O’Brien confides of his go-to Rickenbacker 360 12-string, “I have to be honest—I really struggle with the 12. The neck is so narrow, and it’s a dog to play. But they have a certain sound.” Photo by Lindsey Best
For the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions, O’Brien’s lifeline “different-sounding” guitar ended up being the same Fender Eric Clapton Stratocaster he’d been playing for years—only now modified with a Fernandes Sustainer unit. For a player who’d grown up idolizing the Jam’s Paul Weller, Andy Summers of the Police, and the Smiths’ Johnny Marr—texturalists who specialized in creating space—it helped things fall into place. Paired with generous amounts of reverb, echo, compression, and pitch-shifting, the Sustainer-equipped guitar opened new possibilities and enabled O’Brien to help generate the lush soundscapes populating Radiohead’s early-millennium outings.
And yet, even after Hail to the Thief (2003) and In Rainbows (2007) hewed strongly back toward traditional guitar-rock form—with feral 6-strings blasting out of the gate on the former (“2=2+5”), and the latter being the band’s loosest, most traditional and soulful effort to date—everyone in their right mind knew it wouldn’t last. True to form, Yorke’s writing on The King of Limbs (2011) veered toward electronic trance vibes, and last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool was somewhere in the middle—a bit more of an organic band effort, with plenty of fertile fields for atmospheric Sustainer work amidst the fuzzy bass lines and string arrangements, respectively, by Colin and Jonny Greenwood (“Burn the Witch”), Yorke’s still-amazing falsetto and lilting pianos (“The Numbers,” “True Love Awaits”), fingerpicked acoustics (“Present Tense” and “Desert Island Disk”), and shuffling slow-builds haunted by otherworldly background vocals (“Identikit”).
Which brings us back to the question of magnanimity. About midway between Limbs and Pool, O’Brien began talks with Fender Musical Instruments Corporation about developing a signature guitar. Unveiled at the 2017 Summer NAMM Show in Nashville and available for sale in November, the EOB Sustainer Stratocaster canonized O’Brien’s long relationship with the classic double-cut by combining custom specs and his favorite mod in a single instrument. Meanwhile, he’s begun work on a solo album (to be released in 2019) with bassist Nathan East (Eric Clapton, Daft Punk), drummer Omar Hakim (Miles Davis, David Bowie), and singer/guitarist Dave Okumu from the band the Invisible, and he and his Oxfordshire mates were recently nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
To be sure, O’Brien has a lot to talk about these days. And, given the dearth of past guitar-focused interviews, we’re sad to say we had too little time to cover the breadth of questions that have built up over the last three decades. But we did our best. Thankfully, Radiohead’s chief texturalist was the consummate gentleman, manifesting himself to be both an out-and-out guitar nut and a super-friendly guy. Two facts we hope bode well for getting the honor again sometime soon—perhaps even with Jonny in tow. (We can dream, right?)
Congratulations on the release of the EOB Strat. How did all of that fall into place?
Well, there was no kind of ambition to necessarily make a guitar or do a collaboration. It really came from a dream that I had. It was a very strong dream, and I can’t remember the details, but I woke up and immediately thought of the Sustainer Strat that I’d been playing—what we called the “Frankenstrat.” Plank [Peter Clements], who looks after the Radiohead gear, put it together, and I’d been playing it for about 12 or 13 years. I woke up—I was about half-awake—and I immediately fired off an e-mail to the one person I knew at Fender, a guy called Neil Whitcher [FMIC’s head of artist relations in Europe], saying, “Would you be interested in collaborating and making this Strat? I think we can make some improvements on it.” Within a few hours, Neil wrote me back, saying, “This sounds great. Let me pass it on to Justin Norvell [senior vice president of products at Fender].” I wrote to Justin, and that kind of set it all in motion really. In 2013, just over four and a half years ago, I wrote the e-mail. And here we are now.
What sorts of things did you hope to improve?
The problem with the one I had was that it was great when it was sustaining, but it didn't sound good as a normal, functioning guitar. What I wanted was to have this amazing Strat and—with a flick of a switch—you can enter a whole other world with the Sustainer. I wanted it to sound great in normal guitar mode. Another big thing was I wanted a really great neck on it.I love the [EOB] neck.
Did you ask for it to match something you already had?
No. I didn’t have a Strat that I was really happy with the neck. The Clapton Strat neck was good, but it wasn’t great for me. Fender flew me over to Corona and I went through the different profiles of necks. The one that we ended up with was a ’56.
O’Brien had been using Fender Vibro-King Custom combos since the King of Limbs tour in 2011. However, due to volume concerns, of late he has switched to amps by Audio Kitchen, including the Big Chopper—a two-channel, class-A design driven by a quartet of EL84s.
You mentioned Plank a minute ago—did you ever toy with the idea of adapting a Starcaster as a signature model based on the semi-hollow guitars he built you years ago?
No, I felt like it needed to have the solid body for the sustain to be really great. But actually that’s a good point. I've never done it [put a Sustainer] in a semi-acoustic hollowbody. That would be really interesting.
Does having the signature guitar change how many guitars you take on the road?
It does. It’s made life a lot more boring for my tech, Adam. I think he used to really enjoy the fact that it was pretty much a different guitar every song. It kept him on his toes. Now we’ll go through the setlist, and 50 or 60 percent of it is the Sustainer Strat.
So how many guitars are you taking on the road right now?
Well, I’ve got three EOB Strats. I’ve got my [Gibson ES-]335, a Rickenbacker  6[-string], a Rick  12[-string], and I’ve got a lovely Gretsch [G6137TCB Panther]. That’s about it. It’s kind of minimal. I like being a little bit more nimble. I wouldn’t say we’re exactly nimble, but I like being light of imprint.
Are any of the EOBs in different tunings, or are they just backups?
Yeah, basically they are all backups.
Over the years you’ve experimented with different guitars more than Jonny does. Would you say that’s because you simply enjoy switching it up more, or did it have to do more with what you feel the nature of your role in the band is—as more of a texturalist?
I love guitars, and I’m very lucky to be in a band that encourages finding new sounds. My experimentation comes probably from my limitations, in the sense that I don’t play lots of other instruments, whereas Jonny does. I could have sought out other instruments, but I guess I’m fascinated by the guitar—that it has lots of different applications and sounds. I quite like having limitations, because certainly for me, it works to bring the best out.