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Retro Guitar Effects: Meet the Sonovox, Grandfather of the Talk Box

A talk box that predates 'Frampton Comes Alive' by more than 35 years.

We’ve all heard the talk box, the guitar effect that allows you to sing through your instrument by using a tube inserted in your mouth.

Peter Frampton is most famous for his “wah wah wah” solo on “Show Me the Way,” along with Joe Walsh, Bon Jovi, Pete Drake and a host of others. The effect was introduced in the late Sixties by Kustom. Further research digs up an even earlier form of the effect that was used on TV and in movies.

In 1939, more than 35 years before Frampton Comes Alive was released, a steel guitarist named Alvino Rey invented a talking guitar by wiring a pilot’s carbon microphone in reverse (thus becoming a speaker) and placing it on his throat. The sound vibrations of the amplified steel guitar turned his entire head into a resonator, allowing him to mouth the words into a microphone.

Here’s Rey in 1944, using the effect offstage to give voice to “Stringy the Talking Guitar” puppet.

Hollywood had used a similar effect called the Sonovox in the Forties. Invented by Gilbert Wright in 1939, the Sonovox used small loudspeakers attached to the performer's throat. The effect makes an appearance in the 1940 film You'll Find Out starring Kay Kyser and his orchestra.

The most famous use of the Sonovox was in the voice of Casey Junior the Train from the Walt Disney movie Dumbo. You can hear “I think I can” come out of his stack around the 18-second mark:

  • And here’s a vintage Disney newsreel showing exactly how the train sounds were made.

All of this just gets me in a DIY spirit. I think I need to create some throat-attached speakers for my own version of the Sonovox. If you’ve ever tried this, send me details for an upcoming article. Email me at shanespeal@yahoo.com.

Shane Speal is the curator of the Cigar Box Guitar Museum inside Speal’s Tavern in New Alexandria, Pennsylvania. For more information, visit ShaneSpeal.com and PoorMansGuitar.com

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