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The Edge in 5 Guitars

@U2, March 03, 2018
By: Brian Betteridge

 

If you’ve seen U2 live, you’ve no doubt noticed that The Edge plays a variety of guitars and switches between them regularly throughout the show. You might have also noticed a few steady axes throughout the years, instruments that keep popping up on stage tour after tour. With the Experience + Innocence Tour right around the corner, let’s take a moment to identify some of these guitars and talk about their importance to U2’s iconic sound.

A musician’s guitar is not the only thing that shapes his or her sound. Other elements, like amplifiers, effects pedals, strings, even the material the guitar pick is made of, will affect the sound a guitar makes. In The Edge’s case, the “U2 Sound” is just as much a result of his Vox amplifiers and effects pedals he uses. The guitar plays a role too, of course, but overall it’s more important to the image the guitarist presents; a nice guitar just looks cool. Still, it’s difficult to imagine a song like “Where The Streets Have No Name” having the same impact if played with a Les Paul instead of the Stratocaster. It might sound similar, but attentive fans in the crowd would definitely notice something was “off.”

Before we get into a discussion about The Edge’s most influential guitars, let’s get a few details out of the way. First, I’m not a guitar expert. I don’t play in a band, or write my own music. But I’ve been playing and learning about guitars for over 15 years. I began playing in college on a cheap Johnson acoustic guitar. I had it for just over a year before the neck literally fell off. Now I play guitars made by Fender, Martin and Epiphone. I’ve also learned quite a lot about guitar construction over the years. One day I’d like to build my own instruments.

 

A second detail involves the construction, materials and designs featured in these guitars. There are countless styles and manufacturers, but the original electric guitars were pioneered by Fender and Gibson. Their instruments are still played today and feature the same primary designs, so it’s straightforward to simplify these descriptions into Fender-style and Gibson-style designs. For example, Fender guitars, like the Stratocaster and Telecaster, are made from light woods like alder or ash, and feature a bolt-on neck and single-coil pickups. Pickups are made of six magnetic poles wrapped in copper wire, which use a magnetic field to turn the strings’ vibration into an electrical signal. Single-coil means there is just one set of poles and wire to pick up the string vibration. All together, these design elements create a guitar sound that might be described as bright and trebly, or bell-like and thin. Gibson guitars, on the other hand, are typically the opposite. They are made of mahogany, and the Les Paul models usually have a top made of heavy maple that adds weight and can make the notes ring longer. Les Pauls feature rounded tops and a shorter, angled neck that is glued into the body for a stronger connection. Additionally, Gibson models are known for using “humbucker” pickups, which are basically two single coils together. These pickups produce a heavier, deeper sound. Generally speaking, most guitar designs these days are descendents of these two categories of instruments.

While The Edge has a large number of guitars in the Underworld (the space under the stage where the band’s gear and electronics are stored), he sticks primarily to a few specific models. His collection contains numerous Stratocasters, Telecasters and Les Pauls (and Rickenbackers, and Line-6es, and SGs, and Taylors, and Martins...you get the point). The guitars described below are the most common of the major models he plays regularly on stage with the exception of the one that started it all...


1. Dik Evans’ homemade Flying V

Songs: Unknown

It’s easy to find cheap, beginner guitars these days. Budding players can head off to their local Guitar Center and pick up an electric guitar kit for about $200. This was not the case in the 1970s. The Edge’s first guitars were a cheap, used acoustic and a homemade plank of V-shaped wood made by his brother, Dik, and painted yellow. It was this electric guitar that Dave Evans played in Larry Mullen’s kitchen. Unfortunately, not much is known about the guitar other than some vague descriptions, but as The Edge said in U2 By U2, “it made noise and that was the main thing.” It was only played on that first day in Larry’s kitchen; by the time Feedback made it to the stage for the first time, he had moved on to a knock-off Stratocaster, but it’s his brother’s crude plank of wood that started it all.

2. 1976 Gibson Explorer

Songs: “I Will Follow,” “Out Of Control,” “Beautiful Day”

Chances are, when you think of the Gibson Explorer, The Edge is the first person to come to mind. And while The Edge’s signature guitar tone is most closely associated with Fender Stratocasters, it’s actually his 1976 reissue Explorer that is most responsible for driving that trebly sound. According to an interview in U2 Magazine in the early '80s, The Edge found the low bass strings on the guitar to be too deep and harsh, and gravitated toward the higher notes on the neck. The iconic sounds from songs like “I Will Follow,” “Out Of Control” and “Beautiful Day” are a direct result of that. The Explorer that The Edge plays on stage now is a replica; the original is no longer up to the rigors of touring, but it’s still used for studio recording. 


3. 1973 Fender Stratocaster

Songs: “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “Bad,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”

There are plenty of more recognized and accomplished Strat players than The Edge, but none who have adopted the distinctive Stratocaster sound like he has. His 1973 Fender Stratocaster is instantly recognizable to eagle-eyed fans. It’s black with a maple fretboard. On the surface, it’s just a regular Stratocaster. Anyone can walk into a guitar shop and buy a similar one. But this guitar is the force behind the biggest of U2’s big hits. It’s chiming, bell-like tone cuts through the mix on iconic songs such as “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Bullet The Blue Sky” and “Bad.” It was the star of the show on The Joshua Tree 2017 Tour. It’s not a stretch to say that this is the most important guitar in The Edge’s considerable arsenal. And much like the Explorer, if you want one just like The Edge’s, Fender produces a signature model Stratocaster based on this guitar. Just don’t forget to buy the matching signature amplifier.

4. 1975 Gibson Les Paul Custom

Songs: “New Year’s Day,” “When Love Comes To Town,” “Zoo Station”

Sometimes you can’t make it with just a Stratocaster. Fender’s electric guitars are famous for their ringing treble thanks to their single coil pickups. But like most guitarists, when you want a heavier sound, you reach for something like a Gibson Les Paul. The Edge’s '75 Les Paul is a solid white color that has faded to a light, golden yellow over the years. It’s a distinctive instrument both physically and sonically. There is a good reason why The Edge’s guitar sounds so sinister during songs like “Until The End Of The World” or “Zoo Station;” he’s using a Gibson Les Paul (although the one he uses for “Until The End Of The World” was made in 1983). This guitar also has an interesting story. It was recently auctioned off to raise money for Music Rising, but Gibson surprised The Edge with a brand-new replica, accurate down to the stickers on the back. So when you spot this guitar on tour in 2018, it’s not the original, but it’s so well made that not even The Edge can tell the difference.

5. Gibson J-200 Acoustic

Songs: Almost anything performed acoustically

It’s surprisingly rare to see The Edge with an acoustic guitar in a concert setting, but most of his unplugged moments come courtesy of a bevy of Gibson J-200 Jumbo acoustic guitars. These acoustics are the largest (and loudest) acoustic guitars you can buy. Due to their size, these guitars produce a clear, well-rounded sound that suits The Edge’s playing style. You can also spot these guitars due to their elegant and detailed inlay and decorations. They’re beautiful guitars that sound great, so hopefully we’ll see one on stage in 2018.

So the next time you’re at a U2 concert, pay attention to The Edge’s guitars. Hopefully you can spot these instruments and hear your old favorites in a new light.

(c) @U2/Betteridge, 2018

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