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(Credit: Ed O'Brien)

Music

The textural master: How to play the guitar like Ed O'Brien of Radiohead

In terms of modern rock guitarists, Ed O’Brien of Radiohead is one of the most eminent. The Oxford band are lucky in the sense that they have two incredible guitarists, the other one being Jonny Greenwood, who as the lead, takes most of the limelight. However, this should not diminish the reverence with which I regard O’Brien. 

O’Brien is equally as adept, and in the more contemporary stages of the band’s career, his guitar work has taken on a more textural feel. He provides the band with their sonic ballast for which Greenwood can add his own unmistakable style on top. Outside of the confines of Radiohead, he performs under the moniker EOB, and his material is well worth a listen for anyone who hasn’t already. 

O’Brien’s role within Radiohead is a vital one, and due to the fact that you’ll never catch him shredding, he often gets dismissed. He’s clarified his position on numerous occasions over the years, explaining that he supports the band’s principal songwriter, Thom Yorke, in servicing the songs. In this sense, many view him as the band’s secret weapon, as without him, Radiohead’s ice-cool minimalist edge would not pack the same punch. Discussing his efforts, O’Brien told Premier Guitar in 2017: “I literally learned to play my instrument within the band, so I started off very limited — and I’m still very limited. But I’ve been lucky, because I’ve been in a band that has not required you to be a virtuoso.”

This is the nature of his playing, and for anyone wanting to play like O’ Brien, this is the main point. He’s about the song, not technical peacocking or showing off. 

To best understand O’Brien’s guitar-playing attitude, it’s most useful that we first take a look at his influences. Like many guitarists of his generation, he was deeply inspired by the great guitar heroes of the post-punk movement, with their nimble fingerwork and emotive use of effects pedals. The first figure to really make a mark on him was Andy Summers of The Police, and his use of delay and chorus on ‘Walking on the Moon’ was what set O’Brien on his long path to achieving greatness with effects. 

In terms of influences, it’s a real who’s who of legendary indie guitarists when it comes to O’Brien and the rest of Radiohead. Over his long and celebrated career, he’s mentioned Paul Weller of The Jam, Johnny Marr of The Smiths, Peter Buck of R.E.M., The Edge of U2 and unsurprisingly, John McGeoch of Magazine and Siouxsie and the Banshees. McGeoch is undoubtedly the most significant guitarist of the era, influencing everyone from Johnny Marr to John Frusciante.

O’Brien has been keen to express that he loves the aforementioned guitarists because of the “space” and atmosphere that they create, rather than opting for conventional guitar solos. He explained: “They were great guitarists, but they weren’t lead guitarists… My favourite guitarists know when not to play. Then you make more of it when you do play. Make it count.” 

“Make it count” – if there was any phrase to describe the musicianship of Ed O’Brien and Radiohead, it is this.

Now, the next element you need to be able to play the guitar like O’Brien is the suitable model of guitar. He’s used a variety over the years and has even employed Gretsch and Rickenbacker guitars, including an iconic 12-string by the latter. 

In the early days, he used the Plank “Ed1”, a custom model built by Radiohead’s guitar tech, Plank. He played this instrument on The Bends, and it can be heard in classics such as ‘My Iron Lung’ and ‘Just’. However, it was stolen in 1994 and has never been recovered.

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Above all, the guitar that O’Brien is most synonymous with is the Fender Stratocaster. It’s indicative of his dextrous style that he’s chosen the most adaptable guitar on the market. Although he’s used a myriad of Strats over the years, including an Eric Clapton Signature ST3, the one he now uses is the Fender EOB Sustainer Strat, which was built specifically for his glacial textures.  

His signature guitar is designed to be capable of sustained sounds as well as more traditional Stratocaster tones. Notably, it is fitted with a Fernandes Sustainer driver in the neck position, a Fender Texas Special single-coil in the middle, and a Seymour Duncan JB Jr. in the bridge, giving him great scope for the many different sounds he needs. Using this model, he’s able to seamlessly jump from the alt-rock of their early cuts to the stripped-back minimalism of A Moon Shaped Pool

So now you know what guitar to invest in, the next thing you need is pedals…and a lot of them. The pedals O’Brien usually leans on are the Marshall Guv’nor distortion, an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man delay, MXR Phase 45, the EBow, Line 6 DL4 and a DigiTech Whammy pitch shifter. Added to this, to create the oscillating sounds as heard on Kid A, a volume control such as a Boss FV500L is also advised. 

Interestingly, O’Brien also uses a lot of effects units. The one you need to sound most like him is the Boss Half-Rack Delay, and the power of the delay signal will carry your own Radiohead-inspired works. Of his extensive use of effects to create an ambient sound, he said: “It’s a bit like you’re creating a canvas. That would be in accompaniment with Thom playing chords on the piano — you’re building up a cloud of effects behind.” 

In terms of amplification, O’Brien has used so many different models. It’s really a case of choosing what sounds right for you, and what era of Radiohead you want to sound like. In the early period, around the release of Pablo Honey, when O’Brien’s guitar had a lot more bite, he used a Black Mesa Boogie amp head with a Mesa Boogie 4×12 Slant cabinet. 

Although as the years moved on, and he increasingly utilised reverb and textures, he started using Vox AC30s and many different Fender models. For In Rainbows, he used a Fender Deluxe Reverb in the studio and in more recent times, he’s been seen using a Fender Vibro-King Custom when on tour. 

To finish your metamorphosis into Radiohead’s secret weapon, you need to invest in some 73mm Dunlop Nylon Standard Picks, which he used in the In Rainbows era, or BareKnuckle Pickups Picks, which he has favoured since 2012.

Even though you need a lot of gear to sound like Ed O’Brien, the most important thing to remember is his philosophy. It’s about serving the song. He never overplays, and his God is space. This is something a lot of players, not just people wanting to sound like him, should remember. He’s helped to recreate the guitar for the modern era, and for that, we salute him. 

Watch Ed O’Brien discuss some of his pedals below.

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