From the echo-drenched opening notes of “I Will Follow” from U2’s 1980 debut masterpiece, Boy, to the explosive rock power that informed the band’s recent Grammy-winning How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, the guitarist who calls himself the Edge has created a guitar sound that seemed to have been beamed from outer space. 

Unconventional as it first sounded, it is an approach that has now become instantly recognizable, and also widely imitated over the past three decades, so much so that even the guitarist who created it sometimes feels as if he’s parodying himself when the band plays the song onstage. “I sometimes have to remind myself, ‘Hey, I came up with this sound,’” the Edge says. “It’s mine. I have an ownership to this form of playing.” 

Chiming and chimerical, a sound this unorthodox could only come from a guitarist who knew that rules had no place in the creation of exciting and groundbreaking rock ’n’ roll, and his choice of guitar reflected this mindset. “I was on a trip to New York and I went to a guitar shop,” he explains. “I didn’t go with the intention of buying a Gibson Explorer. A Rickenbacker six-string was what I was after. But when I picked up the Exlorer it felt really, really good. I wasn’t expecting it, but the guitar seemed to talk to me. There are some songs in this, I said to myself.”
Visually, there’s nothing subtle about the Explorer. With its radical and unique shape, sharp lines jutting out in two opposite directions, it had been a favorite of glam-rock bands during the early ’70s. “This was certainly a concern I had when first buying it,” he admits. “It was far and away from the image I held of myself at the time. I saw myself as an experimenter sonically, but when it came to my own appearance, I was fairly modest, very anti-rock star. The Explorer, the whole look of it, didn’t jive with that line of thinking.” He recalls feeling a palpable degree of anxiety when he first showed up at rehearsal with the guitar.
“I went back to Dublin and took it out of its case. I remember thinking, How is this going to go over? It was so off people’s perceptions of what I might go for. There might have been one or two comments at first, but it clicked pretty quickly-the look, the sound. It felt natural. Very soon, it became me, and I became it.”