What You May Not Know About Ed O’Brien’s Sound

All bands evolve but few do so with such explosions of creativity and strides in songwriting as Radiohead. With up to three guitars going at once and each album revolutionizing what modern rock can be, one guitarist in particular once lost in his role but found his way forward thanks to innovative approaches to gear.

Meet Ed O’Brien, the resident effect architect of Radiohead.

The 2000 album Kid A is arguably the tipping point in Radiohead’s group identity. This smash record also signaled the start of O’Brien individual crisis in playing style. In an interview with Fender, O’Brien recollects struggling with seeing how the traditional guitar fit in the band’s writing of this album.

“Guitars were sort-of being damned and keyboards were being bought and played,” O’Brien noted. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do here? How can I use a guitar but make it not necessarily sound like a traditional guitar?’”

Whether it was survival or necessity, O’Brien had to rethink his playing style and reorient its role in the creative process of Radiohead in studio and on stage. He had to make it sound less like what it was and more like a synth.  

The result is a playing style that is difficult to pin down. Yet if you listen to O’Brien’s parts on post-millennium Radiohead tracks you’ll find at least three features that are coordinated in different ways to offer up endless combinations of creative, tonal, and sonic masterpieces.

Using Effects to Lay Down Foundations of Wash and Complex Texture

When O’Brien stopped in to That Pedal Show earlier this year, he confessed that his foundational effect is delay. While most think of overdrive as the bread and butter of modern rock, O’Brien disclosed that his playing is driven by ambience and texture, which means echo is at the basis of the equation. His uses of delay, however, are far from traditional. With a bent towards oscillation and penchant for modulation, O’Brien’s approach to delay is less about repeating a sound that it is about exponentially developing it in unpredictable directions to give texture and movement.

Sustaining Sounds for Non-Traditional Lead Lines, Drones, and Swells

After gutting a Clapton Signature Stratocaster and installing a Fernandes Sustainer pickup, O’Brien suddenly found a way of getting the sounds from his head onto the fretboard. One benefit of synthesizers that is tough to come by on guitars is complete control over the onset of attack and decay of notes. Much like an eBow or Aeon by TC Electronic, Sustainer pickups cause strings to vibrate so they have infinite sound. For O’Brien, this meant the ability to develop a spectrum of distant to intense drones as well as lay down an almost oscillator-like sound that can then be recreated and expanded with effect pedals.

Improving Live Loops for On-the-Fly Creativity

If you’ve seen Radiohead live or watched concert footage, you’ve noticed O’Brien spends as much time standing up playing as he does perched over his pedalboard. In general, he’s endlessly interacting with effects and altering their parameters live to manipulate sounds. He plays the pedals, they don’t play him. But one playing strategy O’Brien undertakes on-the-fly is creating small loops that have either a rhythmic quality or atmospheric vibe. In an age where more and more musicians are launching pre-recorded tracks or loops, this stage strategy is at once inspiring and dangerous. But in the end, it’s part of this unpredictability that make O’Brien’s contribution to the gig timely and timeless.

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