The WRONG Way to Use a Talk Box

Any talk box fans out there?

Whew. Didn’t think so. I mean, doesn’t everybody hate those godforsaken things? Wasn’t it all downhill after “Tell Me Something Good?”

But did you know that the “talking guitar” has a rather exalted history four decades pre-Frampton Comes Alive? Check out this performance by Alvino Rey, the steel guitar genius who pioneered the technique.

I am TOTALLY going to have nightmares about Stringy for the next 10 years!

Rey worked his magic in tandem with his vocalist wife. She supposedly stood behind a curtain with a mic attached to her throat, the output of which modulated the guitar signal. (That’s what online sources say, though it sounds a bit fishy to me.) A similar technique — or perhaps the same one — was known as the Solovox. In this case, a small loudspeaker attached to the singer’s throat, “playing” the music through the vocalist’s mouth. More amazing/horrifying evidence:

That’s the basic principle behind the rock-era talk boxes, though they rely on a plastic tube inserted into the mouth rather than a mic pressed to the neck. The first commercially available model was Kustom’s The Bag from 1969, “immortalized” on Steppenwolf Live. The Heil Talk Box — the version of the effect most of us know and loath — debuted in 1973. Dunlop is still making them.

But I have a perverse affection for the Rocktron Banshee. It’s incredibly loud. It’s actually a small amp, quite capable of driving a speaker cab, with a blunt-force distortion tone. That extra power is useful for my preferred way of using a Talk Box:

How about you guys? Anyone have anything good to say about the talk box?


40 comments to The WRONG Way to Use a Talk Box

  • Colm Kelly

    Love it. :thumbup:

  • bear

    Nice! And probably much more plausible to maintain than my previous faux-Leslie technique of swinging a Smokey Amp on the end of the guitar cable. Duct tape helps, but you end up overdoing the twist in the cable.

  • This is great. It’s a simple repurposing that makes musical sense.

  • Oinkus

    That is pretty neat way to use it and it has a really good sound. Part of my ” Have it just in case I need it gear” you know the Ebow and talkbox and some god awful effects for that special sound no one else can make.The banshee is a pretty handy piece and it doubles as an endoftheworld replacement when your amp explodes.

  • Shizmab Abaye

    Those video clips are great! The speaker against neck approach gives more of a vocoder sound than the Talk Box. And let’s not forget that this strategy is used by the artificial larynx for those people who have had theirs removed surgically (caramba!).

    The tube in mouth approach gives a less convincing voice imitation because it’s only resonating in the vocal cavity.

    As far as recording goes, I am a big fan of things which are impossible to reproduce 100%. I think it sounds pretty good. Don’t hit the mic!

    I thought of a few alternative uses for the tube that could fit into the traveling rock musician’s lifestyle, but for some reason self restraint overcame me.

  • I don’t know, it seemed like Pete Drake had a nice thing going on:
    Gimmick-y but also semi-otherworldly…

  • Falbo

    Unbelievable. You are the mad genius. BTW I annoy my family by putting the iPhone speaker to my mouth and mouthing the words to songs as they’re playing. Never gets old…

  • Unfortunately, we also got the idea from Drake:
    Totally Bad Idea jeans.

  • Skeet

    I still own one of the Bags from Kustom [patent pending]. To give you an idea of how long those have been around, my mother saw mine [Bag] in a box in our basement, & told me to “get that water pipe out of our house”. When I explained to her what it was, she did not seem very convinced. True story — this all happened back in the early 70’s, & I’m 65 now, & still playing the blues. Still use my Bag once in a while too.

  • Billy g gruff

    This makes my brain start to imagine other ways of tweaking the sound from that tube. Attach it to an oil funnel with some sort of membrane stretched over the end so it can excite the membrane and vibrate? Stick a kazoo on the end of the tube (similar?) Stick the tube into an air hole on a snare drum shell and loosen the snare wires? Blow up a balloon and tie it off with the tube stuck inside? Tape the tube to a battery operated personal fan, and repeat joes experiment for double the warble? Will any of these really work?…

    Not sure, but This is fun! I might have to get baked and experiment. I could dream of this stuff all night!
    Thanks Joe!

  • I remember seeing Alvino Rey on TV when I was little. I always wondered how he did that back then.

  • mwseniff

    I always thought that the Solovox was the best approach to a talkbox. I experimented with my own version 30+ years ago. I had an old throat mike (military surplus from WW II) that I swapped headphone drivers for the mic elements. It worked pretty well but it was easy to burn the voice coils in the headphone drivers trying to get a bit more volume. It was a hands and mouth free solution and sounded very much like the Alvino Rey setup sadly it never got recorded.My folks were music fans in their youth and Alvino Rey was a fave of my Mom, so I was exposed to his music at a tender age. I had a weird musical childhood my Dad was a big fan of Spike Jones if that gives you an idea of music in the house I gew up in ( they were huge Louis Armstrong fans as well).

    As an aside it seems like many talk box fans like the Dan Electro talk box as a very slick solution. It is more like a stomp box with it’s built in amp an mic preamp.
    I have replaced the drivers in many talk boxes since a guitar amp can kill a midrange horn diaphragm very quickly which is what most of them including The Bag had in them. I always added an automotive lamp in series to help protect the driver from the guitar amp (I think it was an 1130 single element rear lamp for American cars). But to be honest I always thought it was madness to use your guitar amp for the talk box signal. I replaced a lot of tubes, tube sockets and output xfrmrs for tak box users in my repair business and made some good $$ in the process but it was heartbreaking when it was a blackface Super Reverb or other vintage amp that was damaged. It was also a drag when the bass player blundered onto the footswitch of one of those talk boxes during a non-talk box solo. I personally have never played one on a stage and would only under the most extreme conditions ( like someone holding a gun to my dog Yoko’s head or even my daughter’s for that matter ).

  • mwseniff

    BTW I first saw “Stringy” in the early 60’s, a family friend had a 16mm projector and a large collection of films including the Alvino Rey youtube video above and a couple of others as well. I was never that freaked by “Stringy” but he used to put on a lot of old 16mm monster movies for us kids to watch while they played bridge. I am still freaked out by the Creature From the Black Lagoon especially after he was de-gilled in the “Creature Walks Among Us” but I have mostly outgrown that fear (mostly).

  • mwseniff

    On another note I saw an experimental music guy that had a modified high-hat cymbal and stand with a small speaker inside and a mic on it. He ran his vocals thru it and got some great vowel-like tones as well as a total cutoff of sound when it was closed. Nice and strange when running thru a Space Echo.

    There was also a small Pignose type amp kit from Paia called the Pygmy. They had an adapter that stuck in front of the spkr with a tube to go to the mouth for talk box action. I bought a Pygmy kit in 1978 but never tried the talk box kit but I could get a wah like sound by opening and closing the sealed case of the Pygmy with my foot.

  • Quite a few years ago when I was pretty green, I saw a show that makes me chuckle to this day: a local bass player with a bit of a rep for attitude hired a guitarist who was a psychedelic band veteran (with a long history of hit songs and good work) to do a blues casual. Dude shows up with talk box. Bass player smiles and laughs as guitarist uses it for the first tune. Smiles again on the second and third numbers, then gradually begins to lose his shit as his old friend/well respected scene veteran decides to use it on every single solo in every single tune for the whole night. I was dying in fits of giggles about two songs in. Possibly the most subversive “fuck with a fellow player who’s been pissing you off of late” moments I ever witnessed. So my appreciation for the value of a talk-box is unparalleled. Pardon my language; there’s just no other way to tell such a story…

  • NotSoFast

    Actually the talk Leslie is pretty cool. I guess a talk box is ok as long as you can’t tell its a talk box.

  • GENIUS! this is the shit that keeps me coming back to this web site again and again, as I wonder what will he think of next?

  • Joe has calculatedly left out any mention of the Vocoder.

    I bought one of these some years, it was on sale I couldn’t help myself. I haven’t used it much if at all.

    • Shizmab Abaye

      I was checking out some videos of “Zawinul Syndicate” on YouTube. Joe Z. uses a vocoder to “sing” on a number of tunes. He also has other band members who harmonize and/or sing without such trickery. It starts off sounding gimmicky and maybe it still ends up that way, but I think Joe Z. just wanted a way to sing without treating us to his real voice.

  • Ben

    Manual Leslie…heh. I suppose that doing the converse (spinning a mic between speakers) would be more like a phaser. Maybe Joe could try it and do a comparison.

    What interests me the most about this technology is that it’s one of the very first electric effects, yet it can be difficult to use and to this day has rather small niches. The theremin is similar, being the very first electric musical instrument but difficult to play and occupying a limited space in the world of music. (I imagine that if you run a theremin through a talk box, it would be boring and somewhat like Autotune.)

    I wonder if talk boxes have any traction in cultures where overtones are a mainstay of music. Mouthing a trump/khomus/Jew’s harp is the same as using a talk box with a tube in your mouth.

    • Shizmab Abaye

      I felt the same way about some of the patches on my Adrenalinn. They have such a strong imprint on the sound that they tend to dominate and while you might get away with using it once, it’s hardly a universal effect.

      I always wondered why breathing IN when playing a jew’s harp gives such an enhanced character to the sound. Maybe it’s because the thing in the back of your throat opens up? Does the same thing happen with a talk box?

      • Ben

        Breath affects a Jew’s harp because the air (inhaling or exhaling) pushes on the vibrating tongue. (Specifically, it produces the octave above the root tone that the instrument is tuned to.) Since the hose from the talk box is merely carrying the sound rather than producing it, breath cannot affect the sound that way. On the other hand, depending on how you breathe, your vocal cavity may change, which would alter the sound.

        • joe

          You know, I’ve never tried that! I’ll have to check it out!

          One “technique” I didn’t mention:

          That Banshee is so very loud, and the hose really starts vibrating when you crank the output and the distortion. (In the video I had the output up high, but the distortion was modest.) Anyway, once I was working on a Julieta Venegas record, and Dave Navarro was working in the next studio. We were geeking out over pedals and fooling around with the Banshee. Dave wondered if there was enough vibration to transmit the sound through water, or make water bubble. Submerging the hose in water didn’t work — but resting the hose on its side in about a quarter-inch or water made this disturbing bubbling sound, sort of what I imagine it might sound like if you were trying to talk with your throat slit. Very Dave.

          • Ben

            Cool story, Joe! Now that you mention water, it makes me wonder how many different ways one might “treat” the hose, like attaching shredded paper or putting small leaves of metal inside the end, putting a small metal funnel on the end…

    • el reclusa

      I could never quite get the hang of the Theremin, but I once had a roomie play it through a ghetto plate reverb I built for a really goofy, drunk trombone sound, for which it worked quite well. Finding alternatives that are mechanical in some way instead of purely electronic is always fun. I just brought about two dozen 4 to 7 foot long, heavy cardboard tubes from work, and the gears are turning with all manner of stupid tricks to try with them. 🙂

  • jude gold

    I kind of like the Talk Box, heh heh. This one’s a Banshee …. (1:40)

  • Tiago Sarmento

    Hey man, I have a question: I’ve been using the talkbox for quite a while now, but I’m often tempted on changing the reverb inputs on it. I mean, Sometimes, inserting the reverb on the mixer, after the miking process may sound better, but reverbing the signal before going to the talkbox gives a new whole possibility (which includes some delay, also).

    What do you like the best?

  • Tiago Sarmento

    Joe, at my soundcloud you may find one example of the first, the reverb plugin after the recording is done. The talkbox was straight from the amp ( This sounds more Sambora-ish. Maybe Sweet Emotion had this vibe also.

    I believe that for the other example, “I can’t get this stuff no more” by Van Halen may be a good reference, although I cannot be sure whether the reverb was pre or post talkbox.

    I will be experimenting this this week, it really got my curiosity. I’ll be triyng also different compressions on the microfone, since I’m mostly using it live and the distance factor gets in the way sometimes.

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