How to Sound Like the Edge of U2 for Under $1,000
Who is The Edge?
Born David Evans in 1961 in London, U2 guitarist the Edge acquired his famous nickname sometime in his teenage years. His singular guitar style, built around chiming arpeggiated partial chords and judicious use of effects, established a new standard for rock music in the 1980s. Today, guitarists all over the world cite the Edge as an influence, but many don't fully understand the components of his sound.
It's common knowledge among guitarists that the Edge has a sophisticated guitar rig, full of rare and vintage effects pedals, which he uses on the world's biggest live stages to replicate the multitude of textures heard on U2's albums. This setup couldn't be replicated without investing tens of thousands of dollars (possibly even hundreds of thousands).
However, U2's early work was built around a specific sound that utilized specific guitars, amplifiers, and effects, as well as a minimalist playing style. This Hub is meant to explore that sound, and help users achieve a similar tone without breaking the bank. Working through this Hub one section at a time should help build a foundation upon which to expand, much as the Edge himself did. For the time being, we'll focus on the Edge's guitar tone between the years 1979 through 1983. (For further information, check out the second part in this series of articles.)
First Things First
The first thing we'll need to do is to construct a complete rig that will allow us to approximate the Edge's sound as heard on the albums Boy, October, War, and Live Under a Blood Red Sky. Listening to those records, it's clear that we'll need to study the Edge's guitars, amplifiers and effects units, but many Edge enthusiasts miss the most important parts: the details.
For instance, using the correct guitar pick will instantly make your playing sound more like the Edge's. Since the band's earliest days, Edge has played with a specific type of plectrum made by a company called Herdim. He utilizes the company's blue picks, which are thicker than the average medium-sized pick but still retain a bit of flexibility. But (and this is where the magic begins to happen) the Edge also holds guitar picks differently than most players--he grips the smooth end, which is normally the portion used to strike the strings, and instead strums with the dimpled back-half of the plectrum. Picking a single guitar string with a smooth pick typically produces a clean "ping" sound; the friction of the dimples of a Herdim pick against the strings give more of a "ching" sound. It's hard to describe, but if you get your hands on a Herdim plectrum and pick a single note, you'll immediately recognize the sound!
Herdim picks are hard to find in US retail stores. Generally, you can find them for sale online in packages of 12 for roughly $1 apiece, or $12 total for a multipack.
Beyond the pick, it's also critically important to use the correct guitar string size. Edge is known to strum his strings pretty hard, so he uses custom guaged .11-.52 strings (the low E is heavier than usual).
However, we can certainly get by with .11-.49 strings; I personally recommend the D'Addario brand. They can generally be found online or at a local musical instrument retail shop for about $5 per set. Thicker-sized strings also possess a fatter tone, although they're more difficult to get sustain out of. If you're switching up from .09s or .10s, you will find .11s difficult to play at first; bends especially require you to build your finger strength. With time and practice, however, you may come to find that you prefer heavier-guaged strings.
Side note: It's worth noting that putting size .11 strings onto a guitar that was setup with lighter-guaged strings will probably require you to adjust the guitar's neck and intonation again. If you don't know how to perform a setup yourself, I strongly recommend bringing your instrument to a local luthier or music store with a tech department. Performing a setup incorrectly could permanently damage your guitar, and render it unplayable!
Choosing the Right Guitar
Now that we have the correct accessories, let's move on to discussing the Edge's guitars. Between 1982 and 1983, he played two main instruments: a 1976 Gibson Explorer and a 1979 Fender Stratocaster (black body, pickguard and controls with a maple neck/headstock). As we shall see, using these two guitars allowed Edge to achieve a range of different tones while working within the context of the original sound he was developing.
The first of the two was the Gibson Explorer. In an interview with Guitar World magazine, Edge recalled walking through a guitar shop during a family trip to New York City in the late 1970s and encountering the oddly-shaped instrument. "I just picked it up in the store and it felt so great, this is it. I actually went in to buy, I think I was going to buy a Les Paul, but I just fell in love with this guitar." It quickly became a cornerstone of his rig, with a sound that was brighter than most Gibsons but still retaining a thick tone.
The second instrument, a 1979 Fender Stratocaster, was likely acquired during the Boy tour in 1980 (the exact date is unknown, but the black Strat began to appear live onstage around this time for several songs that were previously played with the Explorer). Rumor has it that the guitar came with a DiMarzio FS-1 pickup in the bridge position, giving Edge's Strat a bigger, louder tone than is typically associated with Fender Stratocasters. This guitar was used extensively on the October, War and Live Under a Blood Red Sky albums.
So, how do we get instruments that will approximate Edge's main guitars without breaking the bank? Well, instead of purchasing a real Gibson Explorer, I would suggest investing in an Epiphone model. While not as valuable as a real Gibson, the Epi models are a great value as they can be found on the used market for between $300 and $400.
Similarly, acquiring a vintage 1970s Fender Stratocaster (notable for its larger-than-normal headstock) is a fairly expensive proposition these days. However, one can acquire a Squier Vintage Modified 70s Stratocaster Reissue for a fraction of the cost. They retail new for between $200 and $300, and can be found even cheaper used.
For the sake of this article, let's assume you're acquiring both instruments: an Epiphone Explorer for $350, and a Squier 70s Stratocaser for $230.
Amplify Your Sound
For decades now, the Edge's main amplifier has been a Vox AC-30. These amps are prized for their sweet, chiming tone that can go from pristine clean sounds at low to middle volume settings, or a startlingly dirty growl as the volume is raised. Additionally, a reknowned feature of the AC-30 is the "Top Boost" channel, which was one of the first ever built-in channels devised specifically to give players a shortcut to overdriven tones.
The Vox amplifier used by the Edge has been modified in several ways over the years. First, Edge's guitar tech Dallas Schoo has revealed that while the chassis and electronics of the amp date back to 1964, the cabinet is from sometime in the mid 1970s. Adds Schoo, "The speakers are a Jensen Blue Alnico 12-inch from the '60s and a Silver Jensen Alnico 12-inch. I [swapped] a Blue Alnico in early 1986 for the Silver Jensen because the blue one blew out, and that's what I had in the U2 Dublin storage as a replacement."
Clearly, an amp of this caliber isn't going to be recreated with any degree of accuracy for less than several thousand dollars. Instead, for our budget version of Edge's rig, I would suggest using a Vox VT40+ modeling amplifier. The "VT" stands for "Valvetronix," which is Vox's line of amps that utilize a single 12AX7 tube in the preamp section of the electronics, accompanied by a solid state power amp. What does this mean? Well, in practical terms, it means you're getting an amp with tube-type feel and tone for the price of a solid state amplifier.
Additionally, the modeling technology lets a user select one of several amp "models" which the VT40+ will then mimic. One of the amp models is based on--you guessed it--a 1960s Vox AC-30! You won't fool an old pro with a VT40+, but you might be surprised at how you feel about how close to the Edge's tones this amp gets.
Another bonus here are the built-in effects. While you could use the echo and save yourself $150, doing so requires a little more knowledge to get the settings right than if you invest in a separate pedal (see the following section of this Hub article). However, there are several modeled overdrive pedals present in the VT40+'s electronic brain that sound great, and I for one would heartily recommend the Gold Drive setting for that mildly-saturated tone heard on Live Under a Blood Red Sky.
The Valvetronix series are great, warm-sounding amps. And they're not just easy on the ears, they're easy on the wallet: I've seen these retail new for as little as $250 new, which means you can probably find a used one for around $150 if you do a little research!
Let's assume for now that you're purchasing a brand-new VT40+ for $250.
Add Some Effects
The Edge's use of effects is well-documented. He's a genius at taking these electronic boxes and using them to color his guitar tone in such a way that some U2 songs don't even sound like they have a guitar anywhere in the mix, when in fact there may be dozens!
However, in the earlier part of his career, the Edge relied heavily on just a few effects. First and foremost, he utilized what is known as a delay pedal. Delays will create echoes of each note played, and allow a guitarist to set the time interval at which the echo occurs, as well as to adjust the balance between how much of the original signal is heard versus the effected signal.
Edge's main delay pedal was the famous Memory Man, produced by the company Electro-Harmonix (commonly called EHX). This pedal utilized analog circuitry, which has the unusual property of degrading the sound of each subsequent echo. To get an idea of how this works, plug into an analog delay pedal, then pick a note and quickly choke it off. Note how the first echo sounds almost exactly like the note you just played, but the second echo sounds a little darker in tone, while the third sounds much darker, and so on until the last audible echo actually sounds distorted.
Modern digital delay pedals often reproduce each echo with a pristine clean sound, although the darker analog sound has come back into fashion with guitarists and some digital delays are now capable of mimicking the decay of a vintage echo unit.
An EHX Memory Man from the 1970s would easily set you back $300 or more, and truth be told, while they're great pedals in many ways, they have drawbacks that modern players may struggle with. A great substitute for the frugal guitarist is their newer line of analog delay pedals, called the Deluxe Memory Boy. Not only will this pedal let you get those early U2 tones, but it also has a feature that Edge probably would have loved back in the day: a tap tempo switch.
Tap tempo is a second button (in addition to the Memory Boy's on/off switch) that lets a guitarist use their foot to set the time intervals of each echo. You can combine this with the Tap Divide button, which allows one to assign the echoes a musical subdivision, to very quickly and easily get Edge-like echo patterns going. First, set the Tap Divide switch to the dotted eighth-note pattern. Then, as you play your guitar, step quarter notes along with the beat of the song on the Tap footswitch. Voila! Instant Edge-like echoes!
An added bonus with the Deluxe Memory Boy is the pricetag. While they generally retail new for $200, I've seen (and purchased) them for as little as $125 used. You'll have a hard time finding an analog delay pedal that sounds as good and packs in as many features at that price!
Let's assume, for the sake of this exercise, that you purchased a used EHX Deluxe Memory Boy for $150.
Total Cost: Approximately $997
Well, look at that! We said we were going to assemble a budget rig that approximates the Edge's sound for under $1000, and we have $3 to spare! Considering that most vendors will ship items that cost over $100 for free (more likely on Amazon than eBay) and that most of the gear mentioned is readily available in local stores, thus eliminating shipping costs altogether, you could almost certainly assemble the entire setup described above at a similar price point.
Of course, just having this gear and knowing how to use it isn't going to make you sound like the Edge. The other piece of the puzzle is his actual playing style, and we'll examine that in another Hub article shortly! For now, have a look at the second part of this series exploring the next phase in Edge's playing evolution.