Talk Box

Peter Frampton

A talk box is an effects unit that allows a musician to modify the sound of a musical instrument. The musician controls the modification by lip syncing, or by changing the shape of the mouth. The effect can be used to shape the frequency content of the sound and to apply speech sounds (in the same way as singing) onto a musical instrument, typically a guitar (its non-guitar use is often confused with the vocoder) and keyboards.

A talk box is usually an effects pedal that sits on the floor and contains a speaker attached with an airtight connection to a plastic tube; however, it can come in other forms, such as the ‘Ghetto Talkbox’ (a crude homemade version). The speaker is generally in the form of a compression driver, the sound-generating part of a horn loudspeaker with the horn replaced by the tube connection.

The box has connectors for the speaker output of an instrument amplifier and a normal instrument speaker. A foot-operated switch on the box directs the sound either to the talkbox speaker or to the normal speaker. The switch is usually a push-on/push-off type. The other end of the tube is taped to the side of a microphone, extending enough to direct the reproduced sound in or near the performer’s mouth. When activated, the sound from the amplifier is reproduced by the speaker in the talkbox and directed through the tube into the performer’s mouth. The shape of the mouth filters the sound, with the modified sound being picked up by the microphone.

The shape of the mouth changes the harmonic content of the sound in the same way it affects the harmonic content generated by the vocal folds when speaking. The performer can vary the shape of the mouth and position of the tongue, changing the sound of the instrument being reproduced by the talkbox speaker. The performer can mouth words, with the resulting effect sounding as though the instrument is speaking. This ‘shaped’ sound exits the performer’s mouth, and when it enters a microphone, an instrument/voice hybrid is heard. The sound can be that of any musical instrument, but the effect is most commonly associated with the guitar. The rich harmonics of an electric guitar are shaped by the mouth, producing a sound very similar to voice, effectively allowing the guitar to appear to ‘speak.’

In 1939, Alvino Rey used a carbon throat microphone wired in such a way as to modulate his electric steel guitar sound. The mic, originally developed for military pilot communications, was placed on the throat of Rey’s wife Luise King (one of The King Sisters), who stood behind a curtain and mouthed the words, along with the guitar lines. The novel-sounding combination was called ‘Singing Guitar,’ and employed on stage and in the movie ‘Jam Session,’ as a ‘novelty’ attraction, but was not developed further. Rey also created a somewhat similar ‘talking’ effect, by manipulating the tone controls of his Fender electric guitar, but the vocal effect was less pronounced.

Another early voice effect using the same principle of the throat as a filter was the Sonovox. Instead of a throat microphone modulating a guitar signal, it used small loudspeakers attached to the performer’s throat. It was used in several films, as well as many radio station IDs produced by PAMS of Dallas and JAM Creative Productions. Lucille Ball made one of her earliest film appearances during the 1930s in a Pathé Newsreel demonstrating the Sonovox. The Sonovox was commercialized by the Wright-Sonovox company, an affiliate of the Free & Peters advertising agency. The Sonovox makes an even earlier appearance in the 1940 film ‘You’ll Find Out’ starring Kay Kyser and his orchestra, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre. Lugosi uses the Sonovox to portray the voice of a dead person during a seance. British rock band The Who included a cut on their album, ‘The Who Sell Out’ that consisted of the days of the week ‘spoken’ by guitar chords using the Sonovox.

Pete Drake, a Nashville mainstay on the pedal steel guitar, used talk box on his 1964 album ‘Forever,’ in what came to be called his ‘talking steel guitar.’ The following year Gallant released three albums with the box. Drake’s device consisted of an 8-inch paper cone speaker driver attached to a funnel from which a clear tube brought the sound to the performer’s mouth. It was only loud enough to be useful in the recording studio.

The first high-powered Talk Box was developed by Bob Heil but there is clearly prior art in the form of the Kustom Electronics device, ‘The Bag,’ which is the same concept housed in a decorative bag slung over the shoulder like a wine bottle, using only a 30-watt driver, and sold in 1969, two years before Heil’s high-powered Talk Box. The Bag is claimed to have been designed by Doug Forbes, who states that exactly the same concept (horn driver attached to a plastic tube and inserted into the mouth) had previously been patented as an artificial larynx. But it was Heil that came up with the first high-powered Talk Box that could be reliable when used on high-level rock stages. His first Heil Talk Box was built for Joe Walsh’s Barnstorm tour. Heil, Walsh and Walsh’s guitar tech ‘Krinkle’ combined a 250-watt JBL driver and suitable low-pass filter which was used for Walsh’s single ‘Rocky Mountain Way.’ In 1988, Heil sold the manufacturing rights to Dunlop Manufacturing, Inc. who currently builds the Heil Talk Box to the exact standards that Bob Heil designed in 1973.

Peter Frampton says he first heard the talk box in 1970 while sitting in on sessions for George Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass.’ While he sat next to Pete Drake in the album sessions at Abbey Road studio he heard Pete using it with a pedal steel guitar. Frampton said in the same interview that the sound it produced reminded him of an audio effect he loved listening to on the pirate radio station Radio Luxembourg in the later 1960s. Frampton acquired one as a Christmas present from Bob Heil in 1974. It was a hand-built Talk Box in a fiberglass box using a 100-watt high-powered driver. This was the Heil Talk Box used for the ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ tour and album. He then promptly locked himself away in a practice space for two weeks, and came out with some mastery of it. Thanks to the hit singles ‘Do You Feel Like We Do’ and ‘Show Me the Way,’ Frampton has become somewhat synonymous with the talk box. Peter Frampton also now sells his own line of custom-designed ‘Framptone’ products, including a talk box.

Two early examples of a talk box being used on studio recordings are Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Sex Machine’ from their album ‘Stand’ and Al Kooper with Shuggie Otis’ ‘One Room Country Shack’ from their album ‘Kooper Session,’ both released in 1969. The band Steppenwolf has used the Talk Box since at least 1970. Stevie Wonder first used a talk box on his album ‘Music of My Mind’ in early 1972. Jeff Beck used the Kustom Bag talk box on ‘She’s A Woman’ from his 1975 release ‘Blow by Blow.’ Roger Troutman, lead singer of the R&B group Zapp used the talk box on their first hit single in 1980 ‘More Bounce To The Ounce’ and was used in subsequent released songs that gave the group its distinctive sound.

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