Playing Guitar On Stage with U2: My Unforgettable Experience

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to play guitar on stage with U2? Learn more about it from a fan who was lucky to have that experience during the Innocence & Experience Tour!

As some of my readers will know, I was randomly picked from the audience to play guitar with U2 during their Innocence & Experience (I&E) Tour back in 2015. It happened halfway through their second show in Toronto, exactly eight years ago on this day. If you’re a U2 fan and want to learn more about what it’s like playing guitar on stage with the band, this one’s for you!

This is the first time I’ve ever written this extensively about my experience, as getting back into blogging this year has finally given me a suitable platform for longer-form writing. I’ve written a little preamble to set the scene and provide some context, but if you just want to skip on ahead to the actual experience itself, click here to do so.

A Dream Born in Adolescence

I became a U2 fan back in the year 2000, shortly after the video for “Beautiful Day” exploded all over MTV. The year before, my parents had given me an electric guitar for my twelfth birthday. I’d wanted to learn how to play the guitar for years, but got discouraged when I realized it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. My guitar mostly collected dust in the corner of my bedroom. The arrival of U2 and “Beautiful Day” in my life changed that forever.

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

Making those sounds come out of my little Peavey amplifier became my goal. I remember taping the music video off MTV and pausing whenever The Edge appeared on screen. I tried to match the position of his fingers and mimic the way he moved his hands. Eventually, I was able to sort of muddle my way through the song. As bad as I was, the feeling was phenomenal, and it sparked a lifelong journey of self-directed learning. Said journey really took off in earnest when U2’s Live from Boston DVD came out in 2001. That concert film more or less taught me everything I know about playing guitar.

As my interest in the band grew over the years and I became more involved in the broader U2 fan community, I learned about the band’s tendency to pull fans on stage to play guitar. In the process, I ended up befriending a talented musician from California who had been pulled up to play with the band not just once, but multiple times. Those performances were totally inspiring and planted the thought in my head that maybe, just maybe, that could be me up there one day. When I jammed along with my U2 concert DVDs, I increasingly imagined myself on stage.

A Series of Fortunate Events

Fast forward to July 6, 2015. I was visiting some friends in Toronto, and we all had General Admission (GA) tickets to the U2 show that night and the next. We planned to take it easy the first show, and then aim for spots along the rail during the second show.

Since we didn’t need to queue up in the GA line all day, I planned to spend that morning doing a bit of solo window shopping downtown. It was there that I experienced my first unexpected stroke of luck.

I Lost (and Found) My Purse Mere Hours Before the First Show

I somehow managed to forget my purse on a streetcar somewhere along Spadina, if I recall correctly. Unfortunately, the purse contained my photo ID and credit card — both of which I needed to present to door staff at the Air Canada Centre before the show.

Photo by Nathalia Segato on Unsplash

I hopped on the next streetcar and frantically explained the situation to the driver, who put the word out on his radio and encouraged me to head with him to the station. If someone found and turned in the purse, picking it up at the station would be my best bet, he said.

I didn’t think any passengers would turn it in — this happened on a TTC streetcar in downtown Toronto, after all — but luck was thankfully on my side. After a nerve-wracking couple of hours, the streetcar I was originally on returned to the station. A Good Samaritan had found my purse and alerted the driver. Mercifully, nothing had been taken from the purse. Had it not been for that individual or the helpful TTC staff, I wouldn’t be telling you this story right now!

I Witnessed Fans I Knew Getting Up on Stage

I was still buzzing from the extreme good fortune of finding my purse, when my second stroke of good luck occurred. Midway through the first show, I witnessed some online forum friends live out their own dreams of getting pulled up on stage with the band. I knew U2 was inviting more fans up on stage during the I&E Tour than ever before, but I honestly never expected to see it happening to people I knew (let alone me, but more on that in a moment).

I used to visit a popular U2 fan forum back in the day. It was there that I’d previously chatted with the woman who got pulled up to dance with the band during “Mysterious Ways” and some of the guys from the U2 tribute band who got pulled up to perform “Desire.” It was just beyond amazing to see people I knew performing live with this band we’d all spent so much time talking about. There’s a kinship you feel with other diehard U2 fans, and the excitement of seeing them on stage with the band is infectious.

U2 Played My Favourite Song

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, stroke of exceptionally good luck number three occurred. My favourite song by any artist is “Bad,” without question. I’d been desperate to see the band perform the song live for ten years at that point, but had no luck during the show I attended on the Vertigo Tour in 2005, or on the 360 Tour in 2009 and 2011. And then…

U2 – Bad – July 6, 2015 – Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Canada

I’m not the person you hear screaming “Oh my God!” during the intro, as we weren’t that close, but I was likely doing something similar at the time. It’s a special song that means the world to me, and I didn’t think I’d ever hear it. That night, I finally did. It’s the only time I’ve seen U2 perform “Bad” live, and I suspect that will probably remain the case.

Taking Up Residence in the GA Line

I probably should have bought a lottery ticket after that first show. Instead, I retreated with my friends back to their apartment and started planning for the next day. If you’ve ever been on the rail at a U2 show, then you know you’re looking at spending the day in the GA line to guarantee your spot, at bare minimum. Seeing our fellow forum members sharing the stage with the band was inspiring. I’d already been thinking prior to that day that I’d like to try to fulfill this lifelong dream of mine, but with the luck I was having, it was actually starting to feel like a possibility.

There’s a line I love in the song “Acrobat” that reads as follows:

You can dream, so dream out loud
You know that your time is coming ’round

It’s a cynical song that’s not really applicable to what ended up happening the next night, but that idea of “dreaming out loud” has always stuck with me. It appears again in another form on the somewhat more uplifting “Zooropa”:

She’s gonna dream up the world she wants to live in
She’s gonna dream out loud

That night, “dream out loud” became my internal mantra. I picked up one of my friend’s guitars and strummed out a few songs. To avoid spoilers, I hadn’t looked at any tour setlists up until that point, so I didn’t really know what acoustic songs U2 had been rotating on the E-stage, or what song I might request in the unlikely event that I got pulled up. I played a little bit of everything, and as I played “All I Want is You” (my second-favourite U2 song), I thought this one feels right.

The Almighty Concert Sign

How do you get your favourite band to notice you? You hold up a sign, of course. We got our hands on some good quality cardboard from the condo building’s trash early the next morning (haha), and then made our way over to the GA line. Thus began our long day of sitting on the sidewalk outside the ACC in full-blown early July humidity.

Photo by Steph Van Linden

I’ve mentioned previously that there’s a kinship you feel with other massive U2 fans. This feeling of kinship is nowhere more pronounced than it is in the GA line and on the GA floor. Hundreds of people queuing at the crack of dawn (or camping out overnight) simply to see their favourite band up close have a tendency to look out for each other and enjoy one another’s company. We hold each other’s spots when we leave for a bathroom break, we share our stories about shows we’ve seen, and so on. A very small number of fans behave in unpleasant and entitled ways when they take their self-appointed “management” of the line a little too seriously … but for the most part, the U2 GA line is a great place to be.

To pass away the time, we got to work on our signs. One side of mine read “U2 + Me + Guitar = 15 Year Dream.” The other read “All I Want Is (To Play Guitar With) You.” A guy in line ahead of us had a sign asking to sing “Angel of Harlem.” Remember him, because he’ll reappear later!

“This is Not a Rehearsal”

One thing I need to make absolutely clear is that if you see a fan playing guitar on stage with U2, the likelihood of said fan being “pre-vetted” by the band or their crew ahead of the show is slim to none. I’ve read many a cynical YouTube comment over the years from people who claim that this is “all staged” to build good will between the band and their fans.

Here’s the thing: opportunities to meet the band before a show are limited if you’re standing in the GA line all day — which is where you often need to be in order to snag a spot along the rail. It would have been great if I’d met anyone from the band or the crew prior to the show, but that did not end up being the case.

There’s no rehearsal. There’s no “special VIP” ticket, as some have suggested. You just make a sign, queue in line all day, hold up your sign during the show, and cross your fingers. There may be some exceptions to that rule, but it is almost always spontaneous, based on my experience and the experiences of the few people I know who’ve also made it up on stage.

What It’s Like to Play Guitar On Stage With U2

My memories of the earlier parts of the show are hazy at best. I snagged my spot along the E-stage rail, made friends with the people around me, and enjoyed the concert. I held my sign up every now and then when anyone from the band wandered by, doing my best not to block the view for the people around me. While I’m not certain, I think Adam noticed it first. I vividly remember him leaning forward, reading my sign, smiling at me, and nodding.

During “Mysterious Ways,” a crew member approached me from the other side of the rail and announced something to the effect of “they’re gonna pull you up.” Before I could really process what was happening, I was pulled over the rail by Security and guided over to the E-stage steps. Bono gave me a hand getting up on stage.

“They Know That They Can’t Dance” (At Least They Know)

I figured there must have been some miscommunication, as I’d been pulled up during the latter section of “Mysterious Ways.” Fans are occasionally brought up on stage to dance at the end of that song, in reference to the Zoo TV Tour. Unfortunately, I am a terrible dancer. Truly terrible. My sense of rhythm is limited to those moments when I have an instrument in my hands. So I laughed and gave it my most awkward best.

It’s all a bit of a blur, but I remember that at one point, Bono took both my hands in his and began swinging me around in circles. My hands, as you may imagine, were rather sweaty; not only was I unexpectedly up on stage with my favourite band, I was also “dancing” in front of approximately 20,000 people — and I can’t dance. I could feel my hands starting to slip out of Bono’s, and briefly worried that I might lose grip entirely. The risk of accidentally being hurled off the stage seemed well within the realm of possibility.

Fortunately, there was no impromptu crowd surfing session. At some point, Bono must have clued into the fact that I had not actually requested to dance (my “dancing” likely had something to do with it), as he immediately asked to see my sign after the song drew to a close. My friends along the rail held it up for him, and he took a closer look.

“Oh. You’re the … you’re a guitar player.”

Cue lots of laughs.

Try Not to Forget Every Chord You Know

Bono apologized for reading my sign incorrectly, cracked a joke about his glaucoma, and asked if I’d like to play one of The Edge’s guitars. Oh, only since I was a kid, Bono! He leaned in then and asked in my ear if I could play “Angel of Harlem.”

My immediate reaction was to say yes, as I can play it, but as soon as I said it, I thought to myself uh, it’s been a while, though… I enjoy “Angel of Harlem” a lot, but it’s not a song I play on guitar all that often. For the first time since I’d been pulled up on stage, a bit of real panic set in and I felt my mouth go completely dry.

Before I could think too much about it, Bono asked me my name while Edge handed over an acoustic guitar and his pick. I did my best to not giggle like a gibbering idiot. Receiving a guitar straight from the hands of the guitarist who most inspired you (and taught you everything you know) is a pretty special feeling.

Bono then inquired again (into the microphone, this time) if I could play “Angel of Harlem.” Not wanting to disappoint — but also being mindful of the fact that I couldn’t exactly recall the full chord progression off the top of my head — I assured him I could… at least in theory, I thought, provided it all came back to me in a few seconds. To be on the safe side, I also suggested “All I Want is You,” as that’s a song I can play on autopilot.

“Angel of Harlem”

When I said I’d like to play “All I Want is You,” Bono gave me this bemused look. “Ohhh…” he said, as though I was being a little brazen. Perhaps I was — I just didn’t want to mess up in front of U2 and a sold-out arena! I laughed and apologetically mouthed something like “it’s easier for me!” Bono, still with that bemused expression on his face, countered with “Let’s start with ‘Angel of Harlem.’ How about that?” and told me to take it away.

fan playing guitar U2
Screenshot from @notinvisible24‘s footage — watch it here.

Despite the now full-blown panic, muscle memory kicked in and I began strumming. I could barely hear myself playing — the band uses in-ear monitors, and from what I could tell, there were limited stage-facing monitors (if any) where we were standing. Not really being able to hear myself threw my sense of timing and dynamics off a fair bit, but I was at least reasonably certain I’d started off with the right chords: C to F.

All of a sudden, it was like I was a teenager again, standing in front of the TV with a guitar in my hands and figuring things out as I went along. Except this time, the band was actually there, and not on the TV screen. I remember glancing over at The Edge, who was smiling at me, and having the thought I’m playing guitar with my favourite guitarist.

Perhaps due to the reality of the moment sinking in, my muscle memory faltered a little during the chorus. To my profound embarrassment, I made a mistake. Bono must have picked up on it, as he asked Edge to call out the chords for me just before the middle-eight. That helped a lot, but it wasn’t long before I made another nervous mistake. Oof…

I doubt anyone in the audience noticed the flub, but Edge gave me a knowing wink when I shook my head at him apologetically and cringed with a grin. I steadfastly avoided making eye contact with Larry whenever I caught myself lagging behind the beat. (Sorry, Larry.) Any other pro-level band might have been annoyed; they just rolled with it and tried to help.

My silly nerves-induced mistakes aside, playing that song with the band was an absolute delight. And it wasn’t just the band I played with! Remember that fan ahead of us in the line who wanted to sing “Angel of Harlem”? Well, he ended up on the rail on the opposite side, and Bono noticed his sign as well (without mistaking him for a belly dancer, fortunately). During the outro, Bono handed him the microphone from the stage, and he helped us to close out the song. It was a really nice, symbolic moment: one fan on stage playing Edge’s guitar, and another in the audience singing into Bono’s microphone, crowd and band as one.

“All I Want is You”

fan playing guitar U2
Screenshot from @ryanboese21‘s footage — watch it here.

When “Angel of Harlem” came to an end, I prepared to give the band my heartfelt thanks and head off the stage. But then Bono turned to rest of the band and said “She wants to play ‘All I Want is You.'” I almost couldn’t believe what I’d heard. They reckoned it was okay, so Bono asked me to start playing. I happily obliged. I found out after the fact that they were originally going to play the song later on in the setlist, so it was very kind of them to switch things up a bit.

U2 brings fan Stephanie on stage for Angel of Harlem & All I Want is You. Toronto 07/07/15

As mentioned previously, “All I Want is You” is a song I can play on autopilot. I was finally able to relax a bit without worrying about making mistakes. Emphasis on “a bit” — I was still very much aware of the fact that I was playing in front of my favourite band and around 20,000 people. The largest audience I’d ever played in front of prior to that moment consisted of about fifty people. I’m an incredibly shy person, and had not really appreciated how terrifying it can be to have so many people looking at you.

Bono stood directly in front of me for most of the song. You’d think this would have increased my nerves, but it was actually extremely calming. Looking out at the audience made me feel dizzy, and focusing on Bono instead helped to keep me mentally grounded.

U2 – All I Want is You – ACC – Toronto July 7 2015

It has always been difficult to put into words what it felt like to play that song with the band. “Angel of Harlem” is fun, but “All I Want is You” is one of those rare, effortlessly perfect songs that all musicians wish they could write, and so seldom do. It’s incredibly special, and it was beyond humbling and gratifying to play it with the artists who created it.

fan playing guitar U2
Screenshot from @cathalb4‘s footage — watch it here.

At the end of the song, Bono ad-libbed a bit of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.” He shoehorned my name into it, quite unexpectedly, causing me (and The Edge) to crack up laughing. And with that, the greatest moment of my life as a U2 fan and as a guitarist came to a close.

The Aftermath

In the days after the show, I wasn’t at all prepared for (or even expecting) the media attention I received. Various news outlets began borderline harassing me and people who knew me for my comments about the show. As mentioned before, I’m a very shy person, and I honestly found it overwhelming. What happened that night was an isolated moment shared between the band and those of us who were in attendance. The interview requests almost felt like an invasion of privacy. I politely declined them.

On a more positive note, the thing that stood out the most during that time was the outpouring of love from friends and family who knew how long I’d been dreaming about playing guitar with the band — as well as the congratulations from complete strangers who were there, or who saw the videos online. One of the many things U2 is so great at doing is bringing people together.

That brings me to my next point.

Removing Barriers Between Performers and Fans

Someone who isn’t a diehard U2 fan might wonder why on earth the band risks pulling up people from the audience. Unless it’s someone they’ve pulled up before, they have no way of knowing if a fan with a sign can play guitar, or if they can dance. But they take a chance on them anyway.

There’s a passage from Bono’s memoir that sums it up perfectly:

You could call it showboating. It is, but I also call it the search for a physical symbolism. That’s how I rationalize it. All experimentation to the same end, breaking down the barrier between performer and fan. Like inviting fans up onstage to play guitar or to dance with us. Or just to hang out. At a show in Montreal in 2015, I invited a hundred people up onstage, built to hold a band of four. I get carried away.

Edge, or Larry, or Adam . . . or someone in management . . . will periodically intervene, extracting a promise that I will not get carried away like this. But that’s the point. Music carries us away. Why else would a man approaching his sixties jump into the arms of a big strong lad or lassie and have them carry me across the stage? It’s a symbol of what is really taking place, which is that this audience are still carrying this band after forty years.

— Bono, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, 2022, p. 349

It goes both ways, of course. At the risk of sounding sappy, we carry the band, and they carry us.

Remembering this experience has lifted me up on so many occasions. I’m a nurse, so it probably goes without saying that I’ve had quite a few bad days interspersed between the good over the last several years. After my worst days, when I’ve felt powerless to make a difference or change anything for the better, I sometimes pull up those videos from that show — not just to relive that moment, but to remind myself of everything that led up to it. Time spent with friends, time spent making new friends, and the good will of a complete stranger who did the right thing.

In the end, it’s not just a band’s performance that makes a great live show great; it’s also the myriad human connections built along the way, before, during, and after the show.

Conclusion

I can’t even begin to express how lucky I am to have had this experience. There are still days when I need to remind myself that it actually happened. The whole “fan playing guitar with U2” thing was always something that happened to other people, not me. My eternal thanks go out to the band for their kindness and generosity, as well as the friends and family who also helped to make it possible in various ways. Thanks as well to those of you who read this blog and follow me on my YouTube guitar channel — it’s always such a joy to share my love for this band and their music with fellow U2 fans and guitarists.


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.

See Also: