A Tribute To Bob Heil, Inventor Of The Talk Box

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By Ralph Greco, Jr.

We too often see once-famous musicians flittering off into obscurity or passing away without notice. Unless we champion a name and reputation, even the most extensive Grammy ‘In Memorium’ passes by too many who have shuffled off. And then there are those men and women who surely contributed to the music we love, their names too often only known to those in the business.

On February 24, 2024, audio pioneer Bob Heil died at the age of 83. Heil is best known as the inventor of the “Talk Box.” Born in St Louis, he began his musical forays in the theater, becoming house organist at 15 on the Fox Theatre Wurlitzer. He’d also come to learn how to tune and ‘voice’ the many pipes in that organ. Founding Heil Sound in 1966, he experimented with improving the limited concert sound systems available during the early days of bigger rock shows, entering the big leagues when a call came from Jerry Garcia in 1970.

The Grateful Dead were playing the aforementioned Fabulous Fox and their regular sound guy couldn’t attend. Heil slipped into the gig with his bigger and more modified PA setup. He employed a technique for beating back feedback, wowing the band so much he was invited to tour with the Dead. Heil would go on to provide the quadraphonic sound system for The Who’s Quadrophenia tour and go on to work with Joe Walsh, Jeff Beck, and most notably, provide Peter Frampton with one of the signature devices.

That device — and arguably Heil’s most famous mainstream contribution — was the Heil Talk Box, first created for Joe Walsh in 1973. Yet we have all become accustomed to Peter Frampton using the invention to mainstream acclaim. This effect unit typically directs sound from an instrument (in Frampton’s case, that instrument being guitar) into a player’s mouth via a plastic tube that sits to the side of the player’s vocal microphone. The musician ‘sings’ into the tube, manipulating the Talk Box’s controls by changing the shape of his or her mouth around the tube. One might say Heil surely showed Frampton the way.

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