The Talk Box: A Unique Sound in the World of Guitar Pedals

Learn about the history, function, and lasting impact of the talk box, popularized by 70s rock and modern pop music icons.
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The talk box, an ingenious guitar pedal, has been an integral part of the music industry since its invention. This innovative piece of gear imparts a unique sound, a melange of human voice and instrument that’s fascinated music lovers from the era of funk and 70s rock through to contemporary hard rock.

But what is a talk box, exactly? How does it work? Who are the legends behind its invention and prominent usage? How much would you need to shell out for one? And how can it be used with a keyboard? Let’s deep-dive into the intriguing world of the talk box.

How Does a Talk Box Work?

The talk box works on a relatively simple, yet ingeniously clever concept. Its core components are a small speaker, an enclosure, some tubing, and a microphone. The speaker is housed in a box connected to the guitar or keyboard output. The sound from the instrument is driven into the tube, which a musician places in their mouth. The musician can then shape the sound using their mouth, which is picked up by the microphone and amplified, creating a surreal mix of music and voice that is distinctively 'talk box.'

Who Invented the Talk Box?

The talk box was the brainchild of Alvino Rey, an inventive musician with a penchant for the experimental. Rey created a proto-talk box in the 1930s, originally called the "SonoVox". It was used to make his pedal steel guitar "talk", earning him the title "father of the talking steel guitar." However, it wasn't until the 1960s that Pete Drake, a highly respected pedal steel guitarist, popularized the device. His rendition of "Forever" prominently featured the talk box, and music was never the same again.

Perhaps the most famous user of the talk box is Peter Frampton. His use of the device in hits like "Show Me the Way" and "Do You Feel Like We Do" from his Frampton Comes Alive! album – arguably the pinnacle of the talk box in rock – brought a whole new level of charisma to the stage. The iconic "talking guitar" effect he achieved has since been associated with him, helping define a significant part of the 70s rock sound.

Another renowned band that skillfully incorporated the talk box into their music is Steely Dan. Their track "Haitian Divorce" features a distinctive talk box solo that adds a fresh layer of texture to the song. Each usage has further cemented the device's status in rock and pop music history.

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The talk box isn’t just for guitar, though. It's versatile and can be used with other instruments, most notably the keyboard. By plugging the output of the keyboard into the talk box, keyboardists can achieve the same voice-like effects that guitarists enjoy. You can hear a talk box used in this way at the beginning of Bruno Mars' funky hit song, "24K Magic".

How Much Is a Talk Box?

So, you might wonder, how much is a talk box? Like any other piece of music gear, the price can vary based on factors like brand, quality, and additional features. At the time of writing, one of the most popular models, the MXR Talk Box, is available for around $200 USD. This unit includes a built-in amplifier, along with a tone and gain control that let you fine-tune the output to your liking.

An image of an MXR M222 Talk Box pedal.
Figure 1: An MXR M222 Talk Box pedal.

How to Use a Talk Box

To effectively use the talk box, you'll need some practice. First, connect your instrument to the talk box and then to your amplifier. Insert the surgical tubing into your mouth – but not too far! You then 'mouth' the words you want to mimic while playing. The sound from the instrument will follow your mouth movements, giving the impression that the instrument is 'talking'. It might take a bit to get used to, but the results are worth it!

Artists from Bob Heil, inventor of the 'Heil Talk Box', used by Joe Walsh in the classic "Rocky Mountain Way", to Bon Jovi in "Livin' on a Prayer" have used the talk box to create unforgettable sounds. The talk box continues to be a potent tool for guitarists and keyboardists to communicate musical expressions in a way that no other guitar pedal can emulate.

Whether you're a fan of funk, 70s rock, or modern hard rock, the talk box is a compelling device that can add an extra layer of expression to your music. It's a unique piece of equipment that marries human voice and instrument to create a truly harmonious relationship. It's not just a guitar pedal; it's a music revolution.

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