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There is no argument that for five decades the sound of U2 has been dominated by The Edge’s guitar work. Born David Evans, The Edge has painted U2’s sound landscape with sonic themes, multiple guitar harmonic chimes, and rhythmic arpeggios, underpinned with Celtic tones. He has bathed the band’s texture in a tsunami of sound, relentlessly coming at the listener from all directions. Jimmy Page has christened The Edge as “The Sonic Architect.”
But we should not consider The Edge as a lead guitarist in the classic sense; he only takes a handful of solos in the traditional way. Beyond the memorable guitar themes that stand out in many of the band’s best-known songs, it’s rare when U2’s rhythm section drops down, Bono stops singing, and The Edge is left to do his thing. When he does, it’s unlike the classic guitar hero, as he’s short on quick razor riffs or fretboard prowess (see Page, Beck, Van Halen, and Clapton). Instead, we’re blessed with a hodgepodge of focused sounds designed to take the listener through a gauntlet of emotions. Gratefully, no two are alike.
Bullet the Blue Sky- (1987, Joshua Tree)
As the lyrics address 1980’s American imperialism in South America, Bono asked The Edge to make his solo sound like war and to “put El Salvador through an amplifier.” Upon Bono’s recorded spoken words, “Outside is America,” listeners are hoisted into a war scene by The Edge’s building slide guitar that climbs and climbs every four beats. Its open notes urgently move faster and faster, seemingly getting ahead of the cadence of the song when it reaches its climax. Then the guitar descends into feedback-ridden drops that sound like fighter pilots discharging their payload. Finally, The Edge goes into a series of hard chord strokes, sounding unmistakably like bombs exploding upon the huts of El Salvador. The solo ends with the uneven vibrato of his guitar fading away like a landscape that has been flattened, with only the smoke billowing from the ruins of destruction.
The Fly- (1991, Achtung Baby)
A massive block of sound, taking up 30% of the bars of this tune, this is The Edge’s most elongated solo and serves as the centerpiece for this mid-career industrial rocker. Starting with 4 whammy bar hits that bend his sound around Larry Mullen’s snare drum brakes, The Edge then advances into one of the guitarist’s few (but deadly) moments of fancy fretboard work while he descends the tune’s scales. Soon, the guitar lines gain a hard-edge waw-waw effect that meets up with Bono’s repeated falsetto line: “Love, we shine like a burning star. We’re falling from the sky.” To say this is ‘sonic’ is an understatement. The Edge has said “part of the reason why (the song) sounds so dynamic is that it was a real hands-on performance mix. The guitar sounds were created by mixing additional guitar on top of the existing guitar, creating a “really crazy natural phasing effect”.
Surrender- (1983, War)
We all knew that things were going to happen for U2 after the release of 1983’s War, and “Surrender” served as a sign of things to come. Once the beat drops out in the middle of this tune to spotlight the guitar, we are treated to the joyous kitchen sink! Here on The Edge’s canvas, we began to experience the techniques we will get to know quite well (and even anticipate) in the coming years; reverb through digital delay effects, soaring slide, squeaks, and flanged tones while producing electric harmonics all rolled into a short but dynamic solo.
All Because of You- (2004, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb)
“Atomic Bomb” was U2’s most stripped-down album since their days of the early 1980s, and although there is a battery of guitar sounds on “All Because of You,” The Edge keeps things fairly simple. The tune opens with a pre-recorded repeated effect that gives the tune a percussive nature. Once this is established, the instrumental section could be considered The Edge’s closest “traditional” solo. The band drops out of the beat, builds back up, and then the door is open to the solo. Bono gives us his best John Lennon-like scream, just one beat before the guitarist goes into a repeated dynamic picking pattern.
Sunday Bloody Sunday – (1983, War)
Such a serious subject for such a jaunty tune. Larry Mullens establishes a military march beat while The Edge opens the tune with hooky arpeggios. For his solo, The Edge continues to support the picture of the Belfast “troubles” by depicting an electric Irish jig in his picking technique. This lifts the tune to the point of releasing the spotlight back to Bono. While he sings “Wipe your tears from your eyes, wipe your tears away,” The Edge mirrors Mullen’s beat by scraping his strings in the same rhythm. This same percussive scraping shows up later on the album in the tune “New Year’s Day” which also closes out his solo.
Photo: The Edge (U2 Start via Wikimedia Commons)