“I try to avoid ‘guitar geek’ stuff,” the Edge tells Rolling Stone earnestly. “But now that I’ve begun letting my inner geek come out, I have to say, I love all this shit. I’m fascinated by the science of it all.”
It’s late March, and the guitarist is in Los Angeles at a studio where he is working on the beginning stages of U2‘s next record and experimenting with two new instruments: Fender’s the Edge Signature Stratocaster – his first-ever custom instrument – and the company’s signature-series Edge Deluxe amplifier. “I took the opportunity to test prototypes of the guitar and amp on the road last year and give them a pretty intense workout,” he says. “I was also able to compare the guitar to my original Seventies Strat that got me started with the instrument and the amp that kickstarted a new sound for me, with the song ‘Vertigo.’ I gave Fender my feedback, and we were able to dial in every little nuance of the sound.”
Working with the company turned out to be an experience that would change the Edge’s perspective on instruments he’s known intimately for nearly 40 years. Although he still plays several different guitars – Gibson Explorers and Les Pauls, Fender Telecasters, Gretsch’s Chet Atkins model, among many others – the Stratocaster has long been the secret weapon behind the sparkling highs in some of U2’s biggest hits, including “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Building one from scratch, as well as attempting to replicate a nearly 60-year-old amp, helped the Edge to realize why his favorite instruments sound the way they do.
As the guitar and amp begin populating guitar stores, the Edge spoke with Rolling Stone for an in-depth interview about everything he learned from the process and why, after nearly four decades, he keeps returning to the Fender Stratocaster.
Was your first electric guitar a Strat?
It was the first guitar I owned that wasn’t a cheap Japanese copy of another guitar [laughs]. It was the first proper, professional-grade guitar I ever bought.
When did you buy it?
I bought it with my brother in, like, 1979. In those days, we would pool what money we had. And since I was in a band, and we were obviously playing at home together, it seemed like, “OK, we’ll share the amp, we’ll share the guitar, and we’ll figure it out.” So when U2 was formed, the first few shows that we did, opening for other bands, I was playing a Sunburst Strat that was probably built in the mid-Seventies. When my brother went to college – sort of the end of that era of the band – we split the gear. I took the amp; he took the guitar. He still has the first Strat that we bought.
What drew you to Strats in the first place?
One of the reasons is I was a big fan of Rory Gallagher. He was the Irish guitar player who was the most interesting player of that era. And I saw him live a few times, and I was really inspired by his playing and the sound he made. And so that, you know, made it the obvious first guitar.
You’ve also played a Gibson Explorer since the early days.
As our music developed and my songwriting and playing developed, I tried to find something that was a little different, like, a step away from that tone that I loved. So we went for the first album with the Explorer. But I really missed the Strat, so when we got a little money together – when we got our record deal – the first chance I got I bought my black Strat, which I still have.
That was a Stratocaster built in 1973. Was it a standard-issue Fender?
It has some interesting features: the bridge is a brass bridge, not like the standard Fender bridge, and again that adds some resonance. It has a little more sustain, a little more girth to the tone. And I put a DeMarzio pickup in, which gets that tone. In addition to my Fender amp, I play to a Vox, which is a very bright amp, so it gives a little more substance.
“I rely on sound to get inspired.”
You’ve said that certain instruments drive your creativity. Was that true in this case?
Yeah. I’m not a theoretical musician or a theoretical writer. I’m a hands-on guy who pursues music in a naïve way. I just love when I’m carried away by the sounds that are happening. And I draw inspiration so much from sonics, I’m a much better guitar player when shit is sounding good. If the sound isn’t great, I’m only operating on 50 percent of potential. It’s just something that raises my game. So when I’m working with a great sound, I’ll find I’m doing stuff I could never imagine otherwise to fill up the sound. It’s, like, a way for me to get free and get lost in the music. So I rely on sound, really in that sense, to get inspired.
When I think of you playing a Stratocaster, the first thing that comes to mind is The Joshua Tree.
Yeah, I absolutely was loving the flexibility of the instrument at the time. From “Bullet the Blue Sky,” which is just so intense and heavy-sounding, to the delicacies of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” it’s so versatile. I think of all electric guitars it probably has the most versatility.
I noticed you played the opening arpeggio of “Streets” in the video above.
Yeah. And when you try that with a different instrument, those notes just don’t ring out in that way. That is just the way the Strat responds.
You bought your first Strat nearly 40 years ago, and now you’ve made your first custom guitar. Why now?
Well, I started this relationship with Fender, and for the first time I guess it felt like a natural thing to do. It was just born out of my enthusiasm for the instrument and for the company. They made it a lot of fun to collaborate with them and explore ideas. It just seemed like a really natural thing to take all the knowledge that I’ve amassed over years about the Strat and refine that into an instrument that they could produce. Selfishly, it just really helps me because I don’t have to be so paranoid about my Seventies Strat getting damaged or going missing. Now I can literally take one off the shelf and be confident it’s going to work for me.
When you began working with Fender, what did you ask for specifically?
It was really pretty straightforward with both the guitar and the amp, like, I have these instruments that I’ve been using for 30 years that I love that have been on every U2 album since I bought them, and some of our classic songs, every U2 tour. So the throw-down was, “Can we get a guitar that sounds better, that suits these classic songs and is even more true, more pure, more what’s needed?” The classic U2 songs that I play the Strat on are “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Bad” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” I’ve tried those songs over the years with slightly different equipment, as needs and the availability of technology have dictated, but there’s always a sound I’m going for, a sound in my imagination that I’m trying to match, and I have a very subjective, visceral connection with that sound. So we tried to create that.
How did you go about finding that sound?
We did it incrementally. I’m a bit of a scientist myself, so first and foremost, I wanted to find out a bit more about the Strat as an instrument, the permutations of its design. And I was interested to find out that there’s more than one standard build to a Strat. And the things that vary are the wood, the pickups, the bridge, those things.
There were certain things that I’ve definitely always liked in a Strat – like the neck dimension, and the slightly larger headstock of the Seventies instrument, which gives it a little more resonance – but I ended up learning a lot about the little nuances, how everything down to what the bridge is made of impacts the sound. Before I got into this stuff, I thought that the sound must come from the pickups and basically the size of string. I thought, “It’s electric. How could wood, bridge material, those things, have an impact on what is an electrical device?” But news is they do hugely.
What did you learn about first?
What was new to me was the difference that the wood used in the body would have on the tone of the instrument. They use two different woods: alder and ash.
What did you discover when you looked into those woods?
It was a real eye-opener. I researched my instruments from the Seventies, and I found out that both of my favorite ones have alder bodies. But I wondered if that could be coincidental. So Fender built a couple Strats with ash bodies for me, and they also built them with a maple fretboard, which is what I’d been used to, and they did a couple with a rosewood fretboard, just to see exactly what difference it would make. I found it fascinating, because there was a clear and distinct difference in each case. This was not just a cosmetic thing; this actually translated into tonal variation.
Did you test-drive the different combos?
Yeah, I tried some of them on the road, and they sounded great. I used the ash body–rosewood fretboard one on “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or whatever, but when it came to the classic sound that I go for with a Strat, I ended up back with the alder body and the maple neck. The alder body gives a weight and density to the sound, and the maple fretboard gives it a top-end shine, a brilliance to the sound. So the difference, really, for me was how the highs and lows were added when you have the maple fretboard and the alder body. And that, the top end is really crucial for songs like “Pride” and “Streets.” It really makes those notes ring out in a way that is very unique.
After you found the right woods, what was the next step?
Finding the exact, right pickup configuration. Weirdly enough, over the years I’ve had various different Strats and I’ve noticed how the pickup poles have, at various, different stages in the development of the guitar, been at different heights. That’s because of the strings.
The poles are what pick up the sound in Strat pickups. How have strings affected how they work?
In the early days, most guitar players were using a wound third-string, which meant that the core of that string was the thinnest of all strings. It was thinner than the high E. Consequently, the output of that string is very low. So in a lot of early Strats, you’ll find the pickup pole heights take account of this, so the third string pole is distinctly higher than the first, second or fourth string. They all vary slightly. And then you get to the Seventies, where everyone’s now suddenly using a plain third string, that third pickup pole is lower. They’re all pretty much even. That’s helpful because when you’ve got a plain third string, it has the most natural volume, because its girth is comparable to the core of the low E string. Today, most pickups that Fender produce are contoured to fit exactly the contour of the neck; they’re theoretically equidistant. When I was using those pickups, I found the balance of the strings was just wrong for me, and that’s because the third string was suddenly way louder.
What did you decide worked for you?
The flat level pole positions of the Seventies pickups. They don’t make those anymore, so they had to make them custom.
An unusual thing about your ’73 Strat is that it has a DiMarzio FS-1 pickup in the bridge position. Did you mod that out yourself?
Yeah. With the amps I was using, the bridge pickup was just too piercing. It was too thin-sounding for me, so I did some research and found the DiMarzio FS-1, and it was just a bigger-sounding pickup. It worked great. Whenever I’ve gotten Strats, I’ve always put one of those in.
“Danny Lanois got jealous because I’d made the live guitar sound better than on the album.”
Your custom Strat has a DiMarzio, too.
Yeah, we got DiMarzio to recreate the pickup that I originally put in the guitar back in 1981. And again, DiMarzio had to make flat-pole pickups, because all of theirs are contoured as well. It’s just the current trend.
It never sounds like you’re playing out of the bridge pickup.
That’s true most of the time, but there are some songs, like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Gloria,” where I used the bridge pickup. I really got into the out-of-phase sound [where the guitar is set between the bridge and middle pickup] from The Unforgettable Fire onwards. Weirdly enough, I think “Pride (In the Name of Love)” was the first song that I really used that out-of-phase pickup position; I didn’t use it on “Bad” or on the album. In rehearsal for the tour, I tried it and it was like, “Wow that’s great. I love it! It’s much better.” So we did the tour.
I remember we did a live version of that and [Unforgettable Fire co-producer] Danny [Lanois] was in the studio listening to the guitar sounds from the show and he was like, “What the fuck, Edge? You sound so much better than the album. What did you do?” [Laughs] Then he got jealous, because the live guitar sound was better than what we got on the album. I said, “I’m sorry I didn’t think of it!” But yeah, it’s definitely better, this [laughs].
You said earlier you liked that you could pick this guitar up in stores and just play it. How easily could someone replicate your sound with this guitar and amp?
It’s interesting. The classic Strat sound I used for “Streets,” “Pride” and “Bad” is actually played through the Vox. But the amp I’m using for a lot of the tougher songs, like “Vertigo” – and I used a Telecaster on that song – is like the Fender. It’s an amp that’s got this incredible weight and midrange. This new custom amp is based on that amp.
How did you come across the Fender amp?
I asked Dallas [Schoo], my guitar tech, for something small I could play in the house, just so I could play and do some demos at home. So he brought this ’57 Deluxe over. And… and I just set it out for a little distortion pedal in line, I started playing and it was like, “Wow, what is this thing?” Unbelievable. I put up a loop of Larry [Mullen, Jr.] playing drums and started playing. Within, like, 20 minutes, I’d basically written the guitar parts and all the ideas for the song that became “Vertigo” later on. Again, it was responding to the sound.
When it came time to tour, Dallas tried to find something that sounded like it, because bringing a ’57 amp on the road, which I have been doing, is a bit scary. These things break and you never know when it will break. It’s a level of jeopardy none of us are comfortable with.
“I couldn’t have imagined the nuances that go into making instruments.”
Is that how your custom amp came to be?
Yeah, we talked to Fender initially about simply copying this amp for me, so I could have an equivalent for the tour. They came back with a couple of prototypes, and one of the things that was different was the speaker. They put in the same one used in Vox AC30s, which I also use. So we got Fender to copy the tonal characteristics of this ’57, and they put in a Celestion alnico speaker, and they did quite a lot of work to actually match the tone. And they came up with this phenomenal amp. We ended up with a great formula. I’ve got a couple of these amps that I use at every night. So I talked to Fender, and they were more than happy to go ahead with that and put it into production. Again, it does mean if I’m really stuck I can get one off the shelves.
It sounds like after everything, you’re looking at your instruments in a new light.
You know, as we were putting the guitar together, I couldn’t have imagined the nuances that go into making them. It’s just in the DNA of the body shape and the neck shape and all those things. The Strat was one of the first solid-body guitars, and they’ve become these classics. They really became these benchmarks. They defined what electric guitar is in so many ways, and so much creativity has gone into finding out what these instruments can do, from Jimi Hendrix onwards. It’s just an amazingly versatile instrument. Whatever was in the water in California where Leo Fender made the first one, they just knocked it out of the park.