The Edge’s 20 greatest guitar moments, ranked

A uniquely creative guitarist who has powered one of the world’s biggest bands for 40 years and counting, let’s trip through the wires to look at 20 guitar highlights from the strings and pedals of the man they call The Edge.

It’s four decades since U2’s debut album Boy introduced the world to the angular, delay-soaked guitar lines of The Edge. Since then, the band have gone on to conquer the world’s airwaves and arenas in a number of different incarnations, ranging from earnest, politically charged new-wave flagbearers to wide-eyed art-rock musicologists to purveyors of irony-laden alt-rock and ever onward.

At the heart of their sound, U2’s guitarist has undergone his own process of constant reinvention. But even as his gear stash has grown from a couple of guitars, a handful of pedals, a Vox and some gaffa tape to become a touring rig that looks like a Guitar Center warehouse, he’s stayed a step ahead of his imitators, managing to refine but never jettison the simplicity and directness of his playing.

The Edge has often referred to being “at odds” with the guitar; and has characterised his playing as a “struggle or a fight” with the instrument. Here, we choose 20 battles he most definitely won, some against all the odds, among an exhaustive back catalogue of sonic explorations.

20. One

By the end of their first all-conquering decade in music, U2 may have been the biggest band in the world, but all was not well. Reconvening to record the follow-up to the bloated misstep Rattle And Hum at the Bowie-haunted Hansa Studios in Berlin in October 1990 (the month Germany officially reunited), the band found themselves stalked by the dreaded cliché – musical differences. Bono and The Edge wanted to experiment with dance elements, while Clayton and Mullen wanted to return to the old sound, and they disagreed over the quality of their new material.

However, they got over it when a song descended on them in a jam session to uncover their old chemistry and reunite them. One began life as a proposed middle section for a different song, but underwent further transformation when producer Brian Eno persuaded them to deconstruct it; Daniel Lanois and Edge removed the acoustic parts and instead added more aggressive guitar to undermine the “too beautiful” overall sound. They achieved their goal, with The Edge wrapping the song in layers of Gibson-branded cotton wool for its intro before adding a layered, heartrending soundscape of lachrymose Les Paul bends from Daniel Lanois and a series of modulated licks, forever building to the song’s anthemic outro figure.

Did you know?

The Edge began exploring the Gibson model catalogue beyond the Explorer and Les Paul in earnest during Achtung Baby and One also features The Edge’s 1959 Tobacco Sunburst ES-330, which can be seen in one of the song’s three videos.

19. Mysterious Ways

With the jam-tune they’d titled Sick Puppy having already provided the seed of One, which would eventually become perhaps their greatest song, the band returned to the idea to see if they could turn the rest of it into something. Sick Puppy consisted of Adam Clayton’s rolling bassline over a dance beat from a drum machine, but a breakthrough was made when The Edge found a soupy auto-wah-based preset on his Korg A3 Performance Signal Processor, with SPC-01 Guitar to hand he came up with the song’s disarmingly simple but mighty two-note, one-chord riff and funky solo interlude. The lessons seem to be you should never abandon a sick puppy, and you should never dismiss a preset, even if it is called ‘Funk Wah’.

Did you know?

Live, The Edge uses a Rickenbacker 330-12 model for Mysterious Ways, tuned to E♭.

18. With Or Without You

Another song, like One, that came together in the studio while the band were harbouring fears of creative drought, sonically speaking, With Or Without You was a great leap forward for U2. It’s the first U2 song to feature Bono singing in a confessional lower register and Larry Mullen experimenting with an electronically enhanced drumkit; but the key ingredient was once again The Edge, whose use of a prototype of the Infinite Guitar he’d just received in the studio added an EBow-like haunting quality that elevated its sound.

It’s another example of winning simplicity and it was the band’s first US No. 1 single. The Edge believes the triumphal riff at the song’s ending is an encapsulation of his minimalist guitar approach, telling author Bill Flanagan in 1996: “The end of With Or Without You could have been so much bigger, so much more of a climax, but there’s this power to it which I think is even more potent because it’s held back.”

Did you know?

The prototype Infinite Guitar was created by Edge’s friend Michael Brook. It was a kit based on a modified Squier Stratocaster with an inbuilt sustainer created from the feedback between an electromagnetic transducer and a Seymour Duncan pickup, paired with a dedicated rack-mounted unit. The setup has given guitar tech Dallas Schoo several electric shocks.

17. Desire

U2 followed the phenomenal success of 1987’s The Joshua Tree with what was pretty much the most back-to-basics statement possible: Desire, their first single from Rattle And Hum, began with a clattering open E chord before ripping into a raw and fiery interpretation of the Stooges1969, itself based on the timeless Bo Diddley beat. The Edge, however, seemingly couldn’t resist subverting the simplistic formula by using one of rock ’n’ roll’s most lavish guitar creations – the Gretsch 6137 White Falcon – to deliver this burst of refreshingly unadorned, in-your-face rhythm. He also added a frantic John Lee Hooker-on-speed solo and a middle section with a faux killswitch-style effect and some neck-bending modulation – all a far cry from the Starship Enterprise-style guitar effects he’d become associated with.

Did you know?

Desire won the 1988 Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal and was U2’s first UK No. 1.

16. A Sort Of Homecoming

After the stark and earnest 1983 War album and tour had turned the band into an arena-rock monster in waiting, U2 saw the predictable path mapped out before them and collectively decided on a creative volte-face that would take them in an artier direction. Producer Brian Eno and engineer Daniel Lanois were persuaded into the fold, Eno left cold by their bombast but intrigued by the notion of experimenting with the band’s sound in the ambience of Slane Castle in County Meath.

Album opener A Sort Of Homecoming leaps out of the speakers with the results of their many experiments. Driven by more sophisticated rhythms than before, it’s an astonishing soundscape awash with layer upon layer of heavenly reverb and delay: its shimmering arpeggios collapse into waves of lush harmony, tempered with the physicality of strummed string scrapes, open strings, delay trails, fingerslides, acoustic and the piercing top end of The Edge’s Vox… it’s an underrated monument to the atmospheric sonic powers the guitarist can summon from his setup.

Did you know?

Coldplay’s Chris Martin is a fan, telling Rolling Stone: “The first song on The Unforgettable Fire, A Sort of Homecoming, I know backward and forward – it’s so rousing, brilliant and beautiful. It’s one of the first songs I played to my unborn baby”.

15. Love Is Blindness

Bono wrote this song during the Rattle And Hum sessions on piano, intending to send it to Nina Simone, but although the band decided it wasn’t ‘U2 enough’ to put on that album, they kept it nonetheless. The song resurfaced during the making of Achtung Baby, when Edge was going through a divorce. When it came time to record his guitar solo for the song, he poured all of his emotion into a frenzy of angry, cathartic tremolo picking. Bono recalled that: “When we went for the take, one string broke and he just kept playing harder and harder. Another string broke. And he has such a light touch, ordinarily, he’s so gentle. All that left him for a kind of rage. And yet there’s not one bum note in there.”

Did you know?

The Edge recalled to The Times: “There was this idea going around during the session that distracting musicians during the course of playing can sometimes, especially on solos, knock the musician out of a predictable path, so they were trying to knock me about and I was not enjoying this concept at all. So I stopped and more or less told them to leave me alone. Then I put down the solo that we ended up using, and it’s one of my favourites”.

14. Zooropa

Beginning with a dramatic sci-fi sound collage of piano, bass, sampled snippets of radio voices and other sound sources, Zooropa is soon dominated by its mighty main riff, combining a filter pedal with two delays on different settings to render what’s being played underneath practically unrecognisable. A prime example of U2’s fastidious approach to recycling, The Edge put together the song’s demo of two halves by compiling a recording of a Dublin jam session with the best bits from a cassette recording of a soundcheck from a few years prior, a collage approach to composition perfectly in keeping with U2’s postmodern aspirations at the time.

Did you know?

The Edge earned his first production credit on a U2 album for Zooropa, appearing as a co-producer alongside Flood and Brian Eno.

13. Unknown Caller

2009’s No Line On The Horizon featured a number of songs created in a makeshift studio in a Riad in Fez, Morocco over a two-week period, a fruitful time for the band. One of these, Unknown Caller, exemplifies the anything-goes mindset. Beginning with the sound of birdsong – that most typical of arena-rock clichés – it puts The Edge’s doubled guitar parts front and centre; unusual pinched chord rhythms contrast with bold chiming arpeggios and single-note lines, while Bono intones surreal mystery text messages before giving way to an interlude featuring a French horn and church organ. The song’s guitar solo, a soaring melodic improvisation that’s as close to conventional rock playing as The Edge ever strays, is the one from the tape of the original single-take performance.

Did you know?

Guitar tech Dallas Schoo told Q this was “one of Edge’s major solos in his life – you won’t hear better than that on any other song”.

12. Gone

1997’s Pop was retrospectively described by Bono as “really the most expensive demo session in the history of music” and the tour’s postmodern stage show, featuring giant lemon-shaped mirrorballs and olives on towering cocktail sticks, was an ambitious but confusing experiment in irony. But it was, for The Edge at least, an opportunity to extend his sonic reach, deploying sounds like the violent, ghostly swoops used throughout Gone. Album producer and engineer Flood described the tone, nicknamed the ‘747 sound’, in an interview with Guitar Player in 1997: “It’s him using his Korg SDD delay heavily fed back and then going into a couple of different fuzz pedals and a Whammy pedal. One of the fuzz pedals was a Fuzz Face. I can’t remember what the other one was, to be quite honest. But the way he’s got it set up, the guitar starts feeding back in a controllable way that sounds very uncontrollable,” adding that he used a semi-hollowbody Epiphone or Gretsch with the setup.

Did you know?

Pop has many experimental guitar moments: Discothèque’s opening sound is an acoustic through a filter pedal and an ARP 2600, for example.

11. New Year’s Day

The Edge is not just a guitar player, either, as this first UK Top 10 hit released in 1983 demonstrates. Live, he’d have to play sustained 12th- and 7th-fret harmonics through delay, then switch deftly back and forth between the piano and guitar within a single beat of a bar, while seated. It’s a tricky switch of mindset to segue from plangent piano melody to playing the song’s searing guitar solo, beginning on the 19th fret of the high E string, and while it may be an ergonomic challenge of his own making, it’s still an impressive stunt to pull off.

Did you know?

The Edge switched from playing his black 1973 Fender Stratocaster on this song to his faded Alpine White 1975 Gibson Les Paul Custom, which he bought in 1982 and is thought to have used on the original recording: the latter instrument was auctioned for his Music Rising charity in 2007, fetching $240,000.

10. Bad

This U2 fan favourite from The Unforgettable Fire soundtracked the moment in Live Aid that spurred them to megastardom – Bono pulling a fan out of the audience and dancing with her as the band looped the song’s riff became a defining moment in the rock mythology of the era. Though it was a spontaneous act, the moment couldn’t have been better chosen to demonstrate The Edge’s ability to transform a handful of simple notes through a delay into a rich, hypnotic, quasi-religious experience: the band had chosen to record in Slane Castle to make their album as live-sounding as they possibly could, and now it was out in the world, the Live Aid performance had shown exactly what they were trying to capture.

Did you know?

The Edge told Guitar World: “[With Bad], I remember working with Brian Eno, and the idea was to keep this two-chord mantra going, keep it going, keep it going, as long as we could stand it, and then bam! We made this chord change, and it was dramatic. Songs like that fascinate me”.

9. Sunday Bloody Sunday

The opening track from 1983’s War album was written by The Edge during a period of self-doubt: in the It Might Get Loud documentary, he recalls: “I remember feeling, well, can I write? Am I a writer? Or am I just a guitarist?” The piece of music he “scrambled to put down” became Sunday Bloody Sunday, an audacious, nonpartisan political statement, partly inspired by the 1972 incident in Derry where British troops killed unarmed civil rights protestors. Over Larry Mullen Jr.’s martial drumbeat (recorded in an echoing stairwell in a Dublin studio), The Edge picks out a clarion-call arpeggio, adds strummed barchords and a ringing harmonic interlude before his solo, which encapsulates all his anger and frustration in a descent and then rise along the second (B) string, milking the dissonances of the ringing open first (E) string for all they’re worth along the way.

Did you know?

The electric violin on the song was played by Steve Wickham, who met The Edge at a bus stop in Dublin and asked if U2 wanted any violin on their album.

8. Even Better Than The Real Thing

What a difference a pedal makes. Initially little more than a Rolling Stones-like riff from the Rattle And Hum sessions, Even Better Than The Real Thing came to life when the Edge bought a DigiTech WH-1 Whammy pedal and added the song’s startling two-octaves-up intro. Ultimately, the finished product is a tour de force of catchy riffery, culminating in a masterfully constructed slide solo where The Edge builds the song’s energy anew, progressing from languid beginnings to a Doppler-effect climax: incidentally, even his slide style is unconventional, given that he plays his slide parts in standard tunings and uses the bottleneck on his middle finger, rather than the more conventional choice of third or fourth.

Did you know?

The song was originally called The Real Thing, but was retitled when Brian Eno insisted the song needed to be “more ironic”.

7. I Will Follow

The very beginning. U2’s first track from their debut album is an instant classic of post-punk and is their most-performed live song. Featuring a sophisticated and enigmatic lyric that Bono wrote from his mother’s perspective, I Will Follow’s mesmerising lick and menacing bassline combine to leave an indelible impression: the famous clip from It Might Get Loud, where The Edge teaches the riff to Jimmy Page and Jack White, underlines its timeless rock ’n’ roll energy. Not that the song didn’t hint at hidden depths to their sound – producer Steve Lillywhite added judicious glockenspiel, and Bono revealed that: “The percussion in the drop was a bicycle spinning, wheels upside down and played like a harp with a kitchen fork.”

Did you know?

The Edge used his 1976 Gibson Explorer for the recording of the first album, and says its lack of bass response was a factor in defining his sound. “I used to stay away from the low strings, and a lot of the chords I played were very trebly, on the first four, or even three strings. I discovered that through using this one area of the fretboard I was developing a very stylised way of doing something that someone else would play in a normal way”.

6. Until The End Of The World

Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus Christ in this biblically proportioned riff-fest from Achtung Baby – no apologies for the number of entries from that album in this list, though: The Edge had taken his playing to a higher plane of expressiveness and creative freedom. Until The End Of The World begins with a red herring squeal of torturously EQ’d Whammy before launching into a series of pneumatic hard-rock hammer blows, octaves, tremolo-picked flurries, characteristic picked harmonics and a guitar solo full of string slides and Slash-esque legato that launches itself out of swells of noise pollution. The It Might Get Loud excerpt where he demonstrates the song unaccompanied offers a fresh appreciation of the craft involved.

Did you know?

Note the capo on the 3rd fret, altering the song’s tonality and enabling The Edge to access the ringing open strings to give his licks extra character and grit.

5. Beautiful Day

2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind reconciled the old and the new aspects of U2’s sound, reuniting the band with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. Bono asserted more than once that the band were “reapplying for the job… of best band in the world”, and after the trials of previous album, Pop, it was a much-reinvigorated U2 that unleashed lead single Beautiful Day on the world. The most exultant rock song to mention tuna fishing ever written, it tastefully mixed the electronic experimentation of Eno while resurrecting the classic Edge guitar sound: when Edge switched in his Explorer, Vox and delay units to create the song’s icing-on-the-cake final riff, the band were initially reluctant to return to such a heartland signature of their past. But The Edge won out, adding the final piece to a guitar symphony that blended disparate tones and parts into a triumphant whole.

Did you know?

Michael Stipe of R.E.M. is the song’s biggest fan, saying: “I wish I’d written it, and they know I wish I’d written it. It makes me dance; it makes me angry that I didn’t write it”.

4. Pride (In The Name Of Love)

U2 sound engineer Joe O’Herlihy recorded an Edge chord progression during a soundcheck on the War tour and the idea eventually became the seed for Pride (In The Name Of Love), the centrepiece of The Unforgettable Fire album and one of U2’s torch songs. The Edge had recently upgraded his erstwhile Memory Men in favour of the superior clarity and modulation possibilities of two Korg SDD-3000 rackmounted digital delays, and on this, their triplet repeats enable The Edge’s deceptively simple parts to either chime out across the mix or provide a storm of percussive propulsion. The guitarist has said it’s one of his favourite guitar parts and it’s surely one of the most outright epic guitar performances ever committed to tape.

Did you know?

Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders contributes backing vocals, though she’s credited as Mrs Christine Kerr.

3. Where The Streets Have No Name

The documentary It Might Get Loud has a sequence where The Edge listens to his old four-track demos of Where The Streets Have No Name, and even at this stage of its development, it’s blindingly obvious that the circling, cathartic opening lick the guitarist had summoned from his sonorous 1973 Strat was a ready-made classic. Perhaps it was the pressure to do it justice that meant the song’s birth was a painful one – it took two weeks of work to get it across the line, frustrating producer Brian Eno to the point that he wanted to erase the multi-track. “He’d actually decided to do it,” The Edge recalled. “But the assistant engineer wouldn’t go. He stood in front of the tape machine, saying, ‘Brian, you can’t do this.’ And so he didn’t, but it was close.”

Did you know?

Daniel Lanois recalled to Mojo: “It was a bit of a tongue-twister for the rhythm section, with strange bar lengths that got everybody in a bad mood. I can remember pointing at a blackboard, walking everybody through the changes like a science teacher”.

2. Bullet The Blue Sky

Jarringly sequenced straight after With Or Without You on The Joshua Tree, Bullet The Blue Sky found The Edge channelling the spirit of Hendrix to soundtrack Bono’s impassioned lyric about the effects of punitive US foreign policy on the people of Central American countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador, where he’d witnessed military jets and gunfights on an Amnesty trip in 1985. Bono had pointedly asked Edge to “put El Salvador through an amplifier”, and the guitarist slathered Larry Mullen’s Bonham-esque drums in howls of feedback, descending scrapes of slide,  atmospheric sound effects and hard-edged funk stabs with a fire to rival that of Band Of GypsysMachine Gun.

Did you know?

The Hendrix connection was strengthened by the inclusion on Rattle And Hum of an excerpt from Jimi’s rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner preceding a live performance of the track.

1. The Fly

Famously described by Bono as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree”, The Fly encouraged the singer to invent a new ‘persona’ to deliver the song’s pithy aphorisms, his voice ranging from a menacing breathy telephone-EQ’d whisper to a soaring gospel falsetto. But bug-eyed sunglasses or not, even his contribution to the track is decisively upstaged by the abrasive six-string soundscape that spikes the song with regular jolts of electrifying energy.

The tone used is an unholy fusion of flange, wah, delay and dirt, and as producer Daniel Lanois has confirmed that many of Achtung Baby’s guitar parts were created using one of the two Korg A3 processors Edge brought to the sessions, it’s safe to assume the unit is involved somewhere in the signal chain. Live, The Edge has varied the guitars he’s used to play it over the years, including a Strat, a Les Paul and even a Line 6 Variax 700 acoustic. Additional guitar sounds were added on top of the original mix, on the fly as it were, to create the phasing artefacts in the song’s intro.

Yet it’s the track’s solo section where the Edge really outdoes himself, using the springboard of a complete cycle of the song’s verse-to-chorus section to create a series of licks that range from whammy-bar swoops to descending and ascending runs that seem to reach their apex before finding new places to go. The ultimate example of The Edge creatively rinsing his guitar effects for every drop of emotional content, The Fly is his crowning six-string moment.

Did you know?

When David Bowie visited the band after they’d finished The Fly, he told them they should re-record it.