Infinite Guitar: From Brian Eno to The Edge to Jonny Greenwood, a Look at the Sonic Landscapes of Ambient
Ted Drozdowski | 02.18.2008
Feedback and effects-colored guitar tones are attention getters, but ambient playing can be as static as a shimmering summer
sea or as transfixing as fireworks. It can provide a barely detectable bed of sound that adds brooding menace or delightful
tranquility to a composition. It can be as minimal as the textural soundscapes of English producers and musicians Robert Fripp
and Brian Eno, or as bold as the ringing, delay-soaked rhythm figure that the Edge uses to propel U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
Eno first employed the term “ambient” in the pop world in the early ’70s; he used it to define a kind
of music he was making that he considered supremely utilitarian. It could serve as a nearly subliminal soundtrack for whatever
task was at hand, but had enough compositional value to reward active listening.
Eno had begun dabbling in such experimentation in 1965 with his first conceptual recording: a slowed-down tape of a metal
lamp stand being whacked, overdubbed with a friend reading poetry.
After stints as keyboardist in Roxy Music and 801, and several solo pop albums, Eno’s ideas about ambient music began
to crystallize in a series of collaborations with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, a powerful guitarist whose unbridled
imagination and virtuosity was a fierce combination.
Borrowing a technique from modern classical composer Terry Riley, Eno developed a primitive tape delay and looping system
using a pair of Revox reel-to-reel recorders with a variable speed controller in 1972. Riley had used a similar set-up, minus
the additional colorings of guitar effects pedals and variable speed, for his 1963 album Music for the Gift, a tribute
to the 19th century French composer Erik Satie.
Indeed, the roots of the ambient and minimalist schools of music run back to Satie, a controversial figure who termed his
static, barely evolving themes “music for furniture.” Modern composers Riley, John Cage, LaMonte Young, Steve
Reich, and Philip Glass are all part of his creative lineage.
But ambient guitar was born when Eno dubbed his sound manipulation system “Frippertronics” and debuted it in 1973
with the release of Fripp & Eno’s No Pussyfooting. The LP also premiered the fundamentals of the looping
that’s at the heart of so much of today’s pop, techno, and hip-hop.
Each side of No Pussyfooting has a single tune that blends scripting and improvisation, the latter accomplished
by Eno’s sound manipulations and Fripp’s virtuosic performance on a Les Paul and pedal board. “The Heavenly
Music Corporation” and “Swastika Girls” feature Fripp executing a series of barely evolving melodies based
around a few notes, hammer-ons enriched by echo and delay, seemingly infinite sustain, and feedback and volume swells over
gently rising and falling beds of throbbing sound.
Over the course of a handful of live performances Fripp & Eno refined the approach and made the even more minimal sequel Evening
Star in 1973. Thirty-five-years later the psychoacoustic effect of these recordings is still intoxicating.
While Fripp went on to other musical projects, Germany became a fertile home for Eno’s ambient notions. He continued
to refine his ideas with the German group Cluster, which included keyboardist/guitarist Conny Plank. At the same time Teutonic
art-rockers Tangerine Dream and Popol Vuh began to incorporate Fripp and Eno’s innovations in harmonic layering and
Eno began transferring his ambient concepts to pop music in 1977 when he and Fripp reunited in Berlin to record David Bowie’s
Heroes with Tony Visconti producing. The epic title track sounds as if Fripp and Eno extracted one of the looped,
sustaining guitar melodies played on No Pussyfooting and simply dropped it into a rock band arrangement. At the time
Fripp’s singing, sustained guitar paired with Bowie’s haunted vocal performance sounded like nothing else on the
Heroes reached No. 3 on the U.K. charts and 35 in the States, opening the gates of pop to ambient guitar. The introduction
of the E-Bow in 1976 also helped, giving players the ability to produce loop-like effects without the use of tape recording.
The hand-held battery-powered device moves and sustains strings by generating an electromagnetic field. Bill Nelson of England’s
Be Bop Deluxe became one of the device’s early proponents. Later the pickup modifying Sustainiac also entered the game,
with a feedback-based approach to generating undecaying notes.
Fripp has continued to reign as the leading exponent of ambient guitar, adding incandescent or buzzing textures to hits
by Peter Gabriel (“Games without Frontiers”), piecing together works of complex pop architecture with David Sylvian
(Gone to Earth, which pairs him with Nelson), and assembling his own digital-age version of a pair of Revoxes with
a pedal board by building a complex rig of synths and samplers for his current solo performances.
Fripp also continues to collaborate with Eno. Recently they released Beyond Even (1992-2006), a collection
of recordings that mix their old-school ambient pastorals with the more current trend of setting sheets of guitar- or keyboard-generated
sound over programmed beats. Sometimes called hard house or acid techno, the approach became popular with the advent of chill
rooms at raves and is an important part of the underground dance music scene.
Beyond his continued work with Fripp, Eno has exerted a direct influence on nearly all of today’s most accomplished
ambient guitarists. Beginning with 1983’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, Daniel Lanois apprenticed under
Eno, engineering and playing guitar. Eno also invited Lanois to collaborate on his production for U2’s The Unforgettable
Fire in 1984, the first of several smashes they’d co-produce for the Irish superstars.
Eno had a profound effect on Lanois’ own vision as a producer. Even as Lanois’ reputation behind the console
grew, his work on 1987’s Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy and the Neville Brothers’
Yellow Moon in 1989 retained a noirish, dream-like quality established by drones and reverb drenched mixes similar
to his many ambient albums with Eno, including Eno’s own 1985 Lanois-helmed Thursday Afternoon.
And Lanois’ skill as an ambient guitar conjurer was summed up in 2005 on his instrumental solo outing Belladonna.
Whether plying his pedal steel or his ’53 Les Paul Goldtop with a Bigsby vibrato arm, Lanois’ playing on the disc
is as ceaselessly atmospheric, beautiful, and—often—unchanging as the Baja desert in which it was recorded.
The best-known guitarist to deploy ambient techniques in his bag of tricks is U2’s the Edge, who finds a fleet of
Gibson Explorers particularly responsive in creating bright sheets of sound. He favors the guitar’s high strings for
the chiming chords that distinguish so many of U2’s numbers, and then ladles on delay, reverb, chorus, and more effects
to fit the mood.
Eno’s first production for the band was 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. “Pride (In the Name of
Love)” became the most successful ambient guitar tune since “Heroes.” Slow down, or simply turn down, the
Edge’s chattering one-chord line that carries the song and it would fit into the background bed of a classic Eno ambient
work like the barely shifting Music for Airports or one of his early collaborations with Fripp.
Working with Eno and Lanois has helped the Edge develop a style of playing that, like pure ambient music, concentrates on
mood and texture, regardless of how few notes are involved. The perfect example might be the so-called “Infinite Guitar”
line of “With or Without You” from 1987’s Joshua Tree. Although the Edge holds a single D note with slight variations for much of the song, the tune hit the top of the pop charts.
The “Infinite Guitar” is actually the invention of another ambient wizard, Canadian guitarist Michael Brook.
The soundtrack for Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is among his recent works. He’s also recorded albums
with ex-Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy and the great Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and toured together with Sylvian
But Brook’s unusual way of generating tones can best be digested on his compelling solo albums Cobalt Blue
from 1992 and 2006’s RockPaperScissors. He eschews amps, instead running his effects and synth-based processors
into a preamp and then the sound board, going straight to tape, hard disk, or a sound system.
Brook hit on the idea of his “Infinite Guitar” while tinkering with his Tokai Strat. He developed a circuit
that takes a guitar pickup’s signal, amplifies it, then sends it back to another pickup before driving it to an amp
or, in his case, preamp and effects chain. The result is a continuous sustained note ala “With or Without You.”
Brook built “Infinite Guitars” for both the Edge and Lanois.
The latest heavy hitter in the ambient guitar game is Radiohead’s musical guru Jonny Greenwood, who along with the band’s
frontman Thom Yorke was largely responsible for the group’s break from alternative rock convention with 2000’s
Kid A. Driven by Yorke, Greenwood drew on his classical training to compose orchestral string arrangements and lead
horn sections down offbeat paths where harmony and intonation were secondary to a psychedelic approach. Greenwood also brought
his arsenal of guitar effects to the fore and played an electromagnetic sound-generating keyboard instrument similar to the
theremin but more controllable, called the Ondes Martenot, to create otherworldly textures.
Mixing played a crucial role in making Kid A an ambient masterpiece that reached No. 1 on both the U.S. and U.K.
album charts. The aim was to make most of its instruments indiscernible from each other, transforming what Radiohead recorded
into a textural listening experience similar to Eno’s original beds of sound.
Recently, Greenwood has taken ambient music back to its earliest roots with his soundtrack for the film There Will Be Blood. His 11 compositions on the CD for orchestra and string quartet are full of the same brooding ebb-and-flow melodrama as Kid
A. Nonetheless, Greenwood’s sensibilities as a guitarist come through. His “Henry Plainview” gets its tension
from E-Bow-like tones, and in “Stranded the Line” the violins mimic the kind of guitar volume swells and feedback
he usually conjures from his extensive pedalboard.
Now firmly embedded in the consciousness of pop’s more creative fret burners, ambient guitar continues to grow, develop,
and influence the sound of Mogwai, Sigur Ros, and other new artists who understand that sometimes chords and scales alone simply aren’t enough to make sonic magic.