Did Joe Walsh, as he says during a new interview, reinvent the talk box? Those old enough to remember his 1973 Top 10 hit “Rocky Mountain Way” would quickly agree.
Walsh, in a talk with Jeb Wright of Classic Rock Revisited, actually credits Nashville steel guitarist Bill West — an electrical engineer and first husband of country legend Dottie West — for passing along the contraption during a visit while on tour with the James Gang. Bob Heil, a sound and radio engineer, then developed the first talk box that was loud enough to be heard during a rock concert, building it for Walsh’s Barnstorm Tour.
From there, the sound quickly became a signature part of the mid-1970s rock soundscape. The Heil box was later perhaps most famously used by Peter Frampton, first on his 1975 album Frampton and then on Frampton Comes Alive — the best selling album of 1976. Still, close listeners will also remember similar sounds on the Who’s 1967 release The Who Sell Out, in which days of the week were “spoken” by guitar chords, and on Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind in 1972, as well.
Whoever invented it, we gathered around the SER Watercooler to discuss this lost throwback sound, and some of our favorite sides featuring the talk box …
NICK DERISO: Hate to break it to Frampton fans, but the very most rockingest use will always be Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way”: Brwow, brwow, bewowwowowwwwwwwwowowoww.
MARK SALESKI: Always wondered how you spell that.
NICK DERISO: Whatever happened to the talk box, anyway? Save for a few choice examples, it’s all but disappeared from rock. Isn’t it time for a retro-comeback?
MARK SALESKI: I wish they’d swap that in for the fucking auto-tune.
NICK DERISO: I will say this: When I saw Frampton in concert, years ago, he looked like he already had a love-hate — mostly hate — relationship with the talk box. But the crowd would have rushed the stage, I think, if he hadn’t gone through the customary “do you feel like we do” thing.
MARK SALESKI: Was listening to Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam and when I got to the guitar/talk box solo during “Haitian Divorce,” it made me wonder if that pre-dated Frampton. Of course, he wasn’t the only person to use one. I believe Aerosmith used it on “Sweet Emotion.” Sure there are others, too.
S. VICTOR AARON: Isn’t that a talk box on Steely Dan’s rendition of “East St Louis Toodle-Oo”?
NICK DERISO: My first memory of it: Stevie Wonder used one on the opener “Love Having You Around” from Music of My Mind, the album that kicked off his so-called “classic period.”
FRED PHILLIPS: On the metal side, Zakk Wylde uses one occasionally, as does Mick Mars. I believe there was one on their last record. Metallica may have used it on one of the Load records. I only remember like three songs between the two of them, and I try to forget that era existed. It’s still out there, you just don’t have any huge songs on the level of Frampton or “Sweet Emotion” using it.
NICK DERISO: Circling back to East St. Louis, and the “Steely Dan Toodle-Oo” — I was certain it was a talkbox in the opening stanza — until I saw Walter Becker playing it with a wah-wah pedal in concert. Also heard tell of Skunk Baxter using a pedal steel on the mid-1970s tours, and that might be the best clue of all.
TOM JOHNSON: Is there any use of talkbox outside of guitar, or is it strictly a guitar-based effect? It seems like it could easily have been added to keyboards pretty easily (and effectively.) Unless maybe I’m missing an example?
S. VICTOR AARON: The keyboard talk box, or the vocoder, was supposedly first used for Alan Parsons’ The Raven back in ’75.
NICK DERISO: Paging Jeff Lynne!
FRED PHILLIPS: Black Sabbath’s “Electric Funeral” from 1970 has a real talk box-like effect in places, though it’s actually done with distortion and wah.
NICK DERISO: Kraftwerk was the first to use a vocoder, by the way — or at least the first one to use it as part of a widely heard record: 1974′s “Autobahn,” which was actually a radio hit … something that seems so very unimaginable today. The album of the same name was just this slice of Minimoog heaven.
FRED PHILLIPS: Ah, a very obvious one I didn’t think of: “Hair of the Dog,” Nazareth … womp, womp, womp, womp, wompwompwompwomp wow wow.
NICK DERISO: David Gilmour, I remember too, toyed with it — first, to great guttural effect, on “Pigs,” from Pink Floyd’s Animals in the late 1970s. It appeared again, sounding like a babbling retort to his lyric, on “Keep Talking,” the best cut (I think) from Division Bell in the 1990s.
MARK SALESKI: I think he used it on his first solo record, too.
NICK DERISO: Ah, yes: “There’s No Way Out of Here.” Great lost Floyd-related track. Forgot about that one.
MARK SALESKI: I’ve never played one. The other guitar player in the band I was in had one, but I wasn’t really interested in using the same tube as he did. He complained that it rattled the shit out of his teeth and the vibrations went all the way into his inner ear. Cool sound, though. Oh shit, I just remembered that Sambora used on on some Bon Jovi something or other …
NICK DERISO: “Livin’ on a Prayer!” Sounded like a seal drowning.
MARK SALESKI: Doesn’t he use it on the opening guitar riff? That part’s not so bad.
NICK DERISO: I must admit, I liked it, too. Better than the song, anyway.
FRED PHILLIPS: My personal favorite use, at least the one I can think of off the top of my head: Alice in Chains, “Man in the Box.” A lesser known use that I like, “Fire it Up” by Black Label Society.
NICK DERISO: I remember when Brian May finally succumbed to the talk box, in the early 1990s. He admitted that nothing else could quite replicate its unique MEOW sound. He even said it, over and over, in the interview, like the catfood commercial — meow, meow, meow. He’s right, you know. All hail the talk box!