In Praise of U2’s The Edge: A Guitarist’s Perspective

U2’s The Edge is a class act who has inspired so many. To celebrate his birthday, I discuss why he is my favourite guitarist and address some common misconceptions about his playing.

The Edge, though venerated by so many of us, is a somewhat polarizing figure in the online guitar community. Given that it’s his birthday today, it only seems fitting to devote this next blog post to him, as he’s the musician who most inspired me to pick up my primary instrument. In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll unpack a few common misconceptions about Edge’s playing style, and discuss why he is such an inspiration to me and others.

Delay? A Crutch? Hardly!

When you tell a fellow guitarist that you’re a fan of The Edge, one of two things usually happens:

  1. You enjoy a pleasant conversation about The Edge.
  2. You endure a long lecture on how The Edge apparently “can’t play” guitar because he “lets his delay pedal do all the work.”

The idea that delay somehow “does all the work” for Edge has always been puzzling to me, as it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how rhythmic delay actually works. Guitarists who gravitate towards acrobatics (i.e. shredding, tapping, etc.) might only ever use delay to add a subtle quarter note repeat or two to their solos. They can perhaps be forgiven, as a result, for underestimating the extreme precision required when delay is brought front and centre.

Guitar acrobatics mask errors and sloppiness. Rhythmic delay amplifies errors and sloppiness. Take a song like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as an example. Sounds like a pretty simple song to play, right? Now play it perfectly every night, without ever coming in a little early or a little late, without ever flubbing a single note, because even the smallest mistake with your picking hand is immediately obvious to the audience. The Edge plays that song and others like it with almost inhuman precision — all while singing and occasionally switching over to piano. I’m not saying shredders can’t do this as well, just that their style of playing is much more forgiving.

No delay pedal plays itself. Using delay rhythmically — such that each repeat functions almost like added percussion — requires considerable focus and excellent picking hand technique.

The Edge is More than Just an Effects Wizard

Photo by Steph Van Linden

Another puzzling opinion expressed by some guitarists is the idea that Edge is nothing without his pedals. It’s true, of course, that a number of U2’s hit songs do rely heavily on effects. Edge demonstrates that here (while also poking some good-natured fun at himself):

It Might Get Loud – The Edge “suddenly, everything changed…”

It’s not the whole picture, though. Effects are but one brush on The Edge’s easel. I can rattle off any number of U2 songs and albums that make sparing use of effects, if they use any effects at all. War is a great example; Edge barely even uses delay on that album.

The assumption that Edge can do little more than create wild sounds likely stems from a lack of familiarity with U2’s back catalogue. It’s an understandable assumption if one only knows a few effects-heavy U2 singles, but it’s also ultimately lazy and unfair. I encourage any guitarist who thinks Edge can be reduced to “cool effects” to check out some of U2’s deeper cuts, or even just the Zoo TV version of “Bullet the Blue Sky.” He can play like a traditional rock guitarist — he just often chooses not to, because it’s more interesting to him to pursue sonic novelty.

A Master of Economizing Notes

Speaking of, one of the things I admire most about The Edge is his creative insistence upon doing the absolute last thing you expect a lead guitarist to do. Every note is purposeful and serves the overall feeling or idea of the song, first and foremost.

Perhaps my favourite example of that particular tendency of his occurs during the Making of The Joshua Tree documentary, where Edge talks about his outro to “With or Without You”:

The Edge – With or Without You

You anticipate a solo during that outro. Every written and unwritten rule book of rock guitar practically demands a solo during that outro. Edge chooses to casually strum a few chords instead. It’s completely understated, completely unexpected, and completely fitting.

This preference for economizing notes — by which I mean playing sparingly in a way that makes every note count — is something Edge shares in common with another of my favourites, David Gilmour. Try to imagine something like the intro to “Sorrow” or the iconic riff of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” played with a hundred notes at a hundred miles per second. It wouldn’t work. Those songs — like a lot of U2 songs — rely on those simple, purposeful notes for their power.

An Inspiration to So Many

The Edge is more than just a guitarist I admire: he’s the reason I picked up the instrument in the first place. As mentioned previously, I did not practice much after receiving my first guitar as a gift from my parents on my twelfth birthday. Even though I’d wanted a guitar for a long time, it was simply too difficult to play, and I quickly became discouraged.

Then, late in the year 2000, I just so happened to be watching MTV. There was great excitement over some band called “You Two” (or something like that) releasing their latest single. I watched the video to find out what all the fuss was about, and everything changed. I had never heard any sound like it. All of a sudden, playing my guitar was all I could think about.

SEE ALSO: Playing Guitar On Stage with U2: My Unforgettable Experience

In the years that followed, I learned almost everything I know about the guitar by watching U2 music videos and concert films. The Edge taught me that a good guitarist doesn’t have to vomit notes all over the fretboard at blistering speed. He taught me the importance of control and precision. And he taught me that you can speak volumes with a simple chord progression.

I’m obviously not the only one. Plenty of guitarists — from humble hobbyists like me to the likes of Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien — list The Edge as an influence. Listen to session guitarist Tim Pierce and Rick Beato talk about his significance here:

Then Adele said “I Hate Wah-Wah” Oh…Tim Pierce

There is even an entire musical genre that owes its very existence to The Edge. I’m not a fan of P&W music myself, but his influence in that community is undeniable.

He Gives Back to His Fans

Photo by Steph Van Linden

So many guitarists have a reputation for being egotistical jerks when interacting with fans — not The Edge. I was fortunate enough to meet him briefly before a show during the Vertigo Tour. He made a point of taking his time while saying hello to those of us who were milling about outside the entrance to the venue, and didn’t skip over a single person.

As mentioned in an earlier post, it was beyond amazing to share the stage with him and the band ten years later. It’s a tiny detail, but that smile on his face when I play that suspended A chord in “All I Want is You” (à la the album version) always makes my day when I see it.

And then there’s this little gem:

The Edge & Adam Clayton play w/Unforgettable Fire Tribute Band at The Cutting Room NYC 07/29/15

Try to think about any other world famous guitarist (or bassist, for that matter) spontaneously doing something like that. I could maybe see Dave Grohl doing it, but that’s about it. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would feel like to have my favourite guitarist playing my guitar on my stage through my effects rig. Mick is one lucky guy!

Conclusion

I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but I hope I’ve managed to provide a bit more perspective to any guitarist reading this who doesn’t get the appeal of The Edge. To put it simply, he is a class act who has inspired so many of us with his talent, his soundscapes, and his unique approach to the instrument. Playing guitar is a joy that has gotten me through so much, and I owe it all to him. Happy Birthday, Edge, and keep being your funky self!


Questions?

Do you have a question about the subject matter of this blog post that I didn’t answer above? Feel free to leave a public comment on my YouTube channel by clicking on the button below, and I’ll get back to you there as soon as I can.

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