“Despite what people might think, Radiohead are not rock” – Ed O’Brien explains why U2 can crank it up while he is trying to turn the volume down

Ed O'Brien
(Image credit: Burak Cingi/Redferns)

There comes a time in most guitar players’ lives when all of a sudden we realise our tube amps are too loud. Sometimes we find this out by ourselves. Occasionally, there’s an intervention, from our families, or maybe the local authorities. More often than not it’s an embattled sound engineer who raises the red flag. Ed O’Brien can relate.

The EOB and Radiohead guitarist stopped by GigRig HQ to spec up a new pedalboard – and if ever we are in need of stompbox inspiration, we will find it here. And the conversation around the build, and partly why he wanted to switch things up, revealed that after 35 years or so as a pro musician O’Brien has reached an epiphany with amplification. By using smaller amps he could push them and find their sweet spot a lot easier.

This is, after all, the great conundrum with the tube amp. We love the musicality, the break-up, and even how they make nonsense phrases like “the feel of the sound” make sense in context. But we all know we have to turn them up loud to get their lungs going. It’s only when the power tubes are pushed into the aerobic zone and get a little red in the cheek that the amp really opens up. 

I remember standing side of stage to U2, years and years ago, like ’97, and the thing that you notice side of stage is how loud they are onstage

That can be a problem onstage, and it has presented O’Brien with many a problem when playing live. The stage volume issue is particularly acute when playing with Radiohead. This, he says, is the difference between a band like Radiohead and a band like U2, who can get away with a wall of noise onstage as the Edge’s guitar, Adam Clayton’s bass guitar and Larry Mullen Jr’s drums each occupy their own space in the mix.

“I remember standing side of stage to U2, years and years ago, like ’97, and the thing that you notice side of stage is how loud they are onstage,” says O’Brien. “Like, Edge has got his AC30s cranked, because Larry the drummer is so loud as well! As is Adam’s bass rig, and it is almost like The Who. You can do it if you are a four-piece. It’s rock. But despite what people might think, Radiohead are not rock. We have had our rocky moments. We have rock moments. They tended to be when we were younger. But the music is more nuanced.”

Some might take issue with that. Rock is a broad church. But O’Brien explained why;  Radiohead were trying to do something more nuanced. They could never be too loud onstage. Even if they wanted to turn up, they were at a numerical disadvantage. With his, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood’s guitars all operating in a similar frequency range, it just wouldn’t work. 

When O'Brien found himself onstage on his last EOB tour, an old AC30 and a Vibro-King in his rig, something had to give. It was time to change.

“The Vibro-King only starts getting really interesting around three-and-a-half, which is flippin’ loud!” he says. “I had the soundman saying to me, ’Please, I can hear your amp from the stage in the middle of the arena!’ And my tech, Adam, Adam’s like, ‘Listen, the amp only starts cooking at about three-and-a-half.’ And I’m caught between the two. I just want everyone to be happy.”

So O’Brien started scaling down, reverting to the Big Chopper from Audio Kitchen, switching it down to 15-watts. He had two of them, same deal, using them as a wet/dry live rig and yet they were still too loud for the studio. 

Now? It’s a hand-wired Fender Deluxe and an AC15, which brings him to his new ‘board build with Dan Steinhardt, GigRig owner and host of That Pedal Show, on which he can decommission the distortion pedals in favour of boosts and preamps to push the amp. 

There are some gourmet choices, such as a  Soundgas 636 Preamp, which puts the Grampian/Soundgas 636 mic preamp used by the likes of Lee Scratch Perry and Pete Townshend into pedal form, and the Eventide H90. And powering all this is the new Gen-X-14 pedalboard powersupply that GigRig launched last week. Check it out the ‘board build above.

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.