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