guitarists try to play like me, but I think they’ve missed the point. If there’s anything that’s good about my playing it’s because I’m me,” or so sayeth the Edge. The message of this tenth step in how to play like the famous U2 guitarist? Disregard dicta 1 through 9! And though dialing in U2-style delay settings and momentarily copping a piece of Edge’s mystique certainly feels good, the bigger challenge he has laid down is one worth accepting. To truly fulfill our musical potentials, we must become masters not of someone else’s style but of ourselves. Like the Edge, we shouldn’t merely accept our limitations but instead embrace them, constantly striving for that sweet spot where technique, gear, and musical inspiration merge into one seamless entity.

 “In some weird way the guitar stands for freedom,” Edge observed in 2001, adding, “I’m constantly trying to find uncharted territories via sounds and tones that inspire new feelings and stop me from being too staid.”

RATTLE AND HUM… AND SHIMMER!

A little-known Edge sonic recipe was developed with producer Brian Eno during The Unforgettable Fire recording sessions. Informally dubbed “the shimmer,” it involves splitting the guitar’s signal and sending one output to the usual effect/amp chain while simultaneously routing the other through a harmonizer and reverb unit. The harmonizer is set to replicate the guitar signal at ascending octave intervals, while heavy reverb provides an atmospheric vibe. The result is an angelic, orchestral sound that shadows the main guitar signal, giving it an almost otherworldly presence. (U2’s performance of “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” at the 47th annual Grammy Awards, which should be easy to find on YouTube, offers a perfect example of Edge in full-shimmer mode.) Live, Edge brings the shimmer sound in and out via a volume pedal. While he initially used an AMS DMX 15-80 harmonizer (and has of late kept Eventide H3000 and Yamaha SPX1000 processors in his rack), there are several lower-budget ways of replicating the shimmer effect, such as splitting your signal and running one side through the “Octo” setting on a Line 6 Verbzilla pedal. —VDM

 

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