Rock guitarist Peter Frampton has had, as he puts it, "a very nice career." His 1976 double album, "Frampton Comes Alive,'' still ranks as one of the top-selling albums of all time, with more than 16 million copies sold. He has played on albums by George Harrison and David Bowie, appeared as himself on an episode of "The Simpsons," and is still touring and putting out new music.
But to many, Mr. Frampton's enduring legacy can be summed up in a single word, really not a word at all, so much as a sound: Wah. "People still come up to me and say, 'Oh, you're the wah-wah-wah-wah guy,' "Mr. Frampton said with a laugh, talking by phone from his home near Cincinnati. "You're the guy who makes the guitar talk."
Mr. Frampton is forever linked with a gizmo called the talkbox, an unlikely-looking device that creates the effect of a "talking" musical instrument. His liberal use of the talkbox on 70's hits like "Show Me the Way" and "Do You Feel Like We Do" permanently sealed his association with the device.
The talkbox fell out of favor around the same time Mr. Frampton did, and for a while little was heard from either. Lately, however, both man and machine are enjoying a comeback. Mr. Frampton has his first studio recording in nine years, the new album "Now,'' and an album tour sponsored by the cable music channel VH1. And the talkbox has been passed to a new generation of guitarists, like Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Art Alexakis of Everclear. The hip-hop artist DJ Quik used a talkbox on a rap dedicated to the funk performer Roger Troutman, who was himself a talkbox aficionado. Club DJ's have begun adding talkboxes to their rigs as another weapon in the sonic arsenal.
Mr. Frampton, 53, has made his peace with the talkbox. In fact, he sells them. His guitar equipment company, Framptone, currently offers a handmade talkbox that is being used by several top musicians, including Mr. Grohl and the band Everlast.
"I have a pretty mature outlook on the talkbox now," Mr. Frampton said. "It's not the only thing I do, but it's something that put me on the map. The talkbox has quite an interesting effect on the audience, it draws them in. It's another character that gets introduced on the stage, one that speaks through me to the crowd." Mr. Frampton isn't the only one in the talkbox business these days. Half a dozen guitar companies offer their own versions, with names like the Banshee Amplified Talk Box and the Free Speech Talk Box (featuring a tie-dye motif and a knob marked Growl.)
Vince Morano, a 47-year old graphic artist and guitarist from Ulster Park, N.Y., makes and sells his own talkbox, called the Super Talker, in his spare time. "I started selling them on eBay last year and it just took off," he said. "The younger kids can't get enough of it." Digital recreations of the decidedly analog talkbox sound are built into some guitar effects pedals, and talkbox samples are available on CD for musicians and D.J.'s.
The basic premise of the talkbox is simple. It takes the audio output of an amplified instrument (in Mr. Frampton's case, an electric guitar), and sends it through a compression driver, a transducer that is often found in public address systems. The sound generated by the driver travels through a length of plastic tubing that the musician puts in his or her mouth.
As notes are generated by the guitar or other instrument, sound moves through the plastic tubing into the musician's mouth, where it is modulated by the movement of the lips as the player silently mouths words. The resulting sound, which is further amplified by a microphone, combines the melodic quality of an instrument with the information of speech: a talking instrument.
Although Mr. Frampton is often credited with (or blamed for) the talkbox sound, the device, in various forms, has been around since the late 1930's, and is only one of several technologies aimed at combining music and human speech. One of the alternatives is the vocoder (short for Voice Coder), which was invented in the 1930's by Homer Dudley, an engineer for Bell Laboratories, as a means of reducing the bandwidth needed to transmit voice over telephone lines.
The vocoder converted speech into slowly varying control signals, sent those over a low-bandwidth phone line, and reassembled the signal on the receiving end, creating a robotlike voice that still contained the essential information. Musicians seized on the sound of a vocoded voice as the perfect embodiment of an age in which the boundaries between man and machine were starting to blur. The vocoder became especially popular in Germany and remains a mainstay of modern electronica.
While the vocoder has found its niche among experimental musicians, the talkbox tends to be favored by popular guitarists, who prefer the device's warmer, more expressive sound. "A vocoder doesn't draw people in as much as a talkbox," Mr. Frampton said. "It's very electronic-sounding, not at all human. Whereas the talkbox is more analog, it relies more on the note you play and the way you move your mouth."
Mr. Frampton was introduced to the talkbox in 1970 during recording sessions for George Harrison's album "All Things Must Pass.'' During a slow moment, Pete Drake, a pedal steel guitarist, pulled out a small handmade wooden talkbox that he had used in the 1960's on a series of "talking steel" hits inspired by Alvino Rey's talking steel records of the 40's. "All of a sudden the pedal steel started singing to me," Mr. Frampton recalled. "I couldn't get my jaw off the floor."
The rest is "VH1 Behind the Music'' history. Mr. Frampton's generous slatherings of talkbox on the two biggest hits from "Frampton Comes Alive'' brought the sound to millions and sealed his fate as Mr. Talkbox.
Nowadays Mr. Frampton still plays the talkbox, although he likes to think more judiciously. Only one song on his new album features the device, and even that is a subtle burble under the rhythm section. "I use the talkbox very sparingly now," he said. "I have to be very careful. For me especially, if I do another song that's 14 minutes long that has a two-minute break for a talkbox, I'll be drawn and quartered."
By TOM McNICHOL- NY Times