U2's The Edge discusses his approach to gear, songwriting and solos on The Joshua Tree in this classic 1987 Guitar World interview

The Edge of U2
(Image credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Here's our first interview with U2's The Edge, from the July 1987 issue of Guitar World. The original story by Joe Bosso ran with the headline, “The Leading Edge: U2's Minimal Guitarist Makes It Seem So Easy, But That's Only Because Maximal Thought Went Into It”.

Illusionism is an art form most often associated with the visual.

But if artists like Magritte, Houdini and Spielberg are the grand masters of optical trickery, then in the world of popular music, U2's The Edge must surely reign in the court of audio sleight-of-hand. Simply put, it takes a creative mind to play the guitar in a new way; but a wizard to fake out the instrument itself.

The accomplishments of U2 and The Edge during the past seven years could be the basis for a success scenario that any band of young hopefuls could follow. Yet they are not content to simply issue Top Ten records every other year and fill concert arenas. That's too easy a goal for a group of musicians that has challenged every cliche in the rock 'n' roll book and managed to take with them a still-growing retinue of followers.

It's harder than it looks, but The Edge's less-is-more approach to the guitar and the band's hungry scope have paid off. In sheer numbers (fans and hero worship) Springsteen is now the only comparison applicable, albeit an unfair one.

Both U2 and Springsteen would argue that comparison is not the nature of their work; this is true, but try to think of other artists who can draw on their influences – increasingly more American, in both cases – distill them and successfully make them coalesce into something more necessary, ethereal and majestic.

A fair amount of determination and blind faith is required to paint a canvas so broad and to reject the rock 'n' roll machine simultaneously. With the recent release of the Daniel Lanois / Brian Eno-produced The Joshua Tree, U2 once again throw caution to the winds and let the pieces fall where they will.

U2's songs, lately lamenting drug addiction in America, isolation, the desert and just about every nuance of the human condition debunk the immature illusion of what rock songs are supposed to concern. The notion that bands must still pen odes to hot babes is one that the Irish quartet negated from the beginning. 

The Edge's role in this passion play is as cataclysmic as Bono's lyrics in that, while coaxing never-before-heard-of guitar sounds from his Vox amp, he does far more for the good of the instrument-and music in general-and makes it appear so simple. Almost like magic.

Born David Evans to Welsh parents (his father, Garvin, moved the family to Ireland), Edge took up the guitar as a teenager. Reports regarding his nickname vary: his demeanor, possibly – some claim it's the shape of his head – but it's one he sticks by (unlike Bono, who has quietly stopped listing his surname as “Vox”). 

Attempts at formal practice proved limiting, and so, fueled by the music of Television and the Patti Smith Group, The Edge forged ahead with his then-naïve approach to the guitar.

By the time the young Evans found himself in the same rehearsal room with Bono (also somewhat of a guitarist), Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, his signature sound on the six strings was starting to jell.

You can do the same things over and over every day and eventually you're sounding like everybody else. What I try to do – sometimes with great success, sometimes not – is to challenge myself by creating a new set of tools to work with

“I suppose at that time I knew some things,” Edge begins. “But I wasn't too keen on it. I guess I was pretty fast when I started, but before long I started messing about and trying to see what I could come up with.”

Because of the young band's inexperience (only Clayton had played bass previously in a group context), cover tunes proved to be a problem they were forced to confront by writing their own material The Edge used this period in time to hone and perfect-what the world would soon hear.

“From the beginning, I was faced with decisions on how I should apply myself to the guitar. Certain aspects of the instrument were boringly technical, and I guess you could say that I wasn't particularly interested in practicing. 

“You can do the same things over and over every day and eventually you're sounding like everybody else. What I try to do – sometimes with great success, sometimes not – is to challenge myself by creating a new set of tools to work with. Effects played a major part of it.”

Around the time U2 hit the American shores with I Will Follow in 1980, guitarists like Andy Summers and Robert Fripp were changing people's attitudes about effects pedals, making them a necessary color on a musician's palette. 

U2's debut Island album, Boy, bathed in an echoey, chorused shimmer, was a perfect marriage between producer Steve Lillywhite and the young band; the sound was galvanizing, rousing and a catharsis for Edge and players everywhere perplexed by the importance placed on fretboard gymnastics.

“My whole thing with effects is to get what I can out of them but be simple. I will never play without them because they're too much a part of what I do as a player. I rely on being creative with sound. 

“But I think simplicity, rather than the multitude of possibilities which is certainly at my disposal through various processors, is where it's at. I think you can get so bogged down that by the end of the day you've wasted all your time.”

Through a succession of Lillywhite helmed outings, The Edge continued to carve a niche for himself in the annals of guitardom, though increasingly he turned to keyboards for new and greater stimuli, the treatments of which can best be heard on the 1983 hit, New Year's Day.

That cut, and others from the same fabric, spun themselves into War, which was about as angry and bold a statement that anybody could ever hope to make. Finding them-selves suddenly thrust into headlining status stateside, U2 went after their new audience like tigers unleashed; The Edge, in particular, sliced his way through the new numbers, and on older material like The Electric Company and Out Of Control, he sharpened his razor-like attack to a zenith point this side of dangerous.

I'm kind of tired of options, and I embrace limitations now

However, by the next year, when U2 convened in both Dublin's Windmill Lane Studios and Slane Castle for the Unforgettable Fire sessions, Edge surmised that a change in sonic landscapes was in order.

“Yeah, I did alter with things a bit,” he allows. “We all felt it was time for a bit of mischievous reappraisal of what our sound had become. The sound we already had was established, and it was something that we could easily fall back on, I suppose. We were aware that tampering with it was tantamount to sacrilege to some devotees of the band, but we were unashamed of our experimentations. It was time to move on.”

Moving on meant a greater emphasis on keyboard textures, while Edge and Brian Eno pulled out all the stops guitar-wise. On songs like Wire, a frenetic heart-attack-inducing rampage, Edge applied felt tape to the bridge of his guitar, then massively delayed the signal. 

In general, though, the emphasis of the Unforgettable Fire was on moody surrealism, lows without the highs. For a band principally known for its anthems, it was a gamble; the pay-off was a songwriting confidence that carried through to The Joshua Tree.

“In between the two albums,” The Edge explains, “I grew tired of options. I was doing strange things on Unforgettable Fire that I needn't repeat musically. Things go in cycles. I was fascinated with keyboards, the DX7, treatments, and it led to a new avenue for us. 

“But now I'm kind of tired of options, and I kind of embrace limitations now. On this new record, I think we've taken the idea of limitations and used them as a new form of inspiration.”

For The Edge, inspiration comes in myriad manners. But whether they be cosmic or electronic, all appear to be openly entertained and attempted in his quest for quality songmanship.

"What a song is is a subjective thing. There's no one real definition for it. Some of our best songs were written on a one string guitar. I think the surface impression of the new album could throw people a bit. 

“A lot of the lyrics are undersides to things, and they're harsh – we're exploring some very dark things. My worry is that it all might be too dark for some people. But I've distanced myself from it all, and I think we put the important ingredients of hope in each song.

“Take Bullet The Blue Sky, for example, which is rooted in America, musically and lyrically We were aiming for some of our feelings of the States, many of which are diametrically opposite. 

“That song was inspired by a trip Bono had made to EI Salvador and Nicaragua, but carried over to America as an apocalyptic look at things, the urban side to much of New York City From a guitar point of view, the sort of references I was drawing on were Hendrix and the blues, my listening to Willie Dixon and some old country and blues people like Archie Edwards. It was a watershed, so to speak.”

I try to remain pretty conservative, in a sense. I mistrust new devices unless they're pretty impressive

Blues in a U2 song? The Joshua Tree finds Bono and The Edge indulging their recent American roots leanings in some startling applications. While he is quick to stress that the band won't forsake their commitment to hard-driving rock 'n' roll, Edge does point out that he is on the lookout for different forms of musical expression, the spaces that separate them becoming smaller all the time.

“It's not like I've become a blues fanatic overnight,” he laughs. “It's not that I know much about it at all, really, I'm still delving. But I see music really carrying over. Blues and folk. There's a huge similarity to Irish folk music and American styles. It's what you do in that context, and as a guitarist, that's what I'm searching for.

“Like using slide, for example. I've done it before, but never like this. Bullet was that kind of song. The set of images and emotions that it is, well, it's not exactly 'tra la la champagne for two on Park Avenue'. So I tried to use the guitar as a form of exorcism, almost, an explosive array of colors to illustrate some kind of strange painting.”

A sampling of cuts on The Joshua Tree highlights a band approaching a songwriting stratosphere that knows no peak. To complement such material, Edge found that, despite his desire to keep things simple, there still was a need for some new guitar tools.

“I try to remain pretty conservative, in a sense. I mistrust new devices unless they're pretty impressive. On With Or Without You, though, I'm playing a Fender Stratocaster which I've modified to be used for a new device called the Infinite Guitar. It's not really produced, as such, it's an invention of a friend of mine named Michael Brooks, who I collaborated with on the Captive soundtrack.

"It does something similar to what an EBow does but with a great deal more subtlety, and generally it's more useful than an EBow, which is either on or off – usually a wild sustain and then nothing, you know? With the Infinite, it's all different.

"The Infinite gives you great control, so you get all the highs, lows and midpoints. The EBow, of course, would tie up your right hand, so unless you're an Indian rubber man there's only so much you can do. 

“The Infinite is all electric, so it actually leaves your right hand free and you can choose to either pluck the strings where you want, or you can just fret the string. There is a bit of technique involved, though, because it'll go from nothing into sustain if you don't dampen certain strings down. 

“I'd like to take it on tour with me, but I haven't finalized anything yet. If I can make it roadworthy I will, if not, then I'll try to adapt the EBow to give me the proper effect.”

From his earliest days, which saw him slinging Gibson Explorers, to his current Strat leanings, The Edge has always viewed the guitar in an unorthodox manner. Be it the way he holds his pick (upside down) to his attack, it's all part of a blissfully blind process by which the guitarist summons the unknown. New equipment fits into the picture, but only if The Edge can find something to do with it that hasn't been done before.

I'm interested in abusing technology

“I'm interested in abusing technology,” he chuckles. “There's a revolutionary new guitar called a Bond Electric Light, which is a very finely crafted guitar without proper frets. Instead it has little serrations. 

“I tried to incorporate it into my playing armory and I found that it wasn't working, until I discovered the things you can do if you really sort of abused it! I got fantastic results. Like the sort of heavy fuzz guitar at the end of One Tree Hill, and the last three tracks on the middle of side two – that sound is from the Bond.

“It's an English guitar. I don't know if they're still made [Editor's Note: They're not], but I got it three or four years ago. Naturally, with us, we try to approach anything without preconceptions, we just control the room without the windows. Now, this Bond guitar, it wasn't meant to do what I do to it. Its neck is some kind of plastic, so it's more flexible than most wooden necks.

"I discovered that I could bend the neck so that the strings started to vibrate on the fretboard as I played, and-the guitar having no frets – it created a different kind of effect. It was an attempt to sound obnoxious. 

“You know, you can wind up a Marshall, and it starts to sound better the higher you go. Well, this was a transistor amp and the sound was compressed to the hilt. I had it very loud and it just kind of had that edge of a sound that you don't normally get. People complained bitterly about it.”

[L-R] Bono and The Edge of U2

(Image credit: Nigel Wright /Mirrorpix/Getty Images))

Coaxing pained squalls from the speakers does play a large part of Edge's sound these days, but on the other end of the aural spectrum he does, and always has, held the function of electrified acoustics in the highest regard. In much the same way that the Beatles relied on acoustics during their Rubber Soul and Revolver period, Edge has literally saturated The Joshua Tree with the lush, warm tones of the hollow-body.

“We've always used acoustics. The Washburn acoustic I have is one of my favorite guitars – live, I use it a lot. You know, you always get these run-off instruments. I don't know if the other versions of this guitar are particularly great, but this one is the only one I've come across, it's so musical. 

“That's how I really judge the quality of an instrument, it's how I find myself playing on it, whether I'm inspired by it, if I can just pick it up and produce music. The Washburn is one of those guitars that the minute I pick it up it's a natural thing.

“I also use a new Yamaha guitar that I've recently been given called an AE2000, which is a big, almost-jazz guitar in style, the big cello wide-body, single-cutaway and F-holes. It uses really tough, big gauge flatwound strings and it sounds sort of classical. I fell in love with it.”

Though The Edge's work as a rhythm guitarist stands as some of the finest recorded (evidenced in the stunning Pride (In The Name Of Love) and Two Hearts Beat As One), the realm of the solo is one that he does hold some reticence about. 

I don't think we intended to create an album of 45s, but each song was complete and didn't need that much

When he does unleash obvious solo passages, they're firecrackers like New Year's Day or Gloria, characterized by quarter-note delay and a preponderance of snarling bass notes.

Lately, Edge has been readdressing the need for the solo spotlight, The Joshua Tree containing fewer lead guitar breaks than ever (a notable exception being the jarring, Sergio Leone excursion that graces In God's Country). As far as solos are concerned, it's an area in which The Edge remains happily egoless.

“The solo for In God's Country is a pretty tricky one to talk about. The Sergio Leone reference is a fascinating one because I'm a fan. The end of the song has a new kind of rhythm solo guitar thing mixed in with a new technique I'm working on. So maybe the solo comes through because it's so Duane Eddy-ized. 

“Again, it's the AE2000 sound, sort of country, early rock 'n' roll. The idea that this song would have a broad unashamed overdub inclusion rather than it being part of the original take, as a sort of splash of primary color. “It goes in with serving the songs on this record in a way that, in the past, we felt no such obligation.

“I don't think we intended to create an album of 45s, but each song was complete and didn't need that much. Now, on a song like New Year's Day, it was perfectly right to put a solo in because it fit in with the concept of War

“On this record, I think solos would only have been permitted had they worked within the context of the song itself; there are some, but I've been moving against solos because I didn't feel the need to play any.”

Coinciding with Edge's team-player instincts is his insistence that, although he is generally regarded as the principal guitarist in U2, he champions the contributions that Bono provides on his occasional forays with the six strings.

“I never set out to be the only guitar player. When we started, Bono played quite a bit. His playing is... well, I don't know. See, our styles are so different, there's never a conflict. Bono's a field player, nothing really amazing – I'm nothing amazing, either. 

“The whole point is that, whatever you're going to do, do it with flair. Bono is very much like Neil Young in that he turns in some incredible guitar things. Danny [Lanois] really loves his playing. We all really like it. 

“There was some important stuff that he did on Exit and Mothers Of The Disappeared. Some of the things he did on the end of With Or Without You we didn't put in the mix because the arrangement was shorter on the final tracks, but it was great stuff.”

Music is such a great communicator. It breaks down linguistic barriers, cultural barriers, it basically reaches out. That's when rock 'n' roll succeeds, and that's what virtuosity is all about

The influence that The Edge has had on young players worldwide could probably account for the great number of delay units sold during the past five years. Aware of the effect his playing has had on aspiring guitarists, The Edge is equally watchful to guitar scenes he might not necessarily be a part of, like heavy metal.

"It's a difficult world and I wouldn't presume to condemn or sort of say that it's not valid. It's just something I'm not interested in. I mean, someone has to be the fastest. Fair enough. Music to me is a whole creative world of possibilities. 

“Pure dexterity or technique is such a myopic view of what music is all about – just too rigid. Technique, to me, is knowing enough and being able to do enough to play what you want. I think all my favorite musicians are probably similar to me in that way.

“I'm not a fan of the million-miles-an-hour players. I'm more into Keith Richards or Jeff Beck. See, music is such a great communicator. It breaks down linguistic barriers, cultural barriers, it basically reaches out. That's when rock 'n' roll succeeds, and that's what virtuosity is all about. If you are great and amazingly talented, it's something else.

“I'm not saying it wouldn't be great to be a really fast player, sometimes that kind of riff can be really great, but it can be a cul-de-sac, very limiting. It's not such a high priority.”

One immediate priority is the current world tour, which will see U2 playing to perhaps one of the largest collective audiences that a rock band has ever entertained.

The Edge's choice of guitars is certainly not among the most elaborate ever assembled – he doesn't view himself as much of a collector – but it might be the most essential. You won't find any custom-made jobs contoured in girlie shapes, nor do The Edge's axes light up in the dark. Reliability and sound quality are Edge's prime concerns.

“In the beginning I was interested in Gibsons because I used a lot of high treble chords – they had a fatter treble sound. Fenders I always thought were a bit thin when concentrating on those highs. Recently that's changed because I've been getting into some other things. I've been getting into Stratocasters a lot.

Somehow I've always subscribed to the idea of a mono amp, no matter if I'm playing Wembley Stadium or wherever

“Again, I try to keep things simple. Guitars haven't been improving. Quite the opposite, they've been losing character and getting more homogenized in sound and feel. So generally I steer towards older designs and styles.

“I use Superwound strings on all my guitars. I think standardization is very important in that department – to know where you stand. I vary the gauges from guitar to guitar, usually light to medium. I have an arrangement with Superwound that allows me to buy the strings at a good price.”

Unlike most successful bands, the U2 stage set has always been the embodiment of minimalism, and this year should remain no different. Edge feels that the equipment set-up should complement the visual presentation of the band.

“I've never been tempted towards stacks of Marshalls. What I have is my vintage Vox AC30, which is my favorite amp. I'm terrified to bring it on the road this time. I've used it pretty exclusively for what, four major world tours. I'm going to have to give it up eventually, but for now, it's still going strong. 

“So I'll bring that, probably, and a Boogie as a back-up. I've been getting into transistor amps, as well, like the Roland JC-120, which is a great amplifier. And I've also acquired an old Fender Pro Reverb combo. It's real delicate. 

“What I've been finding is that the old Fenders have this beautifully mellow distortion to them, the tubes have been worked just so, they're nice and clear.

“For a while I was toying with stereo amplifiers onstage, but that became too much of a headache. I know a lot of players have a dry amp and then have the effects-out from another amplifier. Somehow I've always subscribed to the idea of a mono amp, no matter if I'm playing Wembley Stadium or wherever.

“Keyboards too, which I try to keep spare on. I'll probably have a piano, a Yamaha, the new MIDI one, and, of course, the DX7. I've been messing with the idea of sampling keyboards, but I have no real illusions about them.”

Touring as heavily as U2 does keeps the band away from their homes much of the time. All four members continue to live in Ireland and show no signs of relocating. 

When not on the road, The Edge leads a quiet home life with his wife, Aislinn, and their two daughters, Hollie, two; and Arrin, one. But when the road beckons The Edge remains excited about the prospect of America.

“It's such a great place. You have such diversity, such contrast. Politically you have things from the CIA to George Jackson, Black Panthers to Marxists. Musically you have from the weirdest kind of New York nightlife band all the way to 39 Special – I mean, 38 Special!

The thing about touring, and about being in U2, is that it's a hell of a lot of hard work

“When we were an opening band, the J. Geils Band was a good choice for us. We wanted to see how we'd do in arenas, so we were on for 11 shows with them or so. At like the first show in Phoenix, the promoter came to the dressing room and said, 'Look guys, Phoenix doesn't have a reputation for accepting opening bands, so if you get bottled, well...' So we just went out there.

“I remember the J. Geils Band had a banner that they'd raise before the show, it was like this big fist, so they'd raise it and the crowd would go crazy, but the thing is that we went on as they were doing it and I think at first the crowd thought we were the J. Geils Band! 

“We started playing without letting them realize their mistake and wouldn't let them off the hook for the duration of our set. So we ended up going down pretty well. Lots of other bands would probably throw us off the tour, but they were great to us.

“The thing about touring, and about being in U2, is that it's a hell of a lot of hard work. I mean, it's a fair amount of luck involved in making it, as we did, but it's work all the time, year round. This band is special, and it's been a real privilege to be in it.”

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.