Adrian Belew

Musical Modernist
Musical Modernist

Bleeps, squawks, and other sounds emanate from the guitars of Adrian Belew, who has gigged with the likes of Frank Zappa and Talking Heads, not to mention his quarter-century association with King Crimson. Belew also has an offshoot band known as the Bears, and is constantly working on solo material. His most recent solo effort, Side One (Sanctuary), was released in late January, and participants included bassist Les Claypool and Tool drummer Danny Carey.

Belew was born in Covington, Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati. He resides in the Nashville area, and recently spoke with VG about his past and present efforts.

Vintage Guitar: Did your unique guitar style evolve from playing a particular instrument and/or specific influences?
Adrian Belew: Well, early on I studied everything I liked – everything from Les Paul to Chet Atkins to Segovia to current heroes at the time; people like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, George Harrison. I just learned anything I could from anybody’s records. I suppose that after years of doing that, and playing in a variety of bands, I realized that I could sound like a lot of other players, so I decided to sort of stop whenever I caught myself playing someone else’s standard lick, and I’d try to replace it with something of my own invention. And I realized that I loved making “sounds” with the guitar.

One time, I saw a comedian named Morey Amsterdam play a cello – I think it was on the Johnny Carson show – and he made the cello sound like seagulls and other things. He was just kind of goofing around, but I took it seriously and said, “I bet I could do things like that with a guitar.” So I started trying to imitate things – car horns, animal sounds – then I found ways to put that into my playing, which led to a niche I could work in.

Was there any particular brand or model of guitar that helped you get such sounds?
Mostly, that comes with hand techniques or effect boxes more than any particular guitar, although early on I realized I favored the layout, balance, and feel of a Stratocaster. When I started out, I bought a Gibson Firebird, which was an interesting, modernistic instrument, but my friend, Seymour Duncan, kept doing things to it for me. We eventually realized that what I was trying to do was make it into a Stratocaster! (laughs)

I sold the Firebird when the disco era was in full swing to buy a set of Ludwig drums, and I got a job in a (lounge) band. I couldn’t stand the music we were playing. When I went back to playing guitar professionally two and a half years later, I bought a Stratocaster.

You also have things like a highly modified Fender Mustang with multicolored pickup covers.
These days, my guitars are usually modified to different specs that I like, and I’m using a set of three Custom Shop guitars Fender built for me, and what’s usually custom about them is the synthesizer, the Roland GK-2A pickup and its controls, which are under the pickguard. They have Kahler tremolos, which I’ve always favored – I’ve developed so many hand techniques with the Kahler, I don’t know how I’d do them if I ever had to use another tremolo! The company hasn’t fared well, but I think their products are excellent. I started using Sperzel tuners a long time ago, so my guitars stay in tune quite well without a locking nut.

The guitars also have Lace Sensor pickups; I like the sound of single-coils but like something to be as quiet as possible. The bass pickup has a Sustainiac. I do have a vintage Strat, which has my favorite neck, and they replicated that for these Custom Shop guitars.

Talk about your experience with Frank Zappa.
I played with Frank from ’77 to ’78. The main record we made was Sheik Yerbouti, which was the all-time best-selling Zappa record, and we made a film called Baby Snakes, which also turned into a record called Baby Snakes, and there are some live recordings. I’m on two volumes of You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore.

What about your association with Talking Heads?
The first thing I did with them was Remain In Light, which was in 1980 – an excellent record. I played on tour with them for a year, and also played on all of their solo records. The big record of that period was Tom Tom Club, which was drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads. They had a huge hit called “Genius of Love.” I also did Jerry Harrison’s solo records, David Byrne’s The Catherine Wheel, and a live double set from the band, so quite a lot of material came out of that period.

That has to be you on the intro to the live album’s version of “House in Motion;” there’s a noticeable vibrato squawk.
Well, when they put me in the band, they didn’t have someone who could solo, and they didn’t have someone who could color the songs with all the effects they had done in the studio, when they’d brought in Brian Eno, me, and other players. So when I came into the band, those were my responsibilities. A fun job! (chuckles)

Considering the phases King Crimson has been through, is it fair to say that the incarnation that debuted with Discipline in 1981 introduced the third phase?
Yeah, that’s the third real lineup of the band. I’ve been in the last four.

Reportedly, the third incarnation was slated to be called Discipline instead of King Crimson.
When we first got together, there was no real talk of a name, and eventually Robert (Fripp) said he liked the name Discipline. We kind of chewed on that for a while; I don’t think Tony (Levin) and I really liked it – it sounded too unfriendly. Robert finally said, “Whatever we call this band, in spirit, it is still King Crimson.” Then Tony and I said, “Then let’s call it King Crimson.” I grew up with King Crimson being one of my favorite bands, and that name carried a sort of respectability and history that I was proud to be a part of.

And there was a mixed reaction among the older (King Crimson) fans, because they tend to want you to stay right where you are. They liked the 1969 version or the ’72 version. It’s kind of like buying a new car and wishing it still looked like an old one! (chuckles) Mostly, though, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the new ground the band was tackling. There were now two Americans with two English players, and more importantly, we had a whole new box of tools to work with. Bill Bruford was on the cutting edge of electronic drumming, Tony was playing a Chapman Stick, and Robert and I had guitar synthesizers. Naturally, we created a different style and sound, but that’s what King Crimson has always been about anyway. I think there was also something to be said for an American singer doing American-style vocals. Now people look back on Discipline as being a very important King Crimson record.

How would you describe the differences between King Crimson and your offshoot band, the Bears?
I would say the Bears are about edgy pop songwriting, in particular. The Bears have four songwriters, so you get four styles. But everything we feed into the grinder comes out sounding like us. It’s a band that has a long history among old friends, so there’s a certain chemistry.

Robert and I have an even longer history with King Crimson, and while we’re the two main songwriters, King Crimson is more about experimentation, and the music is pretty complex. It usually has very little to do with pop music. We’re more inclined to play in odd time signatures, to do a lot polyrhythmic things… a more intense musical experience.

Side One features Les Claypool and Danny Carey on the first three tracks. As with some of your guitar playing, listener’s may ask of Claypool’s bass playing, “How did he do that?”
There are three records, Side One, Side Two, and Side Three that were done over the last four years, whenever I could find spare time in the studio. In making those recordings, I realized the material was separating itself into categories. The first record would be power trio-type material, but the second one doesn’t sound anything like the first. (The second) has more drum loops, long-evolving synthesizer, more of a deejay style of music.

I always play everything on my records, if I can, or I at least make a demo of what I want to do. Making a demo of those first three songs, I realized I wasn’t the right player. I really needed an adept, more powerful drummer, and a unique bass player. When you have a trio, you have to have people who are charged up and almost overplaying. I immediately thought of Les, because he’s one of the most unique character players. He has taken bass playing into other realms, and is very inventive; sometimes he’s slapping, sometimes he’s playing with his thumb.

Les and I discussed who the drummer should be, and Danny was the obvious choice. I went to San Francisco, to Les’ studio. I took my guitar and vocals tracks to them, and we learned the songs. But when it came time to record, we just recorded their tracks; I didn’t re-record my parts. That made it a little simpler, but it was also a bit of a challenge. We also had a lot of fun jamming and doing a lot of other things. They’re also going to be on two of the tracks on Side Three, and I think in the future we’d like to do a separate project, when all of us have time.

What instruments did you use?
Mostly, I used my custom Strats or my Parker Fly. Those are the two guitars I really felt most comfortable with, and I still do. It hasn’t been announced yet, but I’m working on a Parker Fly Adrian Belew signature model. We were hoping it would be ready to announce at the (January ’05) NAMM show, but the guy who was putting it together had a car accident. He’s okay, but it’s been delayed a bit. It’s going to be an unbelievably cool guitar… but there aren’t any vintage Parkers yet! (laughs)

Speaking of vintage, one would probably have expected you to run through effects and into the board instead of through old tweed Fender amplifiers.
In the last few years, I’ve come to rely on a pair of Johnson Millennium Mark 50 amps because they have a lot of interesting effects built into them, and they sound somewhere in the area of a Matchless with Celestions. And I have a Matchless, so I can compare them. Recently, I’ve been turned on to the Line 6 Vetta II.

What I’m doing is pretty interesting, and still confusing, at times. (chuckles) I’m trying to use two different sets of stereo amplifiers, two pedalboards, two different sounds coming out. The combinations I’m learning are mind-boggling, even for me! Just about every time I sit down to play guitar, I’ll find something new. It’s a designed idea, and I’m trying to sound a little like Robert and I do, when we play our interlocking guitar lines.

As applied to the power trio idea, I would loop a guitar, then play through my own loops, which meant I could kind of be my own rhythm guitar player. For example, “Ampersand,” the very first song, is looped. All the guitar stuff in there was done at one time, with one guitar. That’s also true for “Walk Around the World” and “Matchless Man.”

You played bass and drums on “Madness” and “Walk Around the World”?
Right; “Madness” is a different kind of trio. The bass player’s goin’ kinda crazy, but I felt like the drummer should put a nice, swing groove in there, and I could do that; I liked what I already had and there was no need to get somebody else to play anything differently. I have a Fender Jazz Bass, and I think on “Madness” I used it through a Comp-Tortion – a combination compressor and fuzz box. If you bleed just a little of it in, it really compresses the bass, causing it to breathe kind of heavy.

It’s also the just-me trio on “Walk Around the World,” but that’s a very difficult track to play. I used a Fernandes fretless bass on it. There are other places on the records where I used a Zeta upright electric bass, and I really loved playing that, because it has a beautiful low-end sound. It’s a real challenge, but I’ve actually gotten my chops and intonation together pretty well. I played a bit of keyboard bass on the records at times, but most of it is going to be those three basses.

What’s the crackling sound on “Beat Box Guitar”?
That’s an old vinyl record we sampled. We liked that texture; we actually sampled about eight minutes of crackle from different records. My engineer, Ken Latchney, is really amazing with all of these different techniques, ‘coz I’m always throwing things at him! (laughs) It can be pretty fun around here, because we’re always trying to come up with new things.

Was the initial low-end riff on “Elephants” inspired by “Baby Elephant Walk”?
No, but I do know that song; I think they used to play it on a game show. Elephants and rhinos are kind of a motif throughout my work – a recurring theme – something I picked up from Frank. With him, it was dwarves and pumpkins; with me, it’s animals. Usually, they’re metaphorical for some sort of human condition. Once again, the riff you alluded to is a loop, and I just started playing guitar over it, and I felt like the guitar things had an “elephant attitude” – they were low, big, rumbling, and brazen. Then we sprinkled in some jungle sound effects.

You even did the cover artwork for Side One.
I started painting about a year and a half ago. I always told myself I’d take up painting when I got to be an old man, but decided to start a little early. Like my guitar playing, I’ve invented everything with my painting on my own, with no knowledge of how to do it correctly; I just picked up some brushes and a couple of canvases. It’s turned into an explosion of ideas for me, just like music has. Every time I sit down to paint, something totally different comes out. Each of the records will feature four, five, six paintings. I designed all three of the covers at once, not so they would seem similar, but so it would seem like they belong together. We’re looking at June for Side Two, and next January for Side Three.

What do you see in the future for King Crimson, the Bears, and your solo projects?
I see all of them as ongoing because in my life, there’s never been one thing that’s been satisfying enough. So, having two great bands and a solo career might seem like too much, but it balances out really well for me. I’m pretty good at focusing on something that needs to be done.

But I lead a pretty normal life; I get up at 6 a.m. to see my girls off to school, and get my thoughts in gear before Ken arrives at 11. We generally go to about 5 or 6 (p.m.), and it’s my dream come true to have my own studio where I can make my own music, and to be in the company of King Crimson, the Bears, and all of the other people I work with.

And after all these decades, do you think you’re still learning?
All the time! Although there’s too much technology to choose from, and it’s probably humanly impossible to keep up with it these days, technology still drives my imagination and my writing process.

Photo by Rick Malkin.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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