Talk Box: History and Evolution of an Unforgettable Effect

Talk box is one of the most interesting sound effects around – and its been around since the 1930s.

The talk box is essentially a small, self-contained amplifier and speaker assembly.

It’s comprised of two main parts – a speaker and a tube. These are connected so that the air being moved by the speaker travels down the tube.

A guitar or keyboard is then plugged into the talk box, and the plastic tube can be inserted in the user’s mouth.

The mouth then becomes a resonant cavity for the instrument’s sounds coming out of the tiny speaker. These sounds are then amplified using a vocal microphone.

Artists who have used a talk box

Here’s Stevie Wonder showing how it’s done:

The talk box really rose to fame in the 1970s, when people like Stevie Wonder and Peter Frampton championed the units.

Peter Frampton is perhaps the artist most synonymous with the talk box, particularly on hits like, Do You Feel Like We Do and Show Me The Way, though he first saw the talk box being used by George Harrison.

More recently, the talk box has been utilized by artists like Bon Jovi, on their record, Livin’ On A Prayer, and Foo Fighters, on their song, Generator.

You can see Dave Grohl using one in this famous clip right from the start:

Bruno Mars also utilized the effect on his single, 24k magic, with the talk box being played by YouTube sensation, and Christian hip hop artist, Mr. Talkbox. They’re all using a Heli high powered talk box

A Closer Look at the Gear

The Heil high-powered talk box is, in fact, the most famous incarnation of this effect.

It was initially created for Peter Frampton, and was the one used by Bon Jovi, among a ton of other famous artists. This version, now made by Jim Dunlop, is still available today too – alongside a lot more competition than back in the 70s.

Among the competition is MXR’s M222. Although a rarely seen pedal, it’s an attempt to make talk boxes a bit more budget friendly for the amateur musician.

It’s a simple pedal that incorporates an on/off switch, as well as gain and tone controls. It stays faithful to the plastic tube design though, much like the original models.

Talk box vs. vocoder

The talk box effect is often confused with that of a vocoder, but they’re completely different effects.

Whereas the talk box is a mechanical effect utilizing the shape of the mouth to filter the sound, a vocoder is a digital effect, which applies the notes played on an instrument to the tone of the voice, essentially altering the pitch of the voice.

Digital versions

There are a few digital talk box emulations around now, which use the phrase “talk box” to describe themselves, without necessarily being the piece of gear we have just discussed.

They are especially prevalent in plugin form, such as ARTICULATOR by Antares, which is capable of a range of talk box-like effects. There’s also Bitspeek by Sonic charge, which is a slightly cheaper option.

Pedal versions

The Voice Live 3

The TC-Helicon VoiceLive 3 is a guitar and vocal effects pedal capable of a talk box-like emulation, which it does by combining vocal and guitar effects into one single pedal.

This talk box effect relies on you using your mouth with the microphone to filter the notes on your guitar, which are also coming through the pedal.

It’s not technically a talk box, as there’s no speaker involved, but in terms of a digital emulation, it’s the closest we know of.

There’s also a vocoder effect on the same pedal – so if you’re using one, don’t get it confused with that!

Remember – the vocoder changes the pitch of your voice, whereas the talk box uses the shape of your mouth to change the sound your instrument is making.

It doesn’t make a huge difference how you get the effect – the talk box is one of the most instantly recognizable sounds around, and, as an effect that’s appeared regularly in popular music for around 50 years now, I’m sure it’ll be around for a long time.

  • Probably the most tasteful use of the Talk Box effect was Jeff Beck’s version of She’s A Woman on the album Blow By Blow…

  • Steve Comeau

    Good call! Takes a great artist like Mr. Beck to pull that off without sounding campy.