Radio Free Europe

Well, here it is.  Radio Free Europe. This was R.E.M.’s first single*. There was the famous Hib-Tone recording which is faster than the version on Murmur.  Mitch Easter recorded the Hib-Tone version with the band in 1981 as one of 3 songs for a demo tape.  Johnny Hibbert remixed this recording in order to release it on his own record label, Hib-Tone.

Peter Buck supposedly hated the Hib-Tone version so much, he smashed a copy and hung it on his wall.  In 1983, a different version (the I.R.S. version) was put on Murmur, again mixed/produced by Mitch Easter.

Radio Free Europe could be  the first song by R.E.M. I ever heard, though I can only really remember discovering R.E.M. once Fables came out. Regardless, this was one of the songs I enjoyed in those days and one I could pretty well play back in the 80s.

While I had the main elements of the song down, it was some of those subtle nuances that I did not have exactly right.  We all know the verse: A, D-E. Peter buck mutes the strings giving a very 80’s sound.  Fairly pop-music sounding. Until the notes in the bridge or transition to the chorus.

A note on the way Peter Buck picked those chords or played his famous “arpeggios”: It is said that Peter Buck played these not by alternate up and down picking, but by a sweeping motion picking up one string at a time.**  This is very difficult to do. One person on the Rickenbacker forums said he tried to learn this method of playing, and it took him about a year to “unlearn” his normal alternate picking and learn Peter Buck’s method.  It has been said Peter Buck picked this way because he was a novice or inexperienced guitarist when he first started–and this continued up through Fables or Document.

In order to play this way, you need a pick that is not as flexible (I’ve seen people say he used a red .73 Dunlop pick***) as well as very heavy strings (like .013 gauge).****+

You can see that style of sweeping the chord in this video (you can also get a good glimpse of Peter Buck’s blackface Fender Twin Reverb+) :

In the video, you can see Peter Buck playing all the major components of the song. Note also that he is using both pickups when he plays.

One of the technicalities I picked up from this video and others is the way he plays the chorus with E and A, not as open position chords as with the verses, but played as bar [barre?] chords with the low E and A strings open respectively.

For the bridge leading up to the chorus, he just slides the E up the neck for each chord leaving the bottom two strings characteristically open.

All the chords are confirmed in the video from R.E.M.’s first television debut–the David Letterman Show, 1983:

This version has a little more video clarity and includes both songs they played:

Even after the recording for Murmur, the band was still playing the song faster like on the Hib-Tone recording. I think it sounds fantastic the way R.E.M. plays it in the above videos, and that is how I intend to play it.





*Radio Free Europe set “the pattern for later indie rock releases by breaking through on college radio in the face of mainstream radio’s general indifference.Wikipedia

**Picking, Pickups, and Strings: Peter notoriously uses 13 gauge Dean Markley strings on his guitars, with the action a little high. Does this affect his sound? Oh yeah. That’s not even the kicker, though. Live, Peter uses both pickups on his Rickenbacker. . . . In the early days, Peter did not know how to alternate pick, so his arpeggios were entirely down or upstroked, depending on which direction he was going with his hand. It was like a “sweep.” He adopted the more traditional style later on.

***They’re red Dunlop nylon .73 mm – I know he’s used yellow ones as well, as a friend got some in the 80s. What thickness these yellows are I don’t know. I don’t even know if Peter uses the .73 mm all the time, or just on acoustic, or whatever. I only use them when people say: oh, want to be like Peter Buck, eh?

Funny thing is I already arrived at .73s myself without knowing he used them – they’re not too thick, not too thin.

Dean Markley strings (custom set):
..013 Plain-    Swedish Steel
..017 Plain-    Swedish Steel
..026 Wound-    Nickel Steel
..036 Wound-    Nickel Steel
..046 Wound-    Nickel Steel
..056 Wound-    Nickel Steel

Dean Markley 2500 Dt Nickelsteel Electric Guitar Strings

Note: The above string info was actually listed by someone at Rickenbacker who was setting up Buck’s guitar

There was a question awhile back about what type and gauge strings Peter Buck uses on his Rickenbacker 360 Jetglo. This response was posted to the alt.guitar.rickenbacker Newsgroup in April 1999. It’s a rather heavy set consisting of:

1st – .013 Plain- Swedish Steel
2nd – .017 Plain- Swedish Steel
3rd – .026 Wound- Nickel Steel
4th – .036 Wound- Nickel Steel
5th – .046 Wound- Nickel Steel
6th – .056 Wound- Nickel Steel

These are Dean Markley individual strings. His guitar was at the factory so that he could have a new instrument set up exactly like his old one, using the string set listed above.


+Peter Buck plays a custom black Telecaster: a Rickenbacker 330 hollow-body “for rhythm and more rock ‘n’ roll loud stuff; and a Fender Telecaster thin-line with an t-hole. He also has a Guild electric-acoustic, and a Rickenbacker 360 twelve-string. The studio amp is a Fender Twin Reverb; onstage Buck uses a Simul-Class Mesa Boogie with a Sa/Boo 4×12” speaker cabinet. He likes heavy-gauge Dean Markley strings, “.013 at the high end, .058 at the low end. The thicker the strings are, the more resonant tone you get, like an acoustic guitar. I put new tuning heads on; I use Gotoh, and Schallers are pretty good.” He doesn’t use his Ibanez 4001E effects unit that much. There’s fuzz on “Feeling Gravitys Pull”; a chorus effect “I have on every once in a while to get that little ringy sound, and a compressor I use only if I want to get feedback or noise.” His acoustic guitars are “cheapo Yamaha imitations.”

History Of R.E.M., “Fables Of The Reconstruction”, By Scoft Isler, Musician Magazine, Photography by Steve Marsel, July 17, 1985

Peter Buck has only two main guitars, a Rickenbacker 330 and 301 [is this supposed to be a 360?] both dated 1981, that he puts through a Fender Twin Reverb amplifier with two JBL speakers. He also uses a 12-string ’81 Rickenbacker in the studio and has a 1981 Gretsch Chef Atkins Tennessean at his disposal. Besides the Twin Reverb, Buck has a Marshall amp that he sometimes borrows from his producer Mitch Easter to make a more heavy metal racket. As for effects, he has only one- an lbanez VE400 [sic–should be a UE400] pedal that he uses live though he isn’t too sure what it actually does.

R.E.M. Hits It Big With “Murmur”, 07.12.84, Musician Magazine


Further Reading:

It’s been said that the song is about radio as a tool of cultural hegemony–“Spreading cultural imperialism through pop music,” as Buck, who came up with the song’s title, put it. But it’s also thought to speak to censorship in the US; critics point to a notorious article about Stipe’s idol, Patti Smith in the Village Voice (which Stipe subscribed to) entitled “You Can’t Say ‘Fuck’ in Radio Free America.” Murmur 33 1/3, by J. Niimi, Pgs 24-25 (Bloomsbury, 2005).

Possible Lyrics






2 thoughts on “Radio Free Europe”

  1. Hi David, how you doing, man?
    Sounding good to me, though I’m no expert, you have more musical knowledge than I will ever accumulate.
    I’ve always had difficulty playing barre chords (which doesn’t help!)
    Sliding the E up the neck is an old an honorable tradition, my art teacher in high school used to play “Like A Rolling Stone” that way in about 1980.
    Keep up the good work, man!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I never knew that about the Rolling Stones–I will have to try that (and of course that would have been known to PB)! Thanks.

      I am not sure I have much talent, but a dogged persistence to study the video available to me and learn how PB played the songs of my youth!


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