Interview: Ed O’Brien – Anyone Can Play Guitar
His knack for unusual sounds has remained a constant as Radiohead have pushed boundaries, but now Ed O’brien’s turned his attention to inspiring the next generation with a new Fender guitar.
As we step into the London rehearsal studio where we’ll be chatting to Ed O’Brien, the affable 49-year-old utters a sentence that raises the stakes before we’ve even got our recorder out: “First things first, sit and have a go…” He gestures to a stool in the middle of the room where, set up in front of his favoured Fender Vibro-King amp and in pride of place, is the reason we’re here today – the brand new Fender EOB Sustainer Stratocaster.
O’Brien is clearly excited to see four years of work finally come to fruition… but we’ve all been in that situation when we’re put on the spot and every bit of guitar skill we’ve ever had dribbles out of our ears. Now imagine that feeling when you have the 6’4 frame of a guitarist from the most influential British band of the last 20 years watching, waiting for your feedback… We just about manage to bash out some noodling, noting the guitar’s reassuringly meaty neck and unconventional pickup layout before gratefully handing it back to a man who is much more qualified to handle such a unique instrument.
Firing up our voice recorder we sit down for something we’re much more at ease with – talking nerdy about guitars, and one guitar in particular. The EOB Stratocaster is the first piece of signature Radiohead gear ever… well, we say signature, but from the off Ed is keen to point out that’s not what this is:
“There’s no signature on it. It’s a co-design [with Fender],” he explains. “I had no plans to co-design an amp or a guitar or anything… I had a dream! I had a dream one night four years ago, I woke up and was just like, ‘This guitar needs to be made’.”
Everything In Its Right Place
You can read our review of the EOB Strat on p90, but a quick look at the spec sheet confirms this isn’t your average Strat – the mini-toggles where the jack socket would usually be, the humbucker in the bridge, and the Sustainer pickup in the neck position make this an unconventional proposition – but as much as this is a guitar that Ed takes on stage every night, the reason for its creation is less about him, and more about spreading the gospel of boundary-pushing electric guitar.
“I felt like this guitar had to come out,” Ed reiterates. “I know that sounds a bit strange but I felt like it could be inspiring for a lot of guitarists. That’s the only reason I wanted to do this – to see people use it. I’m hoping because of the price range, keeping it under a grand, it might be their first serious guitar. You could put it in the hands of some teenager and they’re going to do extraordinary things with it and that’s what I’m excited about – people expressing themselves.”
In three decades of creating revolutionary soundscapes in Radiohead, Ed has used almost every classic guitar you can think of, but the Strat has been a constant bedrock, almost all the way back to the beginning.
“My second ever guitar was a Squier Strat,” he recalls. “My first guitar was a Westone Spectrum DX, and then a year later I got a Squier Strat. I had that until it got nicked in ’95, so I played that on our first two records. It was affordable – it was £189, I couldn’t afford a Fender Strat, but to me it was as good as… it could do the job!”
Generations of guitar players have been seduced by the Strat’s futuristic lines, and Ed is no different. “It’s a very feminine guitar – it’s got lots of curves and edges,” he enthuses. “Les Pauls and Teles are more masculine, and I love the femininity and the curves and the contours of the Strat. And obviously the sounds – three pickups with five different ways to use it… there’s something very primal about that.
It just sits in there right, and you play it and it’s just like… yeah! In many ways I wish I didn’t love such a perennial and quintessential guitar, but I just do! I wish it could be some kind of Silvertone thing that I loved – and I do love Silvertones – but this is the thing that I love, I’m just drawn to it.”
All I Need
After his Squier Strat was stolen, Ed replaced it with a pair of Fender Eric Clapton Signature Strats – an unconventional choice given that his Squier was basically stock, and the EC model of the time sported Lace Sensor pickups and built-in active electronics, but as with his guitar style in general, O’Brien has never been one to obsess too much over vintage accuracy.
“I don’t have that,” he affirms. “I love people like Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Beck… and they’re extraordinary players, but I haven’t venerated the equipment they used. I like old and new, and I try not to be snobby, because I think some people can be quite snobby about new gear. If it’s good it’s good, I don’t care how old it is.
“So I loved the Lace Sensor pickups, they really worked. That whole era of grunge and stuff, they were fantastic guitars back then, because of the high output and the preamps – they sounded amazing with shitloads of distortion. They were great with effects as well – real clarity and focus. It cuts through doesn’t it? And the extra bits you got with [the Clapton Strat]: I loved the preamp – I loved that! And I loved the EQ on it, too.”
It was these EC Strats – which were heavily modded by Ed’s original tech, Pete ‘Plank’ Clements, with Sustainer pickups among other things – that formed the basis for the EOB Stratocaster. If space and budget had allowed it would have been even closer. “When we started I wondered if we could get the preamp in here, too,” he recalls. “But it was going to be too much. But the idea of having that in there was really tantalising.”
The EC’s active pickups also informed the pickups on the EOB guitar, leading to the unconventional pairing of a Seymour Duncan JB Jr in the bridge and a Texas Special in the middle position. “They’re pretty high output – that’s what I wanted them to be,” Ed reveals. “I didn’t want a low-output classic Strat sound – I wanted it to be more like the Lace Sensor, a bit more punchy. I play it a lot on the bridge pickup so I wanted something a bit fatter, and in the middle, the Texas Special sounded great because I wanted something in-between.
It’s got a bell-like quality to it. I kept on saying to Alex [Perez, the Fender Custom Shop designer who built the prototypes with Ed’s input], ‘There’s a punch but a neutrality about a Lace Sensor’ – almost like you don’t feel like it’s the sound of a Strat, and it works great with distortion and effects.”
Where I End And You Begin
Ed has been refining the EOB Sustainer Strat on the road, but as anyone who has followed the band’s constant evolution over the last two decades will have noticed, he’s had to adapt and expand the way he plays the instrument as they’ve pushed further into areas that are very far away from guitar-driven rock ’n’ roll.
“There’s no reverence for the guitar,” he chuckles of his Radiohead bandmates. “I love the guitar, but it’s not like you put a guitar on there for the sake of it. So a lot of what I’ve been trying to do in the last 10 years is make sounds that go against that. I have to prove myself – it’s a good challenge! But there’s definitely a bit of a stigma for the guitar!”
This is reflected in the way the dynamic between Ed and his guitar collaborator Jonny Greenwood has changed, as the latter has moved away from the instrument to focus on orchestration and other avenues. “I love the guitar and I get my sounds from guitar, so that’s where I do my exploring – through pedals and guitars and stuff like that,” he explains. “Jonny, because he’s got all the orchestration and the instruments, when he’s searching for sounds he goes for other combinations – that’s where he goes.”
Ed and Jonny have rightly got plaudits for their influential and unique guitar playing over the years, but it’s easy to forget that Yorke’s playing was equally important, particularly in the early days of the band – in fact, when they were all friends in school, it was Thom who was leading the way.
“When we were at school Thom was the shit hot guitar player,” Ed reveals. “He was really great. Neither Jonny nor I played. Thom is a great rhythm player – his acoustic playing is just phenomenal. All the stuff that he does with his fingers on Reckoner and stuff like that… And Jonny, obviously, he’s known as a great guitarist, and he is – he’s a great lead player, and again, a great fingerpicker.”
Anyone who’s played in a band with more than two guitarists in it will know how hard it is to make yourself relevant, and before Ed could get on with the business of selling over 30 million albums, he had to find his place in Radiohead’s guitar triumvirate.
“My role on the first two albums was the choruses,” he admits “Distortion, double up [parts] for a three-guitar assault… and then it was trying to find a place, much as a keyboard player in a band might do. Thom and Jonny used to write a lot together as well, so around the time of The Bends and OK Computer you’d come into rehearsal and the guitar part had basically been worked out. And the guitar parts weren’t straight-ahead either – Thom’s rhythm stuff certainly wasn’t straight-ahead – they were really interesting inversions.
“But by that time my playing had got better and more confident, and what I was able to do was find space. Take No Surprises – Thom played that riff on an acoustic, and something about it reminded me of childhood – so I put the capo up on the 15th fret so that it sounds childlike, almost… and then the rest of the riff came from that, so once the sound came, that informed the part. It was about finding the right sound.
“I didn’t really like our sound that much around Pablo Honey, I liked it in terms of it being aggressive and visceral – the gigs were great! But in the studio it was really fucking boring! But by the time The Bends came around, it started to get into the territory I’d always felt naturally aligned to – the sonics, the atmospheres and the space.
I love space in music, I love not playing! When we did the first album literally everything was taken up, but by the time we did OK Computer there was a lot more space in the song – things were breathing, parts could weave in and out, and that’s where I’m happiest. I love the aggressive thing, but not the whole time – you can punctuate and annunciate, it’s like light and shade.
“For instance, OK Computer had a lot more piano and Rhodes – so one of Thom or Jonny would play keyboards, and then there was a lot more space. People know that the struggle with three guitarists in a band is, ‘Well where do you find the space?!’ So if you play a different instrument it will create the space.
And also… take a fucking rhythm guitar out of the song – often you don’t need it! It’s taking up a whole area of frequency. Like, Curtis Mayfield, brilliant – but we’re not all Curtis Mayfield! Let the bass and the drums hold the rhythm down and bring in other stuff! So for me, taking out the rhythm guitar was a big thing and really helpful.”
Being the guitar player in a band where the guitar isn’t always leading the way in a conventional sense is in many ways the perfect background for someone to create a new guitar for a world where pop music and guitar don’t always go together in general.
“It’s not front and centre is it?” he chuckles. “But it’s not in response to the current pop scene. The current scene… it is what it is. It’s just literally putting it in the hands of people and to go, ‘Have fun and see what noises and sounds you can make from this. And if you can make them musical and make them into a tune, brilliant, and if not… doesn’t matter!’ It could be used on soundtracks and have all sorts of applications.
“It’s for other people – that’s what I’m excited about. So colour wise, I was like, ‘I really like white… what’s the colour that sells the most?’ ‘White’ Great! Because it looks great, but I want people to get this – because musically I think people are going to have a lot of fun with this, and I think they can do some really extraordinary things – that’s what really interests me.”