The Talk Box Guitar Effect

The Talk Box Guitar Effect

Peter Frampton’s 1976 LP “Frampton Comes Alive” gave the first wide spread rock n’ roll exposure to the Talk Box - an invention that had its roots in 1930s technology. Two of Frampton’s three singles, “Show me the Way” and “Do You Feel Like I Do?,” featured the talk box.

The first time I remember hearing a talk box was with Joe Walsh’s 1973 recording of “Rocky Mountain Way” from the “Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get” album. Having not seen what Walsh was doing to achieve this sound, I really didn’t know how he accomplished the strange "Bup-bo" sounds toward the cut's end until I saw what Frampton was using in 1976.

After Walsh, my next exposure was a Pete Drake single that I purchased at a flea market in 1974 – it featured the 1964 single recording of “Forever” backed with “I’m Just a Guitar and Everybody is Picking on Me.” The artist was billed on the label as “Pete Drake and his Talking Steel Guitar.” “Talking Steel Guitar,” how could I not buy this record?

Today’s feature picks up where Drake left off with his guitar humor and features the Talk Box designed by Bob Heil. Stillwater’s 1978 single “Mindbender” is about a fictitious talking guitar. The protagonist croons, “My daddy was a Gibson; my momma was Fender; that’s why they call me ‘Mindbender.’ ‘Mindbender’ – that’s my name. ”

History of the Talk Box

Alvino Rey’s Throat Microphone

As stated earlier, the idea for a talk box type of effect had its roots in the 1930s. The first prototype was used by steel guitarist Alvino Rey. His device was a military issue throat microphone that was used as an output of his amplified his steel guitar. Unlike Drake, Walsh, and Frampton, Rey didn’t manipulate his own mouth to provide the talking sounds. This was done offstage by using his wife, Luise King Rey, singing through the throat microphone that was used as an output device with her husband's steel guitar signal. I have a few of Rey's 78s that I got over three decades ago, but sadly do not have 78 player any longer.

In the accompanying video of “St. Louis Blues,” Rey’s orchestra is joined by the “talking guitar” puppet “Stringy.” The gimmick was to have the sound of Luise Rey’s vocal processed with Alvino Rey’s steel guitar appear as though “Stringy” was singing. While Rey invented his device in 1939, this video is from much later in his career.

I’m not 100 percent sure, but I believe Rey is playing a six-string pedal steel guitar. It has the same design as a Multi-Kord – one of the first pedal steels on the market. I purchased a Multi-Kord steel from a fellow college student, Scott Bryant, back in 1978 for $75.00. It is a horrible little instrument because there is the tendency for the cables to stretch causing the pitch to change unevenly when the pedals are depressed. Later pedal steels used rods to correct this issue. Rey also uses the steel's tone controls to achieve certain effects. My Multi-Chord has a tone button that allowed for very quick wah-wah type by rolling off the bass when the push-button switch is depressed.

The Sonovox Output Device

Simultaneously in 1939, Gilbert Hunger Wright developed a device that his father, novelist Harold Bell Wright, called the "Sonovox." The younger Wright noticed one day that when he scratched his Adam’s apple he could make unique sounds by mouthing the words. He took two small speakers that are not much different from modern headphones, input sound to the speakers, and placed on these on an individual’s throat. The resulting sound would emanate from the persons mouth when he formed the words and gave the appearance that the instruments were singing.

In the 1940 film, “You’ll Find Out,” Harry Babbitt demonstrates the Sonovox with Kay Kyser’s band. I’m not sure how they did this live, as the instruments do not appear to be miked. It is possible that it was prerecorded or there were other instrumentalists backstage that were miked and played on cue. He is not miked either until he sings with Kay. Is it live or or is Bell Labs? With that said, most recordings of that era were done with a single mike and that may be what is happening here. The single mic records were marvelous as correct mic placement allowed for a balance of the instrumentation and vocals.

Pete Drake’s Talking Actuator

In the 1960s, Nashville session musician, Pete Drake took the technology one step closer to today’s talk box. Drake attached an ordinary paper speaker cone that was attached to a funnel’s wide end and a plastic tube on the narrow end. The tube ran to his mouth where he mouthed words while playing his pedal steel. The device was used on a number of recordings, but was impractical for live performances as the volume levels were low. I am including his single “Forever” and its flip side, “I’m Just a Guitar (Everybody Picks on Me).

Pete Drake: Forever

Pete Drake: I’m Just A Guitar (And Everybody’s Picking on Me)

Doug Forbes’ Voice Bag

During the same period, another isolated event occurred that furthered the talk box technology. According to Doug Forbes, he was working in an electronic store in 1963 and a gentleman came in with an artificial larynx that had a tube connected to a buzzer on one end and the other end was placed in the user’s mouth and he or she would mouth words to communicate.

Wanting to try something different for his band, Forbes and his father rigged up a speaker driver and connected the tube to his mouth for a talking guitar effect. After experimenting with various drivers, he finally had a prototype that he placed in a bag that was slung over his back. The bag was made from green sofa upholstery material and trimmed with gold fringe.

The band’s manager attempted to rip off the idea and presented it to Kustom Electronics, the maker of amps and effects, and they produced a version that they called “the Bag.” Kustom marketed “the Bag” at $99.95 in 1968 (a great deal of money then) and it never achieved popularity. I am not sure that there were any recordings of note using “the Bag.”

 Kustom Electronics' "The Bag" from Doug Forbes design

Bob Heil’s Talk Box

The man generally considered as the inventor of a voice effect for guitar that was of suitable for high wattage output for live performances was Bob Heil. In 1972, Heil worked with Joe Walsh’s guitar tech to develop a 250 watt talk box for use on “Rocky Mountain Way.” Similar to Pete Drake’s and Doug Forbes’ earlier designs, Heil’s initial model was cumbersome and impractical for touring. By 1973, he had placed the speaker driver in a smaller fiberglass box making the effect easy for transport. On a side note, Alvino Rey, Gilbert Wright, and Bob Heil were all ham radio operators and the talk box was an extension of their hobby.

Joe Walsh – Rocky Mountain Way

Peter Frampton Makes the Guitar Come Alive

Peter Frampton, who had worked with Pete Drake on George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” LP, was impressed with Drake’s design; however, Drake was not willing to make one for Frampton. Bob Heil heard of Frampton’s interest and he gave him a prototype of his new design as a Christmas present in 1973. When the “Talk Box” was featured on the double live album “Frampton Comes Alive” in 1976, this exposure was viral. The popularity took the device to new heights of awareness. Guitarists all over the world clamored to have one and the rest, as they say, is history.

Peter Frampton – Show Me The Way

Peter Frampton – Do You Feel Like I Do

Bob Heil - 2007 Parnelli Audio Innovator Award Winner

Peter Frampton and Bob Heil Interview - 2009

Build Your Own Talkbox

Here’s an impressive young man that shows you how to build your own talk box so you can feel like Peter Frampton does. By the way for non-geeks, the young innovator mentions a DPDT switch - that is short for double pole, double throw.