Eternal Recurrence: The Infinite Guitar
How the postal service led producer and guitarist Michael Brook to the Infinite Guitar.
By Steven Mirkin
If it hadn’t been for the analog inefficiency of mail order, guitarist and producer Michael Brook might never have invented the Infinite Guitar.
While working on his debut album, Hybrid (1985), Brook, who studied Indian music with avant-garde composer LaMonte Young, was looking for a way to use drones and sustained tones in his own music, when he happened to see former Be Bop Deluxe frontman Bill Nelson play a show in Toronto. For the concert’s opening number, Nelson used the then-new EBow-a handheld device that acts as an electronic bow to create sustained tones. Intrigued by the what he heard, Brook sent a letter to the manufacturer and placed an order.
Weeks of silence followed. The device never arrived. His order was lost. But instead of waiting for a new shipment to arrive, Brook decided to see if he could come up with something similar on his own. The result was the Infinite Guitar.
As a self-described “amateur” electrician, Brooks modestly calls the modifications he made to his Fender Stratocaster “very basic.” He says he simply “put one pickup on top of another.” The bridge pickup amplifies the sound of the strings, the newly added pickup reflects the sound and sends it back to the original pickups, creating a loop that can sustain the note, well… infinitely. While he initially chose the Strat because it was the only guitar at hand, Brook notes that the layout of the pickups helped give the instrument its distinctive sound. And while his first attempts resulted in “Frankenstein” looking instruments, he finally achieved a playable version on a Tokai Stratocaster copy.
Flash forward a few years, and Brook was living in London. Brian Eno, who collaborated with Brook on Hybrid, is producing the sessions for U2’s Joshua Tree. He tells The Edge about Brook’s invention. Intrigued, Edge paid Brook a visit and heard possibilities in the new Infinite Guitar. He asked if Brook could make him one. Brook initially demurred, telling Edge he’s not a manufacturer, but eventually offered to modify the Irish guitarist’s 1965 Strat. (Daniel Lanois, who employed Brook as an engineer at his Grant Street studio, owns the only other Infinite Guitar ever made.)
Edge’s windswept guitar line on “With or Without You” is probably the best-known recording of the Infinite Guitar but, ironically, Brook says that’s not how he imagined the guitar would be used. While Brook thought a dirty, distorted tone would best take advantage of the Infinite Guitar’s characteristics, Edge opted for a “very clean sound” and used the guitars sparkling harmonics. (Edge does not take his Infinite Guitar on the road; instead relying on either an E-Bow or other sustain inducing effects.)
Although his invention recently turned 30, Brook, who composed the soundtrack for the upcoming Jake Gyllanhall vehicle, Stronger, sees no reason to refine it. “It served its purpose,” he says. Asked about other guitarists who have used a similar sound, he mentions his sometimes collaborator Robert Fripp. But Fripp achieves his sound in a very different manner. “He plays very loud and stands in front of the speaker,” he says with a laugh, adding that as with most things Fripp, it’s “very precise and controlled.”