Ed O'Brien performing with Radiohead in Glasgow, 2017
|Birth name||Edward John O'Brien|
|Born||15 April 1968|
|Genres||Alternative rock, experimental rock, electronic|
|Associated acts||Radiohead, 7 Worlds Collide, Kay|
Edward John O'Brien (born 15 April 1968) is an English guitarist and member of the alternative rock band Radiohead. He makes extensive use of effects units to create atmospheric sounds and textures, and provides backing vocals. In 2010, Rolling Stone named O'Brien the 59th greatest guitarist of all time.
O'Brien grew up listening to post-punk acts such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, Adam and the Ants, Depeche Mode, the Police and David Bowie. He said: "It was a very foetal [time] for music because people who went to art college or artists, or musicians, suddenly thought, 'Oh, I can be that'."
The members of Radiohead met while attending Abingdon School, an independent school for boys in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. O'Brien said of the first time he played with singer Thom Yorke, who asked to join him for a jam: "Before that, [life] was a bit confusing, a bit crap. And then suddenly ... I felt something very strong, almost like some kind of epiphany, almost like: 'This is it.'" O'Brien, along with drummer Philip Selway, was in the year above Yorke and bassist Colin Greenwood, and three years above Colin's brother, multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood. In 1985, they formed On a Friday, the name referring to the band's usual rehearsal day in the school's music room. O'Brien studied economics at the University of Manchester.
In 1991, On a Friday signed a six-album recording contract with EMI and changed their name to Radiohead. They found early success with their 1992 single "Creep". Their third album, OK Computer (1997), propelled them to international fame and is often acclaimed as one of the best albums of all time. OK Computer saw O'Brien use less distortion and more delay and other effects, creating a sound that was, in his words, "more about textures".
Radiohead's next albums, Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001), were recorded simultaneously, and marked a dramatic change in sound, incorporating influences from electronic music, classical music, jazz and krautrock. O'Brien kept an online diary of Radiohead's progress during the recording. He initially struggled with the band's change in direction, saying: "It's scary – everyone feels insecure. I'm a guitarist and suddenly it's like, well, there are no guitars on this track, or no drums." At the suggestion of Michael Brook, creator of the Infinite Guitar, O'Brien began using sustain units, which allow guitar notes to be sustained infinitely. He combined these with looping and delay effects to create synthesiser-like sounds used on the records.
O'Brien contributed to the soundtrack for the BBC drama series Eureka Street before recording Kid A. He played guitar on the 2003 Asian Dub Foundation album Enemy of the Enemy. O'Brien and Selway toured and recorded with Neil Finn as part of the 7 Worlds Collide project; he provided guitar and backing vocals on their eponymous 2001 live album and 2009 studio album The Sun Came Out.
O'Brien is a founding director of the Featured Artists Coalition, a nonprofit organisation set up to protect the rights of featured musical artists, particularly in the digital age. He appeared on the 16 April 2011 episode of the BBC Radio 5 Live sports programme Fighting Talk in support of Record Shop Day.
O'Brien's earliest guitar influence was Andy Summers of the Police, particularly his use of delay and chorus effects on "Walking On The Moon". His other influences include Peter Buck of R.E.M, Paul Weller of the Jam, Johnny Marr of the Smiths, John McGeoch of Magazine and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Edge of U2. O'Brien admired how these guitarists created "space" rather than playing conventional guitar solos. He said: "They were great guitarists, but they weren’t lead guitarists ... My favourite guitarists know when not to play. Then you make more of it when you do play. Make it count."
O'Brien usually plays Fender Stratocasters, including the Eric Clapton Stratocaster. He also plays Gretsch and Rickenbacker guitars, including a twelve-string Rickenbacker. While Jonny Greenwood plays most of Radiohead's lead guitar parts, O'Brien often creates ambient effects, making extensive use of effects units. He said of the technique: "It's a bit like you’re creating a canvas. That would be in accompaniment with Thom playing chords on the piano — you're building up a cloud of effects behind." O'Brien said in 2017 that his most used effects are distortion, a Memory Man delay, and a DigiTech Whammy pitch shifter.
O'Brien's contributions include the high-pitched chiming sound that introduces "Lucky" (achieved by strumming above the guitar nut) and the reverberating pops on the introduction of "2 + 2 = 5". On "Karma Police", O'Brien distorts his guitar by driving a delay effect to self-oscillation, then turning the delay rate to a low frequency, creating a "melting" effect. "Treefingers" was created by processing O'Brien's guitar loops. On "Dollars and Cents", O'Brien used a pitch shifter pedal to shift his guitar chords from minor to major. For "All I Need", he used a sustain unit and a guitar strung with four bottom E strings, creating a "thicker" sound.
O'Brien said of his playing: "I literally learned to play my instrument within the band, so I started off very limited — and I’m still very limited. But I’ve been lucky, because I’ve been in a band that has not required you to be a virtuoso." In a 2015 Rolling Stone article, David Fricke named O'Brien the 59th greatest guitarist of all time. O'Brien also sings backing vocals for Radiohead, which Pitchfork described in 2006 as "the band's most consistent secret weapon".
O'Brien lives with his wife Susan Kobrin, who worked for Amnesty International, in London. The couple have a son, Salvador, born in January 2004, and a daughter, Oona, born in 2006. O'Brien is a cricket fan and supports Manchester United Football Club. Around 2000, he gave up drinking alcohol and took up meditation; he said: "[Alcohol] was fucking me up. I thought, 'I can carry on, or I can be a better person.'" He and his family briefly lived in Brazil.
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