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February 13, 2023

Pete Drake and His “Talk Box” Steel Guitar From the 1960s

In the early 1960s, pedal steel guitar virtuoso Pete Drake (1932–1988) played his instrument through a talk box to record a fresh cover of the song “Forever.” A talk box essentially routes an amplified instrument’s sound from a small speaker into the musician’s mouth via a rubber tube so they can shape the tone as if they’re speaking.

The idea for this was pioneered by Alvino Rey in the 1930s and 1940s. But, unlike Rey’s vaudeville gimmick approach which incorporated a “dummy” on stage and Rey’s wife offstage on a microphone performing the effect vocally, Drake refined and used an actual electronic effect that fed a speaker signal  via a mouth tube which enabled an electric guitar to “talk.”

In an interview with Bob Powell from the UK’s Country Music People magazine Nov 1972, Bob asked Pete how the voice box came about, “I have six children and there was a deaf and dumb couple who lived next door to us who tried to talk to my kids in the garden. I saw an old movie with Alvino Rey and I thought if a guitar can be made to talk  why not people, so I started building a device that would make people talk. I did my part, I found a doctor who helped me and we came up with something that would give people a voice. You put a tube in your mouth and it gave you a voice, I then tried it on the guitar and it worked.”

In 1964, Pete Drake appeared on The Jimmy Dean Show and played his talking steel guitar for a really appreciative audience. The song he chose was “I’m Just a Guitar,” an amusing ditty about how everyone picks on him. The sound of Drakes voice was so unusual, it caused one concerned viewer to ask if this contraption was attached to his vocal cords and if it hurt. Drake responded that it was just a talk box that had nothing to with the vocal cords. Drake then took the show to break.

“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 cords, and your mouth is the amplifier. It's amplified by a microphone.”
Pete Drake had many records throughout the 1960s and 1970s featuring the effect which ironically obscured some of his actual musical prowess on the pedal steel guitar. Rey’s use of the idea actually obscured his shortcomings on the instrument and while remembered today as an electric instrument pioneer, was not at the level of many other players of his time nor players that emerged in the postwar era and beyond.

Drake’s use of the effect directly lead to the popularization of the Heil Talk Box as used by Peter Frampton in the late 1970s. Undoubtedly, there are others who also utilized the effect, but historically speaking, Rey, Drake and Frampton are its better known proponents. The effect hardware is still available today in its original form as a “talk box” and is one of the fundamental sounds one also can obtain via a Vocoder.


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