Close to the Edge: U2's Guiding Light Finds True Creative Spirit
Like Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, and precious few others, the Edge changed our perception of rock guitar. His moment of transcendence came during the early to mid-'80s, when his band U2 became an international sensation via its powerful songs and extensive coverage on a then-new medium called MTV. Such was the impact of "the Edge guitar sound" -- an atmospheric amalgam of partial chords, harmonics, echo repeats, drones, slide, feedback, and other effects -- that by mid-decade, music trade magazines in Great Britain and the U.S. were flooded with classified ads for "Guitarist, U2 style," just as they had been with ads for Van Halen clones several years earlier.
While the Edge was not nearly as visionary, manually dexterous, or theoretically sophisticated as Berry, Hendrix, or Van Halen, he did share with them an essential musical trait -- the imagination to turn his limitations into a unique sound and style. "What do I find most challenging?" he asked me during a 1985 interview. "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?'"
Of Welsh parentage, the Edge -- born David Evans in 1961 -- spent his youth in Dublin, Ireland. He studied piano and then acquired a guitar at 13, but didn't take the instruments seriously until he and three schoolmates -- Bono Hewson, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr. -- decided to form a garage band. "We were pretty disillusioned with a lot of the music that was coming out in the mid '70s," Edge said. "None of us had ever been in a band before. None of us even had equipment at that stage, but we didn't think it mattered. It was then that I bought an electric guitar. Once we bought our own instruments, it was just a question of learning how to play them. Two of our main inspirations were the Patti Smith Group and Tom Verlaine with Television. Their music was so new and different, 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. In developing our musical ability, we developed a sound."
U2's debut album, 1981's Boy, was, in Edge's words, "a total voyage of exploration. We had the time and, with [producer] Steve Lillywhite, the expertise to explore some of our more fantastic ideas. In a way, Steve translated what was there in essence live onto vinyl. In doing so, he developed and enhanced the qualities of the band that were already there."
The first U2 single to hit American airwaves, "I Will Follow," contained a classic example of the Edge's simple-but-dramatic rhythm/lead style, highlighted by his droning an open string against a pattern played on the adjacent string.
"From the beginning, our music was very trim," Edge explained. "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 harmonized strings, even in my solos, like droning, say, the E string against something I was doing on the B string. It had an interesting sound, 12-stringish sometimes. I didn't use a distorted sound; 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. 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, there was no need to repeat it. So instead, I put my energy into songwriting and approaching the instrument in a totally fresh way."
The band's follow-up, October, met with less enthusiastic reviews, but U2's third album, War, put them over the top. A rallying cry for political sanity in Ireland, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" swept the airwaves, followed by "New Year's Day," a song about political strife in Poland. On tour and record, the Edge cut a huge swath of sound, running his Gibson Explorer or Fender Stratocaster through a fragile old Electro-Harmonix Memory Man Deluxe echo (eventually replaced with a pair of Korg SDD-3000 digital echoes) into a Vox AC-30 and/or a Mesa Boogie amp. He also proved to be just as creative with a World War II-era Epiphone lap steel and a Washburn Festival amplified acoustic as he was with a solidbody electric.
The group's flag-waving and unforgettable June 5, 1983, concert at Colorado's Red Rocks was broadcast on MTV and released as Under a Blood Red Sky. By year's end, the Rolling Stone Critics Poll had named U2 the Band of the Year, and the Edge had reached his peak of influence.
Despite the accolades, the Edge remained modest about his accomplishments, attributing his success to "never really having had any guitar heroes. All of the guitarists that I've liked have been totally 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."
The Edge's most effective means of songwriting and coming up with parts was emptying himself of what he already knew: "Whenever I start working on a song, I immediately try to forget everything, to empty my hands and head of anything that might 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 through the conscious mind into the subconscious layer, where the true creative spirit lies.
"Basically, I don't play proper guitar," he continued. "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 chords down to two or three notes and then octaves of the notes. Like for an E chord, I play just Bs and Es, including my big-E string. The critical thing is the echo. Because I very rarely rehearse, at first I am at odds with the guitar. It doesn't feel natural, but this means 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 attached to my instruments. It's almost like I'm going to dominate them in some way. I don't feel like they're part of me; they stand between me and something new."
In search of the new, U2 radically changed direction for their next LP, 1985's The Unforgettable Fire, hiring producer Brian Eno and engineer Daniel Lanois to create a more abstract mix of synthesizers and orchestrations. "For me," Edge said, "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." In place of the bold, clean, soaring sound that characterized his earlier work, the Edge experimented with using "zero sustain" by placing felt or gaffer's tape over the strings near the bridge and then playing with a bottleneck and/or echo, as heard in "Wire." He also created unusual tunings, such as the FADDGD heard along with an E-Bow on the title track, and bolstered "Pride (In the Name of Love)" with an echo sound from a digital delay. In our interview, Edge cited "Wire" and "Pride" as the strongest "Edge as Edge is" guitar tracks. "On the next album," Edge predicted, "I'll probably be doing something different."
That has been the Edge's -- and U2's -- tact ever since, as the band progressed from the anthemic The Joshua Tree and the American-roots-oriented Rattle & Hum in the late 1980s to the post-modern and decidedly European-sounding Achtung Baby in 1991, the dance-oriented Zooropa two years later, and 1997's Pop, where self-conscious arena rock meets techno. Throughout all the wealth, changes, and reinventions, U2 has remained firmly rooted where they first began. "For us," the Edge says, "Ireland is like a shelter from the storm. It's a place to escape, a refuge. It's also 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 or somewhere else 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."