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
sound of his own.
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 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 revolutionized 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.” We’ve never as a group put up with
anything that lacked that vitality and that
originality. We’ve always dumped it if we
felt it smacks of an era gone by, or that it
isn’t musically relevant.
Do you imagine parts before finding them
on the instrument?
My parts come generally out of exploration—
from improvisation and accident.
My strength is seeing them when they
come out, and capitalizing on them. 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, if I feel
I’m getting into some sort of rut, I do something
really radical—like changing the
tuning of the guitar.
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 it can produce. I like simple lines—
simple guitar pieces that work with simple
bass and drums. But we often work with
many layers, as well. It’s a combination of
simplicity and complexity.
Could you describe your 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. I have these picks
with 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.
How 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. —
Excerpted from Tom Nolan and Jas Obrecht’s
piece in the June 1985 Guitar Player