An Interview with Ed O’Brien, the Sonic Architect of Radiohead’s Soundscapes

The sounds and songs of Radiohead have not only defied genres, they have defined new ones. Over the course of more than three decades, each new album and live show is both evolutionary and revolutionary. While Radiohead’s creative and collaborative style has many dynamics, Ed O’Brien’s guitar playing is a major factor in the equation. 

Dan and Ed first became friends over a pedalboard build. With Ed back in the area for a tune-up, this week Dan & Mick hosted Ed on TPS to talk all things gear, inspiration, creative ruts, his journey as a musician, and an upcoming solo album.

Exploring the Outer Reaches of Guitar in Radiohead

If you’re familiar with Radiohead’s discography, you’ll know the band is driven by a need to express and intuit music. As Ed recounted his own experience in the band and memories of his early guitar playing, he described the importance of crafting music through discovering new landscapes. “Radiohead doesn’t have a grounding in bluesy-type music, we come from a more angular perspective, much more like Talking Heads, Pixies, Smiths… then you get into the 80s and the big three for me are The Edge, Will Sergeant, and Johnny Marr.” Looking back at this heritage of players that were melodic yet complex, it’s no surprise that Ed cultivated a playing style that blended tonality, texture, and grew out of a space of emotional impact. “Because that was my DNA, it was all about sound and not about guitar heroes.”

Ed’s Approach to Guitar Pedals as Creative Tools

With that sonic background, Mick asked how Ed began developing his playing style as a teenager with such limited gear and knowledge. “Well the first thing you do is you’ve got to buy a delay pedal,” laughed Ed, “that was the first thing for me before a distortion pedal.” By looking at Ed’s board, it is clear that developing ambient and expressive sounds through gear became increasingly important.

Yet for all the layers of tone, there are still go-to items of gear that are basic and brilliant. “For me, it’s this pedal right here, the [Electro Harmonix] Memory Man,” remarked Ed, “I call it the God pedal. You put anything through it and it sounds great. There’s almost something transcendental about it.”

As Ed demoed some of his uses of the pedal, he showcased his approach to real-time interaction with the signal by generating short loops with a Line 6 DL4 run through the Digitech Whammy and Memory Man. “It kind of creates an atmosphere and even creates a place.” In this way, Ed’s approach to pedals is not only about forging new sounds, it is about hearing how those sounds draw or transport you to somewhere far beyond. “There’s a magic in it and it’s when you’re in those moments that it just comes from somewhere else and that’s why all these pedals are amazing — they’re like characters in themselves.”

The Story behind the Fender EOB Sustainer Stratocaster

Ed’s journey with the guitar has involved many different designs and brands of instruments. Recently, however, he’s returned to his roots and partnered with Fender to develop the EOB Sustainer Stratocaster.

Before his own signature, Ed played a heavily modded Eric Clapton Fender Stratocaster. As the songs and sets became more diverse and demanding in the days of making Kid A, he recounted how the place of the guitar in the band was clouded by question marks. “It was that constant thing to keep moving and we were getting bored… come Kid A it was all about chucking it out as Tom was leading us through electronic music… keyboards were being brought in and I was like ‘I love the [new] sounds, but I also really love guitar.’ So I thought, ‘How can I combine the two?’”

After connecting with the luthier who built The Edge’s infinite sustain guitar as heard on “With or Without You,” Ed had a revelation that Fender might be the partner to make the instrument a reality. Upon awaking from the dream, he picked up the phone and called Fender. Turns out, their dreams aligned and the two developed a guitar that captured Ed’s creative energy while emphasizing versatility that comes stock with any Fender. As Dan reflected, “it is a Strat and can do what a Strat does, but with the sustainer pickup in it you can go beyond what a normal Strat does.” Part of the design process of the guitar was to enable this type of breadth to meet the needs of Ed’s on stage and in-studio needs. “I was really just getting into playing again and I started to realize, I wanted one guitar to do it all.”

As Ed’s discussions about form and function segued into his vision for the guitar, he emphasized that “I’m not going to be one of those ‘signature’ guys… but what I am excited about is getting this guitar into the hands of seventeen year olds as their first proper guitar.”

If the story and sounds of Ed’s playing inspired you, be sure to check out this rundown of his rig on TPS to channel a bit of Radiohead into your playing:

Sonic Research ST-300 Turbo Tuner Mini, Origin Effects Cali76 Compact Deluxe, Kingsley Page Tube Boost, Thorpy FX Fallout Cloud, Digitech Whammy, Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, Electro Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man 1100-TT, Electro Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man, Catalinbread Belle Epoch Deluxe CB-3, TheGigRig G2.

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