U2’s The Edge: The "Unforgettable Fire" Interview
While on Tour, The Edge Hears a Voice in the Desert
One of the most memorable concerts I’ve seen was U2 at San Francisco’s Cow Palace on March 7, 1985. The Irish band opened with “11 O’Clock Tick Tock,” “I Will Follow,” and “Seconds,” and then plunged into songs from their just-released The Unforgettable Fire. They played magnificent versions of the title track, “MLK,” “Wire,” “A Sort of Homecoming,” “Bad,” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).” They interspersed earlier songs, bringing the audience to its feet time and again with “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “The Electric Co.,” “October,” and “New Year’s Day.” Deafening cheers echoed long after they’d left the stage, but the best was yet to come.
When U2 retook the stage, Bono grabbed the microphone and told the audience that people don’t need fancy equipment to touch people with their music. All you need is one guitar and a song. He asked if anyone in the audience played guitar. Countless hands shot up into the air. Bono reached down and pulled a teenager out of the crowd and up onto the stage. A roadie strapped a guitar onto him as Bono called out the easy chords to Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The youth, who was unknown to the band, stood alongside Bono as U2 began the song. One by one, Larry Mullen’s drums, Adam Clayton’s bass, Edge’s guitar, and Bono’s voice dropped out, until all that was left was the young man strumming the guitar with ten thousand people singing along. It was the single most transcendent moment I’ve seen at a concert. U2 concluded the show with “Gloria” and “40.”
An Irish journalist had recently sent Guitar Player magazine an interview with Edge, which we were planning to run as the June ’85 cover story. After seeing the show, though, I felt there was more to cover. I called U2’s management in Dublin and put in a request to speak to Edge. I didn’t hear anything back and a week later left San Francisco to spend several days hiking in the desert. On March 21, 1985, I was visiting friends in Las Cruces, New Mexico, when their phone rang. “Hey, Jas,” someone said, “a guy with an Irish accent wants to talk to you.”
This is Edge here, from U2.
Hey, thanks for the call.
Yeah. I had the wrong number, unfortunately. I got through to the paper, but they put me right.
I have the story the fellow in Ireland wrote, and it’s very good, but there are some things I’d like to add to it.
Is it an exaggeration to imply, as some accounts have done, that the four of you got together one day, picked up your instruments, and sounded like a U2 album?
That’s an exaggeration, but we did get together and decide to be a group and none of us could play – that was the important thing. In developing music ability, it developed into a sound. But it wouldn’t be fair to say that it all happened on the first day.
Did you have to go through a period of editing your playing? Were you ever one to play long solos?
Well, no. From the very beginning, our music was very trim. The solos that I took were very short. And unlike the sort of solos that more guitar players were doing at that stage, they were quite melodic. And I used to use quite 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 quite an interesting sound. It was sort of almost 12-stringish in sound sometimes. I didn’t use a very distorted sound; it was a very clean sound. It really needed more than just one-string solos of, you know, the blues variety. That sort of thing didn’t work, and also it didn’t really interest me very much because it was being done so well by other people.
When you met the rest of the band, had you been playing for a while?
No, not at all. I owned a small acoustic guitar, but I didn’t own an electric guitar. In fact, the reason that the band happened was because Larry had some drums and decided he wanted to get together with some other guys to form a sort of garage group. Another one of my friends was already in a garage group, playing drums, so it just seemed like it was a really great idea to get a group together. So we decided to get the group together, and it was at that stage that I went out and bought an electric guitar. I didn’t own one until then. I mean, this is our first group and our only group. None of us have been in other bands.
Do you play in any styles that haven’t shown up with U2, music that you do by yourself?
That I do by myself? Well, I work very hard in the studio at my lines. Nothing with this band comes without a lot of work. So I suppose I could play in any style, but not to a very high standard. But the most important thing with this group is that everything we do, we try and maintain a certain originality, a certain challenge. Therefore, there’s a high level of rejection for lines and for songs as well.
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Do you ever come up with ideas before you find them on the instrument, like somebody will sing a line?
Not actual melodies. They tend to be definitely a product of playing. But what does happen is ideas for new sounds, new approaches to the guitar, do come before I start. On this album [The Unforgettable Fire] I was using quite a lot of damped strings, using gaffer tape or stuff, a lot of bottleneck, different pickups. I have an acoustic guitar that has already got an in-built C-ducer-style pickup, but I put a normal regular acoustic guitar pickup on it, and that’s had some interesting sounds.
Are you exploring any new techniques?
Well, there’s one thing I’m thinking about, which isn’t actually my idea, so I don’t know whether I should explain it fully, but it’s a guitar that plays itself. [Laughs.] It’s one that you just depress the string and you get infinite sustain having plucked the string once. I haven’t actually perfected it or finalized the physics involved, but the principle should work [laughs], so I can’t wait to try that. What else? Well, I suppose that’s about it just at the moment.
Do you prefer playing in the studio to the stage?
They’re very different disciplines. What I really enjoy about the studio is the challenge of working out new things and new ideas. And approaching songs, you’ve got to be fresh, you’ve got to be really creative and on form. On a live stage, it’s a question of reproducing something you’ve already done or, in fact, developing it, because it’s very hard on a lot of it to reproduce something perfectly accurately. But there is a different challenge to playing live, something that I enjoy equally. I think live can become a little bit of a treadmill unless you’re very careful to avoid that. I suppose for that reason, I would say that recording I find more fulfilling – generally. But touring, because you meet such great audiences being in this band, is just such a thrill. I’ve never understood bands who say that touring is boring and touring is stagnating. As long as you are careful, there’s absolutely no reason why it should be that way.
Do you occasionally use an E-Bow?
Yes, I do, actually.
With the Telecaster?
Yeah. I use it on the track “Unforgettable Fire” – that’s the only one where I use it live. I used for another few tracks on the [new] album, which haven’t come out. They haven’t actually made the record. It’s an interesting thing. The only problem with E-Bow is it tends to make everything sound the same, so it’s really down to how you treat your sound after the guitar, whether or not you get a nice, pleasant effect, or whether you get that same sort of whining sound that everyone gets.
Do you use a lap steel sometimes?
Yes, I do. I bought an old Epiphone lap steel dating from 1945 in Nashville, around 1982, and I used that on the War album. And I use it lives sometimes as well. It’s a great old thing.
What do you use it for live?
I use it on the track “Surrender.”
Is that tuned like a guitar or like a steel guitar?
It’s tuned in a very unusual tuning. When I first got the guitar, I sort of researched the tuning a little bit and found them all to be extremely uninteresting for me. I mean, they were country tunings, so I made up my own tuning. I’ve used the same principle, which is the first and fourth [strings] are the same notes, and the second and the fifth, and the third and the sixth strings. You know, they are in couples, so they’re octaves apart. There are basically three notes.
Do you know what the notes are?
I’m trying to remember now. No, I can’t. It’s a minor chord with, I’m feeling, a ninth or it might be a seventh.
When you play slide on a standard guitar, do you use regular tuning rather than an open chord?
Yeah, I do.
What kind of a slide do you have?
I use metal chrome slides.
On which finger?
That’s the funny thing. I use it on the middle finger. You know, a lot of slide guitar players would use the trailing finger [the finger behind the slide] to stop any resonance on the strings behind the bottleneck. I actually don’t do that. I control some of that problem with my picking hand, but the rest I actually quite like. I quite like the effect that it gives, a sort of strange ambience.
Why do you play bass on the song “40”?
I played bass there because as that song was recorded in the studio, I played the bass. It seemed like a more interesting approach to make Adam learn the guitar than to make Adam learn my bass parts. So that’s what we did, and it’s worked out very well. He’s come up with his own approach to the guitar parts that I did in the studio. It works out great. But also, I think, it’s a very interesting visual thing to see us changing instruments.
The night I saw you, you played guitar while seated at the piano bench. Do you play them both at the same time?
One hand doing one and the other hand doing the other?
Occasionally I’ll do that, yeah. Obviously there’s a limit to what you can do on the guitar with one hand. I generally hit a chord and leave it to sustain while I do something with my left hand on the piano. And then sometimes I’ll just alternate between the two instruments, play a verse on piano and then go into the guitar for the chorus or something. That’s for “New Year’s Day.” It used to be for a song called “I Fall Down.” It’s for “Unforgettable Fire” as well. That’s when I play both.
What kind of vibrato do you have on the black Strat?
Well, the vibrato is actually through the echo unit. It’s not a separate unit. I use the modulation on the digital delay.
I meant the whammy bar.
Oh, the wham bar. That’s just a standard Fender tremolo.
Sometimes you shake that, and sometimes you shake the neck too.
Yeah. I shake the neck – especially on the Explorer, which doesn’t have a wham bar. Not to get a very exaggerated effect, but just to give it that natural modulation. I mean, if you’ve got an echo on anyway, a slight shift can give you quite a nice sort of sweeping feel.
You seem to change guitars a lot onstage. Do you have different tunings?
It’s not tunings, no. It’s really the sound, because each song seems to suggest to me a different guitar sound. I change for that reason. The tunings that I have strange are the lap steel and this tuning I use for the Tele, which is a very odd one. It’s another one I made up. It’s – you’re gonna laugh – F, A, D, D, G, D, I think is what it is. It’s a kind of odd tuning, but it makes a nice chord. The story is, as I was putting down some guitars on that song “Unforgettable Fire,” I was having a little bit of difficulty coming out with something that I was pleased with, so I just decided as a sort of radical change of approach to just tune the guitar to the notes that seemed right, or seemed interesting. And so that was the tuning that came. It was pure chance, but it does sound a very beautiful chord in relation to the song.
Do you play that with a slide or standard?
I play that with standard and also with E-Bow.
Could you describe your right-hand picking technique?
The only unique or interesting thing about my picking technique is that I use the grip part of the plectrum.
I’ll take your word for it [laughs.] It’s where the pick has got dimples – you know, little dimples to aid your grip. I turn the pick around and I use the dimples to hit the strings. It gives a certain rasping top end when you’re playing, and I always like that.
Do you bend a lot of strings?
Well, I use quite heavy strings, so I don’t bend as much as most guitar players. In fact, quite rarely. I used to more, I think.
How about vibrato with your finger? Do you use that much?
Yeah, I do, especially in any sort of lead sections or sections where I’m playing a high melody.
Do you tend to use more than one finger for the vibrato or just whatever happens to be on the fret?
Really whatever happens to be there [laughs].
Can you offer advice for young players as to how to break out of playing stock solos or patterns?
Yeah. Well, it’s difficult. I think one of the best ways of developing an individual style is to start writing music, to start writing songs, because it was actually in the development of a songwriting sort of style 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 and a lot of influence internal to the band as well as the external thing of groups and people I thought were worth listening to. Being with other musicians is a very healthy thing.
Do you do any playing outside of U2?
Occasionally. I did a project a musician called Jah Wobble, and that was interesting. That also had some German musicians, ex-Can members Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, who were really very interesting musicians. I’m interested in that sort of thing because you’re meeting other guys who have come from different backgrounds and who’d be very stimulating. I’m not so interested in the sort of conventional jamming other people’s materials in clubs and the like, which seems to be a form a relaxation for a lot of guitar players.
What are your goals? Is there anything you hope to accomplish?
Musically, I think we have as a band a kind of image of what the perfect album is, and we’re always striving towards that. I mean, some of the things that are important are obviously innovation, originality. And we’re not interested in a sort of cult music for the chosen few idea. We’re interested in music that has to power to touch everyone. So there’s quite a lot of things incorporated in this music. We’re always getting closer to it, but we probably will never obtain that sort of standard – and, in fact, it’s not really important that we do. It’s the trying that’s important. It’s what is produced as a result of our intent to reach that goal. So I think musically that’s really where we’re going, and who knows? If we ever did make the album, probably we’d stop.
Yeah, I would imagine so.
And then go on to other things?
Would you know it if you made it or could you only realize it in time?
Well, if it was as good as the goal we have, we would probably know it. [Laughs.] It’s almost an impossible standard to attain. It’s like all your favorite groups rolled into one, with none of their faults [laughs].
Do you feel other artists have achieved that?
Do I feel other artists have? Um, in moments. Those moments aren’t really consistent, you know. That’s the funny thing. Like, “Strawberry Fields Forever” might be a peak, or “Born to Run,” or . . . You know, there are other tracks which might be more innovative, but they all have great power. That’s the great thing – power to communicate, power to stimulate.
If somebody wanted to hear the essential Edge guitar tracks up through this latest album, which songs would you suggest?
It’s funny. This album was an experiment in staying clear of the guitar for the most part. I did an awful lot more keyboard and just general atmospheric work on the guitar rather than taking it to the forefront. Of the tracks on the album that display my playing the best, I think “Pride” and “Wire.” “Wire” is interesting because of the new techniques that are being used. I used the damped string with echo and bottleneck – you know, that intro sound. It’s quite an unusual intro guitar sound. A lot of people think it’s keyboards, but it’s actually guitar. That was a thrill for me, because it was such a great sound. I was really pleased with that in the studio. And “Pride,” that song was really transformed with that guitar line, when that came. Again, it’s another use of echo digital delay, and it’s very rhythmic again. But those two were the strongest “Edge as Edge is” guitar playing as it is now. But the next album I’ll probably do something different.
Do you feel your playing is improving?
Yes, I do. I think this record was an important album in that it opened up a lot more for me in the future to do, to explore. I think everybody felt that way about Unforgettable Fire. It seemed to make room for us to explore these new avenues. And we’ve survived it very well – more than War – so far, which is quite incredible, considering, I would say, it’s quite a difficult album to come to terms with immediately. It does take a few listens to really get to know.
I congratulate you coming up with such a different style. It seems you’ve turned limitations into advantages.
Well, that is true of the band generally. I hope that we could continue in that vein. I’m almost scared to do some really serious practice because of what it might do. You know, when I go into the studio, I try and empty my head and my hands of everything before I start playing because I think that’s one way of getting straight through the conscious mind to that sort of subconscious layer where, I think, the true creative spirit lies. So I very rarely practice. I mean, I think I might, just as an experiment, do some serious rehearsal by myself and see what happens.
Do you characteristically hear parts before you find them on the instrument?
Rarely. Actually, my parts come generally out of inspiration that comes from sort of improvisations and accidents and things like that. I think my strength is capitalizing on those, and seeing them when they come out. I have quite a good ear for music, so when I hear something that interests me, I normally stop and work at it, develop it, and bring it to some sort of conclusion. But the original idea very rarely comes before I’ve actually started playing.
Does it bother you that others are now advertising for guitarists who “play like The Edge”?
No, not really. I think they’ve missed the point, actually. Because if there’s anything that’s good about my playing, it’s because I’m me, I’m different. And if somebody who is different, again, is trying to sound the same, then they really haven’t understood me very well. Really what I’d be more interested in is what people can do. I’m more interested, in a sense, in what Joe Blokes down the road in his garage band is doing than, say, what the new Jeff Beck album is like. Not that I don’t respect Jeff Beck – he’s an incredible musician – but I think we’ve seen what he can do, and it’s very good. But there’s a lot of guitar players out there that we haven’t seen what they can do. A certain amount of that is because they’re too busy trying to be Jeff Beck, but whatever. I’m very interested in unheard-of guitar players and their approaches.
Have you run across anyone you’re excited about?
Recently? Let me think. The guy from the Smiths [Johnny Marr] is interesting. I think he’s doing some very good things at the moment. I’m sort of reserving judgment ultimately – I’m not sure about that first album. I haven’t heard the second album yet, but he is a very interesting player.
Is there anything else you’d care to cover?
No, I think that’s really it.
I guess the only other question I have is the origin of your name.
The Edge? That came as a nickname. It was something that was a part of our small social circle as kids knocking around the streets, as 16- and 17-year-olds do. People were given nicknames. They were generally what we would describe in Ireland as “slags,” or they were good-humored jibes. So “The Edge” was originally supposed to be kind of a caricature of my appearance. And the same with Bono – that was another nickname that came as a result of how he looked. So it was kind of a unique and very private starting point, but the nicknames stuck, and so we felt when we became a group that it was like breaking down the first barrier to our audience, so we kept them on.
Thanks a million, Edge. And I have to say, U2’s recent concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco was one of the most moving shows I’ve seen.
Oh, that is high praise.
It felt like you were giving to the audience and it all became one, especially when you pulled the guy onstage and had him play “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
Yeah! [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s something we haven’t done for ages. It has such power when that happens.
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