Have you ever heard musicians talk about how their instruments can "speak" to them? Although they probably mean this in a more figurative sense, thanks to a special device, the idea of an instrument speaking can literally come true -- well, almost.
Whether you're a fan of classic rock or not, you've probably heard of some songs in which the artist actually makes a guitar "talk." The technique became popular in the 1970s, thanks largely to Peter Frampton, a rocker who made his mark with the effect. Frampton famously was able to allow his guitar to play decipherable words and sentences, like "Do you feel like I do?" But even some of his fans are unaware of what's really behind this nifty gimmick.
It's not that Frampton is so adept with his guitar-playing fingers that he can make chords and notes sound like human speech. Rather, a clever device called the talk box allows Frampton to serenade his audience though his guitar.
The talk box is not to be confused with other effects devices, such as the wah-wah pedal or vocoder. A wah-wah pedal is another staple of classic rock music, but musicians simply use a foot pedal to make an electric guitar's frequency shift from treble to bass, creating a "wah" sound." And a vocoder is a device that filters and processes a human voice, and spits it out again sounding computerized and robotic. Some also mistake the talk box for Auto-Tune, a technique that has become popular in the past few years, especially in pop music. Auto-Tune is a type of software that can help slightly manipulate a singer's voice to hit the right notes.
The talk box device, on the other hand, takes advantage of the unique qualities of the human mouth and vocal tract and lends them to instruments.
Talk Box Mechanics
The talk box is a surprisingly simple device, but in order to understand how it works, we'll have to appreciate some of the complexities of the human vocal tract. We push air from our lungs through our vocal folds (also called vocal cords) in the larynx. The vocal folds are the things that create an air valve and allow us to vibrate the air, which makes our speech audible. The larynx muscles also control pitch and tone. But it's the mouth, with its tongue, palate, teeth and lips, that helps us form different sounds to create words and complex language.
An instrument, like a guitar, doesn't have lungs to power its sound. Rather, the musician plucks or strums its strings to cause vibrations, which in turn form the sound. What the talk box does is allow the musician to lend his or her mouth to the instrument as well.
To help explain how this is possible, let's go over the mechanics. A talk box, in its simplest form, consists of a horn driver and a plastic tube. You'll even find tutorials on the Internet that can teach you how to make a crude version at home with some materials from the hardware store. A commercial talk box, however, will provide the best sound.
The commercial version will be a small effects box with an input, an output and a long plastic tube. To get the best effect, the setup should include an amplifier and a PA system. The plastic tube, which is connected to the effects box, can be affixed to a microphone stand by clipping or taping it up to the stand and the microphone itself. It's usually arranged so that the the tube is just long enough to let the last several inches protrude from the mic. The guitar should be connected to the amplifier, which in turn connects to the talk box input. The speaker system can then connect to the talk box output.
The guitarist then places the end of the plastic tube halfway into his or her mouth. Thus, the amplified guitar sound is driven directly into the mouth. The mouth's voicings and movements can then actually manipulate and shape the guitar notes and chords. It can be tricky to master, however. If you're trying this at home for the first time, experts recommend starting with "ah," "oh" and "eee" sounds.
History of the Talk Box
The talk box dates back to at least 1939, when big band musician Alvino Rey used an early version. You can actually see Rey perform a slightly bizarre-sounding version of "St. Louis Blues" with "Stringy," the talking steel guitar puppet, in a film clip from the 1940s. By 1964, steel guitarist Pete Drake adopted the talk box for the song "Forever," which turned into a Gold record hit.
In fact, it was Pete Drake who personally exposed Peter Frampton to the talk box device. The two musicians crossed paths during the recording sessions for George Harrison's 1970 work, "All Things Must Pass," Harrison's first solo album after the Beatles broke up. Harrison had asked Drake to lend his legendary steel guitar sound to his album (which you can hear on the track "I Live For You"). A young Frampton was also there to play some uncredited guitar on a few songs. Drake dazzled the other musicians, and especially Frampton, with his talk box sound.
But a few notable musicians were using the talk box before Frampton was able to put his legendary stamp on the device. Stevie Wonder adopted the talk box for his keyboard setup as early as 1972 for a few of his songs, including "Love Having You Around." And rock guitarist Joe Walsh released his classic "Rocky Mountain Way," with its memorable talk box break, in 1973. But these musicians all used their own talk boxes before the devices were commercially made. It was a sound and radio engineer, Bob Heil, who made the first commercialized versions of the talk box. According to Heil, Peter Frampton's girlfriend called the engineer one day asking for one of his original fiberglass talk boxes to give Frampton as a Christmas gift [source: Musician's Friend].
In 1976, Peter Frampton's breakthrough solo album, "Frampton Comes Alive," came out. The popular tracks "Show Me the Way" and "Do You Feel Like We Do" on this album featured his talk box guitar sound, and he forever become synonymous with the effect. Other artists went on to use the talk box, including Guns N' Roses, Aerosmith, Metallica and even the Foo Fighters. Bon Jovi's 1986 hit, "Living on a Prayer," famously features a distinctive talk box effect as well.
Today, despite its slightly dated sound, the charm of the talk box endures and forever holds an honored place in rock history.
How Talk Boxes Work: Author's Note
When Peter Frampton’s classic "Show Me the Way" comes on the radio, I can't help but crank up the volume. But I, like many, had no idea how Frampton was able to manipulate his guitar the way that he did for his distinctive sound. That’s what made this assignment especially fun. The device is surprisingly simple, but still struck me in that I can’t believe how anyone thought it up. I also had no idea that the trick was so old. I'm a fan of Big Band music, but had never heard of Alvino Rey’s "St. Louis Blues" with the talking steel guitar he named "Stringy." Step back in time and take a look at the bizarre clip of this performance that’s available on YouTube. And if you’ve never heard Pete Drake’s “Forever,” this is a charming classic that’s also worth a listen. Although the talk box may never again see the fame it did in the 1970s, its unique sound has cemented a place in rock history as well as in the hearts of rock fans, like this one.
- Ayers, Mike. "Peter Frampton Recalls Origins of His Talking Guitar." Spinner. May 18, 2010. (June 24, 2011) http://www.spinner.com/2010/05/18/peter-frampton-talking-guitar-box-origin/
- Brewster, David M. "Introduction to Guitar Tone & Effects." Hal Leonard Corporation, 2003. (June 24, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=q99-bY3cL8YC
- Brice, Richard. "Music Engineering." Newnes, 2001. (June 24, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=ufVVgLwkcQwC
- Bruck, Matt. "Guitar World Presents Guitar Gear 411." Alfred Music Publishing, 2005. (June 24, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=EcerNc4EC_UC
- Musician's Friend Staff. "Bob Heil: A Living Live-Sound Legend." Musician's Friend. July 27, 2010. (June 24, 2011) http://musicians-friend.hosted.jivesoftware.com/docs/DOC-1796
- McCarron, Brett. "The Talkbox FAQ." BlamePro.com. Last updated July 11, 2010. (June 24, 2011) http://www.blamepro.com/talkbox.htm
- Walsh, Christopher. "The Progression of Effects, From Primative Vocoder to Pervastiv Pitch Fixes." Billboard Magazine. Dec. 30, 200. Vol. 112, No. 53. (June 24, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=ehEEAAAAMBAJ
Talk Boxes: Cheat Sheet
Stuff you need to know:
- A talk box is a device that allows a musician to create words through the sound of an instrument. It is what made Peter Frampton’s famous talking-guitar sound possible.
- It is not the same as Auto-Tune, wah-wah pedal or even a vocoder.
- The talk box is a simple device that drives an instrument’s sound through a tube into a person’s mouth. Movements of the mouth can then manipulate the sound to come out as decipherable words.
- The device dates back to at least the 1930s, when it was used in Big Band music and was later used in a Gold record country music hit in 1964. It finally reached a peak in popularity in the 1970s, when it was used in several rock music hit songs.