Chances are very good that you’ve heard this instrument in action. Chances are also high that you had no idea what you were listening to. There’s a very unique, Canadian-made guitar on U2’s famous “With or Without You”, but it’s not obviously different when you hear it. Bono credits this special instrument with the song’s unique sound – but the infinite guitar, as it’s called, came together almost by chance.
Listen to the beginning of the song very closely, as well as the instrumentation above Bono’s voice around the one minute mark. Do you hear those ethereal, high-pitched tones in the upper registers? They kind of sound like a theremin, but that is actually the infinite guitar in action. The infinite guitar is wired in a way that doesn’t actually require its strings to be plucked: simply moving your fingers along the frets will have the instrument play its notes in a continuously smooth way.
The instrument’s inventor is a man by the name of Michael Brook. Brook is a Canadian Grammy- and Golden Globe-nominated composer, but he invented the infinite guitar as a young musician after a musical encounter in Toronto. Brook saw experimental rocker Bill Nelson play with his band at the El Mocambo, and was entranced by a device that Nelson was using. The gadget, called an Ebow, was allowing Nelson to electronically bow the guitar’s string, removing the sound of plucking. Brook was a fan and sent an order to the creator of the Ebow – but the guy lost the order! Brook still wanted the sound and was in the middle of recording an album, so he used his interest in hobbyist electronics to recreate the Ebow’s sound using a guitar itself.
The prototype ended up working exactly as he had hoped: the guitar’s note would sustain itself indefinitely on its own. Brook even accidentally left it on in his basement studio one afternoon, and returned three days later to find the infinite guitar’s coils still humming to themselves. Brook’s unique invention ended up catching the eye of several collaborators, including producer Daniel Lanois, musician Brian Eno, and eventually U2 guitarist Edge himself. Lanois and Edge ended up asking Brook for infinite guitars of their own, and together they are the only owners of the three infinite guitars in existence.
Edge’s version of the infinite guitar is the one you hear on U2’s “With or Without Me”, which turns 30 this year. When the band was originally recording the track, they initially struggled with the direction the song should take. But when Edge was heard noodling with his guitar in the next room, the choice was immediate: the delicate, haunting weeping anchored the band’s performance from then on.
Since its invention, a few products have attempted to recreate the infinite guitar’s effect. The Kramer Floyd Rose Sustainer and other similar resonator guitars popped up, as Brook’s invention was the subject of patent litigation over the years. But, the original grandaddy infinite guitar, the unique three-of-a-kind model that appears on U2’s Joshua Tree, remains an innovator and neat Canadian connection to the album’s illustrious history.