Recreating The Edge’s Guitar Tone on U2’s Boy (1980)

Do you struggle to replicate the sound of U2’s first album on guitar? If so, this post will educate you on the basics, recommend some gear, and help you build your own Boy patches from scratch.

U2’s first record is very much a guitarist’s record. Indeed, what would Boy (1980) be without the raw, iconic main riff of “I Will Follow” or the tight, rhythmic delays of “The Electric Co.”? It’s hard to imagine that album with any other guitar sound. This post will take you through the basics of how I personally approximate The Edge’s tone on Boy. It will not include complete settings for each individual song, but will rather give you the fundamentals you’ll need to build up a core tone for the album using your guitars and your gear.

Ideal Guitars: An Explorer/Les Paul and a Stratocaster

the edge's tone boy
Photo by Steph Van Linden

If you’re a U2 fan, you likely know that The Edge’s 1976 Gibson Explorer featured prominently on Boy. Do not feel like you must use an Explorer to achieve his tones on the album, however.  

As I’ve written previously, Explorers sound an awful lot like Les Pauls. They don’t sound exactly the same, mind you, but they sound close enough to use as an alternative if you don’t have an Explorer. Explorers tend to have a little more mid-range than Les Pauls, so you may need to account for that when you’re dialing in your amp settings. 

Also, you do not need to use a Gibson Explorer or a Gibson Les Paul. Epiphones sound almost as good as their Gibson counterparts — especially if you have an Inspired by Gibson model with the newer Epiphone ProBuckers installed, or if you’ve swapped out the stock pickups on an older model for something like Seymour Duncan Seth Lovers or Gibson T-Top clones. 

While The Edge recorded most of Boy with his Explorer (the only guitar he had at that time), I suspect he may have also used a loaner Fender Stratocaster in the studio for at least a few of the songs. I could be wrong, but the tone on “An Cat Dubh” and “Into the Heart” sounds like a Strat set to the bridge pickup, for instance. “Another Time, Another Place” also sounds like a Strat — just set to the “quack” position. To the best of my knowledge, Edge has also always played those songs live with a Strat.

As is the case with Gibson, you do not need a Fender Stratocaster. A Squier Strat (or any other decent Strat copy) will get you 99% of the way there, especially if you upgrade the pickups.

Effects Units: Less is More

Photo by Anton Shuvalov on Unsplash

One of the biggest mistakes I see fellow guitarists making when they try to recreate The Edge’s Boy tone is this: overcomplicating the signal chain.

You need to remember that The Edge’s early effects setup was incredibly simple. Most of U2’s earliest songs were recorded using nothing more than an Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man (DMM) echo unit fed into a Vox AC30.

If your effects signal chain includes multiple distortion pedals, overdrives, compressors, and equalizers, you’re overcomplicating things. Get rid of that stuff. It’s unnecessary, unless you’re using it to add mid-range or tame an undesirable frequency specific to your guitar. 

Dialing in the Delay

To get the right delay sound for Boy, you ideally need a DMM, or a very good emulation of one. I personally use Line 6’s take on the DMM, called Elephant Man. You can find Elephant Man in any hardware Helix unit, or in the Helix Native plugin.

SEE ALSO: Helix Native vs Helix Floor: Why You Actually Need Both

If you’d prefer to use standalone delay plugins in your DAW, Arturia has a decent DMM plugin called Delay Brigade. The EchoBoy plugin by SoundToys also has a great version of the DMM, among other classic analog delays. If you’re thinking of purchasing either of these standalone plugins, be sure to get them when they’re on sale. 

Modulation is key to approximating the sound of Edge’s delay. When you listen closely to Boy, it sounds like he mainly had the modulation on his DMM set to vibrato, with a subtle amount of wobble dialed in. On Elephant Man, I set the vibrato depth between 2.2 to 2.4.

Delay times will vary depending on the song. They’re often rather short — more of a slapback echo than the longer dotted eighth note delays The Edge is known for. Listen, for example, to the short slapback echo on “An Cat Dubh” or “The Ocean.” Other songs, like “The Electric Co.” and “A Day Without Me,” feature longer quarter note and dotted eighth note delays.

I don’t own a Deluxe Memory Man myself, so I can’t tell you where to set your knobs for each song. For your convenience, if you’re using a DMM emulation that allows for the input of delay times in milliseconds or subdivisions, I’ve listed the approximate settings for each song below. 

Delay Settings for Boy

  1. I Will Follow — 200 ms (1/8 note); 2-3 rpts; 40% mix
  2. Twilight — 222 ms (1/8 note); 1-2 rpts; 35% mix
  3. An Cat Dubh — 133 ms (1/16 note); 5-6 rpts; 35% mix
  4. Into the Heart — 140 ms (1/16 note); 5-6 rpts; 35% mix
  5. Out of Control — 202 ms (1/8 note); 2-3 rpts; 40% mix
  6. Stories for Boys — 191 ms (1/8 note); 2-3 rpts; 35% mix
  7. The Ocean — 155 ms (1/16 triplet note); 1-2 rpts; 30% mix
  8. A Day Without Me — 380 ms (1/4 note), 255 ms (dotted 8th note); 4-5 rpts; 50% mix
  9. Another Time, Another Place — 214 ms (1/8 note), 1-2 rpts; 20% mix
  10. The Electric Co. — 280 ms (dotted 8th note); 3-4 rpts; 45% mix
  11. Shadows and Tall Trees — 140 ms (1/8 triplet note); 1-2 rpts; 20% mix

Dialing in the Amplifier

Photo by Joel Kruber on Unsplash

We can attribute the bulk of Edge’s tone on Boy to his Vox AC30. I don’t know about you, but I personally can’t blast an AC30 in my home whenever I please. Instead, I use a good Vox AC30 emulation – Line 6’s Essex A30 model – paired with an Edge-inspired mix from York Audio’s Vox AC30 impulse response pack.  

SEE ALSO: My Secret Sauce for Early U2: York Audio’s Vox AC30 IR

A lot of Edge fans make the mistake of adding way too much drive to their Boy patches — either via overdrive pedals, or the amp itself. If you listen closely to the album, you’ll find that the tone is not heavily overdriven at all. It’s set just at the edge of breakup, with the guitar volume rolled back slightly. It sometimes even sounds quite clean (“The Ocean” is a great example). The more overdriven tones on the album are generally the result of Edge hitting the strings harder with the volume on his guitar rolled all the way up. He may have used a boost pedal as well, but it was most likely just the Vox AC30 in all its saturated vintage tube amp glory.

To get a good edge of breakup tone with the Essex A30 on a Helix unit or Helix Native, try the following range of settings that I often use and adjust to taste, depending on your guitar: 

Drive: 2.5 – 4.5 
Bass: 4.5 – 6 
Cut: 0 – 2.5 
Treble: 5.5 – 6 
Presence: 0 – 2.5 
Ch. Vol: any value (doesn’t affect tone) 
Master: 8-10 
Sag:
Hum: 5
Ripple: 5
Bias: 5
Bias X:

Are There Any Alternatives to the Essex A30?

Plenty! All of the big name modelers (such as the Fractal Axe-Fx series or the Neural DSP Quad Cortex) have Vox AC30 models on board. You can also find AC30 models on guitar amp plugins like AmpliTube 5 and Bias FX 2. For those of you who prefer hardware solutions, check out the Joyo AC Tone or the Tech 21 Liverpool.

If none of those work for you, I’m sure there are other alternatives you can try that I personally haven’t looked into yet. Keep searching until you find a good Vox AC30 alternative that works for you! Or, you know, get the real thing. 😎

What About Songs that Need A Little More Grit?

When I need to add just a little more drive to certain songs, like “I Will Follow” or “Out of Control,” I use Line 6’s Kinky Boost effect (based on the Xotic EP Booster pedal) at the beginning of the effects chain. I set Drive anywhere between 0 to 3, depending on the song, and set Bright to “On.” For solos, I turn Boost “On” as well.

What I like about Kinky Boost is that it’s not a tone suck, unlike many distortion or overdrive pedals. It is essentially a FET preamp, and it sounds fantastic. It can add an extremely subtle amount of drive when set appropriately — which is what you want on Boy.

Another thing I like about it is that it just makes the Essex A30 model sound better. I’m not sure what it is exactly. Maybe it’s adding a little more warmth, maybe it’s thickening things up a little bit… Whatever it is, I almost always have it turned on.

If you want a physical preamp pedal or booster pedal that functions a little like the Kinky Boost, try the Xotic EP Booster, the JHS Crayon, or the TC Electronic Spark Booster.

Adding Tape Emulation (Optional)

Any album recorded to tape (like Boy) is naturally going to sound a little bit warmer and grittier than one recorded digitally. I like to replicate that subtle warmth and grit on my Boy patches by adding Line 6’s Retro Reel tape emulator after my IR block, with the following settings enabled on my HX Stomp or in Helix Native:  

Wow Flutter: 0 – 2.5 
Saturation: 1
Low Cut: Off 
High Cut: Off 
Tape Speed: 15 ips 
Level: 0 dB 
Texture: 3

You could also use a tape plugin to achieve the same effect, if you wish. Adding tape emulation to your patches is completely optional, but you will likely find (as I do) that it adds more colour and character to your tone.

Finishing it Off With a Bit of Reverb (Optional)

Finally, at the end of my chain, I add in some subtle room reverb. Since I play with headphones on, the reverb gives the sound just a little more movement and widens up the stereo field a little. For “An Cat Dubh” and “Into the Heart,” I use a hall reverb in stereo set with a short decay time, around 1.6 seconds. 

Reverb isn’t strictly necessary if you’re playing through a real amp in a room, though you’ll probably still want to use it on songs like “The Ocean” and “An Cat Dubh”

Putting it All Together

The final signal chain for each song looks like this: 

Guitar → Boost (Mono) → Delay (Mono) → Amp → IR / Cabinet → Tape Sim (Stereo) → Reverb (Stereo) Output

A very simple signal chain, but it works! A few isolated songs (like “A Day Without Me”) use more effects, but that basic chain will get you very close to the core tone for each song.

Don’t Forget About the Pick

Photo by Steph Van Linden

The Edge uses Herdim picks on Boy (and every other U2 album, for that matter). They are a key ingredient in his overall guitar tone. Learn more about Herdim picks and where to find them by reading one of my earlier posts on the subject here.

… OK, But Can’t You Just Sell Me Your Helix Patches?

Patches created by another guitarist will always sound a little different when played through your own gear, using your own hands. I see disgruntled customers leaving negative feedback all the time on patch packs created by my peers. “The patches don’t sound as nice as they do in the demo video” is a common complaint.

Of course they don’t sound the same. Every guitar is different. Every guitarist plays differently. You cannot expect to achieve the same tones you hear in a patch demo video without using the original creator’s guitar, and without using their exact same technique.

People always expect to get what they paid for, however — even if their expectations are not realistic. It is for that reason that I don’t offer my own patches for sale. Ultimately, it’s much better (and cheaper!) for you to learn how to create your own patches from scratch.

Conclusion

I hope this post will help you better approximate The Edge’s guitar tone on Boy. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you need any assistance. Remember to keep the signal chain simple and, above all else, have fun building your own patches! 🙂


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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