A Brief History of the Talking Guitar

On “Thunder Road,” Bruce Springsteen sings “Well, I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk,” and then plays a cool little riff. The only problem is, I can’t understand a single word his guitar is saying. If Springsteen really wanted to make his guitar understood, he would have used a talk box. The unusual guitar effect was really popular in the 1970s, but the basic concept of using your larynx to shape amplified musical tones dates back to the late 1930. Here’s a brief video tour through the history of the talk box.

Alvino Rey “St. Louis Blues”

Along with being a pioneer of the electric guitar and one of the musicians to first play the pedal steel guitar Alvino Rey was the first guy to make a guitar talk. In the 1940s, he experimented with placing a microphone on a singer’s throat and using the performer’s voice box to vocalize the steel guitar’s lines. This clip from the 1944 film Jam Session, showcases Rey and his wife (singer Luise King), giving voice to the disturbing talking guitar Stringy.

Pete Drake “Forever”

Steel guitarist Pete Drake picked up where Alvino Rey left off but he, and fellow steel guitarist Bill West, developed a different way of coming up with the same basic effect. Rather then use a microphone, they invented a way of using a speaker to make his steel guitar sing. “You play the notes on the guitar and it goes through the amplifier,” he once told Doug Green in an interview. (Yes, when he takes off his hat and boots Ranger Doug of Riders in the Sky is a country music historian.) “I have a driver system so that you disconnect the speakers and the sound goes through the driver into a plastic tube. You put the tube in the side of your mouth then form the words with your mouth as you play them. You don’t actually say a word: The guitar is your vocal cords, and your mouth is the amplifier. It’s amplified by a microphone.” Drake released a number of LPs of his Talking Steel Guitar in the 1960s.

Sly and the Family Stone “Sex Machine”

The first commercially available talk box was released by Kustom Electronics in 1969 and it consisted of a speaker driver encased in a bag you slung over your shoulder. Dubbed The Bag, it had a fairly low volume, and it was a bit ungainly to use, so it mostly was used in the studio. Still, it became quite popular and it turned up on tracks by Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, Alvin Lee and Sly and the Family Stone.

Jeff Beck “She’s a Woman”

Here’s a great clip of Jeff Beck using his Bag talk box on a jazz fusiony rendition of “She’s a Woman.” You can see the extra guitar strap holding the effect and why playing with it on stage was sort of a bother.

The Eagles “Rocky Mountain Way”

Kustom Electronics was the first company to successfully market a talk box but Bob Heil was the guy who built one you could easily play on stage. Heil got the idea for his talk box from Joe Walsh, who was using the box Bill West made with Pete Drake. Like The Bag, the West box’s volume was too low to use on stage, although Walsh did put it to great use on his song “Rocky Mountain Way.” Heil came up with a version that worked on stage and a few years later he sold his company to Jim Dunlop, who continues to make talk boxes to Heil’s specs to this day. Dunlop also offers the MXR Talk Box, an updated version of the classic effect that include its own amp and speaker driver, making it much easier to set up and use.

Peter Frampton  “Show Me The Way”

When I was a teenager everyone I knew had a copy of Frampton Comes Alive and during the summer of 1976 the song “Show Me The Way” seemed to be playing everywhere. I was just learning to play guitar when this song was a hit and at the time I couldn’t figure out how Peter Frampton made his guitar make that noise. But I soon learned about the talk box, as did every other guitarist. Interestingly, Frampton first heard the talk box during the Nashville studio sessions for George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. And the guy who introduced him to the device? Steel guitarist Pete Drake.

Aerosmith “Sweet Emotion”

Were the 1970s the decade of the talk box? I wouldn’t go that far but Frampton and Joe Perry of Aerosmith both used talk boxes on hit songs that were released in 1975, so I guess 1975 was the year of the talk box. Singing the phrase “Sweet Emotion” via the talk box sounds like a vocoder, giving the song a weird Kaftwerkian vibe.

David Lee Roth “Yankee Rose”

All of the talking guitar clips so far featured some sort of device that allowed an actual voice to somehow make the guitar speak. But David Lee Roth’s “Yankee Rose” features Steve Vai manipulating the whammy bar and what sounds like a wah-wah pedal to carry on a brief conversation with Roth. Warning: This video features Roth’s almost full moon.

Bonus Clips

Kay Kyser “One Track Mind”

There are no guitars in this clip from the 1940 film You’ll Find Out but it does feature the Sonovox, a device that made other instruments talk and sing. The Sonovox never really found a place in music, but it was used a special sound effect movies when an odd, spooky or mechanical voice was needed. You can hear the Sonovox in Dumbo, The Reluctant Dragon and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, among others.

Here’s a fascinating demo of a gentleman showing us his vintage Kustom Bag.