Often misunderstood and regularly underutilized, the talk box is a rare hybrid of a guitar effect that for many remains a mystery. The blend of your favorite misheard lyric and psychedelic guitar riff, only a brave few have succeeded in harnessing the talk box as an item in their guitar rigs and hit records. Here’s a bit of backstory on where the effect started and a top-three rundown of my list of favorite songs featuring the talk box.
Roadshow Ventriloquism: Where it all started…
While the talk box would not register in the history of rock until some iconic uses by the likes of Joe Walsh and Peter Frampton (more on that in a minute), a proto-form of the effect originated decades earlier as a gimmick in a pedal steel show by Alvino Rey in 1939. Part of the show featured a talking guitar—literally a puppet of sorts, whose sounds and words were meant to be a blend of an audible human voice and the tonal character of Rey’s playing. Now here’s the really old school part: to get the vocal sound Rey ran a specially designed microphone for mix and modulation backstage onto his wife’s throat! Now that’s analog at its finest! The result was a “singing guitar.”
Fast-forward a few years and a few other related innovations along the way—like the 1939 Sonovox—and eventually you find items like “The Bag” by Kustom Electronics (1969) and the pivotal Heil Talk Box (1973) that featured on some landmark songs of the 1970s.
Joe Walsh in “Rocky Mountain Way”
Joe Walsh is arguably one of the earliest to take the sound of the Heil Talk Box into classic rock. In a 2014 interview with The Hub, Heil recalls hearing Walsh originally playing “Rocky Mountain Way” using an 8-inch speaker and a funnel to manipulate the sound. To kick things up a notch he recalls, “We grabbed a 250-watt JBL, built a low-pass filter, got all the plumbing together, and voila—the Talk Box. That's how it started. After that tour, everybody's going nuts!” Not only did the sound catalyze the creation of a new item of gear, it also catapulted Walsh’s 1973 hit onto the Billboard Top Forty for a solid fifteen consecutive weeks.
Peter Frampton in “Show Me the Way” and “Do You Feel Like We Do”
While Walsh was first to market, Frampton is arguably the most prolific purveyor of the classic rock talk box. In short, the success and singles of Frampton (1975) and Frampton Comes Alive (1976) made him synonymous with the sound. The recurring talk box riff on “Show Me the Way” is an ear bug of the best kind, while the audible spoken riff of “Do You Feel Like We Do” was not only shaped by the effect, the whole name of the song shifted because of it. While the song is listed on the album under that title, the lyrics are on record as being “Do you feel like I do” in the first stretch of the song. Yet it’s on the live album that just after the keyboard solo, when Frampton steps up to the mic and jams through a talk box solo that he can be heard saying “Do you feel like we do.” This line/riff persists (among other phrases!) throughout an epic seven minute guitar solo.
Here again, the item of choice in Frampton’s rig as early as 1974 was an early model by Bob Heil. Eventually this resume resulted in Frampton’s marketing his own signature talk box effect. The name? Aptly, “The Framptone.”
Dave Grohl in “Generator”
It would be fair to say that the talk box fell out of use for a few decades, making the odd appearance here and there but rarely enough to match its glory days in the mid-1970s. Yet in at least one song, the post-grunge era allowed for a surprise encore performance.
Following the tight turnaround from his days in Nirvana, Dave Grohl set to recreating his sound and persona as the front man of Foo Fighters. In short order the band made a mark with their 1995 self-titled album release and then really hit their stride with The Colour and the Shape in 1997, which remains the band’s most successful album to date. A tough act to follow. Keeping to the new-album-every-two-years philosophy, 1999 saw the release of There’s Nothing Left To Lose, which included the hit single “Learn to Fly.” While easily overlook in the Foo’s discography, this album has some hidden gems. My personal favorite? “Generator.” The song wastes no time getting to the talk box. First sound, first riff, first lyric, right out of the gates it’s Grohl rocking the guitar with his face wrapped around an open pipe running down into a Dunlop Heil HT1.
Whatever rig you’re playing today, enjoy your #RiffCitySunday!