When Peter Frampton began using the Heil Talk Box in 1974, he remembers it being viewed with skepticism as an “alien effect.” Similar contraptions had been around since 1939, but few people recognized them or their otherworldly capabilities. Frampton had yet to record with it, so when he used it onstage, it caused a furor.
“I was only using it on one number – ‘Do You Feel’ – and when the song goes very quiet into that jam at the end, I’d walk over to the center mic and start playing the Talk Box,” Frampton remembers. “No one had heard it before, so people snapped their heads around. It was a huge effect.”
Before long, Frampton himself was huge, thanks in large part to the Heil Talk Box. When his 1975 album, Frampton, and 1976’s Comes Alive debuted with the Talk Box melody lines and solos on “Do You Feel Like We Do” and “Show Me The Way,” he was on top of the rock-and-roll universe.
Frampton was hardly the first to use the device, but, due to the power of those hits, he has become most closely associated with it. Still, he humbly gives full due to inventor Bob Heil, Joe Walsh and his inspiring “Rocky Mountain Way,” as well as the other pioneers in the long, curious saga of the talk box.
Novelty ventriloquism toy, smoke-and-mirrors “magic” act, stadium-rock crowd pleaser – the talk box has played all these roles. And with a resumé like that, it just may be the ultimate guitar effect.
The first talk box was crafted by guitar maestro Alvino Rey in 1939, but it was half “trick” sound engineering, half The Wizard of Oz. Rey played his ballyhooed “Singing Guitar” with his wife, Luise, hiding behind the stage curtain; she wore a carbon throat mic borrowed from military airmen and wired to modulate his electric steel-guitar sound as she mouthed words. A film from the ’40s features Rey doing a ventriloquism turn with Stringy the Talking Steel Guitar Puppet singing a freakishly bizarre “St. Louis Blues.” The audience loved it.
Rey’s creation set the stage for future talk boxes. In essence, a talk box allows a musician to shape a sound that is then picked up by a mic or speaker driver. In effect, a talk box is an electromechanical larynx.
The Sonovox was the first true, commercial talk box. It was demonstrated by a fresh-faced Lucille Ball in a ’30s newsreel and sold by the Wright-Sonovox Company. Instead of Rey’s mic, it used small speakers attached to the performer’s throat. The Sonovox became popular for making children’s film and record character voices and for recording wacky radio-station call signal jingles. The Who later used a Sonovox on their 1967 album, The Who Sell Out.
The next talk box apparatus was instrumental in famed Nashville session man Pete Drake’s early-’60s act, which he called Talking Steel Guitar. Pedal-steel player Bill West made the contraption from an 8″ paper-cone speaker attached to a funnel with a plastic tube to speak into. Drake was seeking a new sound, and inspired by the Alvino Rey film, he used West’s creation on his 1964 hit single, “Forever,” and a subsequent LP. Drake’s novel sound sold more than a million copies and went gold.
He ultimately released several LPs of Talking Steel Guitar. As Drake explained the process to Douglas Green, “You play the notes on the guitar and it goes through the amplifier. I have a driver system so that you disconnect the speakers and the sound goes through the driver into a plastic tube. You put the tube in the side of your mouth then form the words with your mouth as you play them. You don’t actually say a word; the guitar is your vocal chords, and your mouth is the amplifier. It’s amplified by a microphone.” Drake soon began selling his Talking Music Actuator to other musicians.
Meanwhile, Bill West’s original talk box found its way into rock and roller Joe Walsh’s rig. As Walsh explained to M: Music & Musicians in 2012, “The James Gang used to play in Nashville, and I became good friends with Dottie West, the famous classic country singer. We would go to her house and people would come over, and we would sit around with an acoustic guitar and pass it around. That could be anybody – Chet Atkins, Glen Campbell, Roger Miller – whoever was in town. Dottie’s husband, Bill, was a pedal-steel player. He actually invented the talk box that was used on Pete Drake’s album. One day, while I was at Dottie’s house, Bill went out to the garage and got it and gave it to me. He said, ‘Here, you plug this end into your mouth. You’ll figure it out.’
“After I got the hang of it, I then figured out how it was built. I went to a hardware store and got some parts and made one for myself. ‘Rocky Mountain Way’ [from 1972] was the first time I used it on record.”
But West’s talk box was not loud enough to be used outside the studio. Nor was it roadworthy. Enter Bob Heil, sound engineer extraordinaire who’s often crowned the godfather of modern concert sound systems. Walsh and Heil were both ham-radio buffs and handy with their hands, so they built their own solution.
Heil remembers, “Joe Walsh had recorded ‘Rocky Mountain Way’ using an 8″ speaker and a funnel, a device used in Nashville by the steel guitar players. Well, it wasn’t very loud, so you couldn’t use it live. So here we are, two ham-radio operators on a Sunday afternoon out in my plant. We grabbed a 250-watt JBL, built a low-pass filter, got all the plumbing together, and voilà – the Talk Box. That’s how it started.”
Walsh took the Talk Box on his 1972 Barnstorm Tour. “After that tour, everybody was going nuts!” Heil recalled. “‘What’s this thing he’s got?’ So I put together a commercial unit called the Heil Talk Box; the first 50 were done in fiberglass.”
Peter Frampton first saw a talk box in action when Pete Drake came to Abbey Road Studios for George Harrison’s 1970 All Things Must Pass, on which a young, uncredited Frampton also played.
“Pete sets up opposite me, and in a slow moment in the studio, he gets out this little box and puts a pipe in his mouth, and all of the sudden the pedal steel sound is coming from his mouth!” Frampton remembers. “The pedal steel is playing the notes and he’s mouthing it and he sounds like he’s singing. That was the same sort of sound I’d heard [as the call signal] on Radio Luxembourg, except with a pedal steel it was very clean. It’s a sound that’s been very inspiring to me all of my life.”
Frampton later heard Walsh’s solo and Stevie Wonder’s use of Kustom Electronics’ 1969 The Bag talk box on his 1972 LP Music of My Mind. As Heil ran the sound system for Frampton’s previous band, Humble Pie, the two were pals.
“My girlfriend knew I was looking for a Talk Box,” Frampton says. “She called Bob up and said, ‘Do you have one I can buy?’ and he just gave her one to give me as a Christmas present. That was the one that was on Comes Alive.
“For a moment or two there, using it was pretty alien. Everybody was saying ‘What the hell is this?’ My management company let me use their rehearsal room in Manhattan, and I’d go in every day and practice with it. I started using it on ‘Do You Feel’ very early on, probably in ’74. The first time I ever used it on a record was back in England, where we were doing the Frampton record, and I used it on ’Show Me The Way’ – just tried it to see if it would work and I said, ‘Oh, well, I’ll keep it.’”
Frampton ran the Talk Box through a dedicated and modded ’70s Marshall amp. “I used to use [the amp] a lot cleaner, but found I could enunciate more when I had a bit of dirt on it,” he explains. “I use [the Talk Box] straight – no echo, no nothing. You make the wah-wah sound by manipulating your mouth. There’s not really any trick. My thing is that I close down the tube by putting pressure on it to help enunciate; I step on it like you would a garden hose.”
Heil sold rights to his Talk Box to Jim Dunlop in 1988, and it remains in production today. Frampton later began offering his own version as the Framptone.
“Joe Walsh and I frequent the same sushi joint here in Los Angeles, and I ran into him a while back. He’s still my idol when it comes to using the Talk Box; his ‘Rocky Mountain Way’ is the ultimate Talk Box solo. I said, ‘Did you get the Framptone I sent you, because you know you were such an inspiration to me and I just wanted to give you one.’ Joe said, ‘That’s the least you could do!’”
This article originally appeared in VG September 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.