Adrian Belew

Still Going Up
Adrian Belew
Adrian Belew: A. J. Chippero.

Even after 45 years of guitar heroics with King Crimson, David Bowie, Frank Zappa, and solo, Adrian Belew’s career is still ascending. With his latest album, Elevator, Belew delivers Beatles-infused experimental rock, combining powerful songwriting and vocals with his uncanny style of virtuoso guitarmanship. We checked in with him for the studio goods.

“Good Morning Sun” taps into a Revolver-era Beatles vibe.

Revolver is my favorite record because it introduced the mix of pop and avant-garde ideas I have strived for ever since. There are backwards sounds, tape loops, sound effects, Indian and orchestral instruments, and more, all integrated into perfect pop songs.

“A Car I Can Talk To” has some demented surf licks. Was teenaged Adrian into the instro sounds of the ’60s?
I started as a drummer, and surf music had some pretty snappy drumming. I loved The Ventures and instrumentals like “Sleep Walk” and “Telstar.” Recently, I remembered how unique some of those early guitar sounds were, so I utilized some of those ideas for “Car” and “Attitude.”

Does “Saturday Morning Roar” begin with a looper?
I have an app on my iPhone called Tenori-On. Using that, I made a series of loops using the exact same tempo. Back in the studio, my engineer, Miles Fuqua, and I strung the loops together to make a rhythm track – it’s the keyboard-ish sound you hear throughout. I decided to play short guitar lines with each one morphing into the next, then combined them in different ways to create an ever-changing weave of guitars.

As a one-man band in the studio, how do you begin recording a track?
I’ve tried just about every way possible. Sometimes I just start something, other times I have a fully arranged song written on guitar or piano, which is most often the case these days. Then I begin recording with the instrument it was written on.

Your clean, chorused rhythm-guitar parts are legendary, and you used them in “Backwards and Upside Down.”
The guitar sound in “Backwards” is actually an Eventide H9 sound I created, and it’s just one guitar track. Usually, my chorus comes from stereo chorusing on a Roland JC or from the Fractal Axe-Fx. For Elevator, they came from a Strymon Deco with an expression pedal.


What’s your famously fat fuzz effect?
The “fat fuzz” sound I had in the ’80s for songs with Bowie, Talking Heads, and King Crimson was an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi through a 10-band EQ with 400 to 500Hz boosted. In the early 2000s, a Johnson Millennium provided all my fuzz needs, but since Fractal arrived the Axe-Fx does almost all of it now. Along with the Axe-Fx for my live rig, I use a Keeley compressor, Digitech Harmony Man, and Boss GP-10. There are some added stompboxes like the Z-Vex Fuzz Factory.

Which guitars are we hearing?
I used a Strat, the Adrian Belew Parker Fly, and an Epiphone Wilshire with a five-way selector for all the guitar work on Elevator. The Parker has MIDI capability via a 13-pin Roland connector, plus a Sustainer pickup in the neck position and a DiMarzio humbucker in the bridge, a piezo pickup, and Line 6 Variax electronics. I still have my beat-up ’69 Strat from Lone Rhino and the ’66 Mustang with the graphics, both hanging on a wall in my studio. They don’t get used much, but I still love them.

Are there any actual amps on Elevator?
I used a studio setup with a small pedalboard and played through a pair of Boss MG-10 practice amps, miked in stereo. They each have two 5″ speakers.

What else was on your pedalboard?
A Keeley compressor, Eventide H9, Empress Fuzz, and a Strymon Deco. In concert, I don’t use amps – I use in-ear monitors and Electro-Voice full-range monitors.

You pioneered guitar synthesizers 40 years ago, but the technology never really caught on.
Yeah, and my favorite was the Roland GR-700, which used cartridges to store sounds, but they went dead after about five years. Guitar synths may be considered relics by some people, but I’m thrilled with all the unique sounds and inspiration they afforded me over the years. Now, I don’t use any unless I need a particular sound on a record.

Did Frank Zappa and Davie Bowie ever give you lasting advice about your guitar playing?
There are two things Frank showed me pertaining to guitar – how to play the “bagpipes” guitar sound and how to play in odd-time signatures. David didn’t try to show me anything, guitar-wise, but he and Frank taught me everything about being a recording artist and professional performer, which has been far more valuable to me.

This article originally appeared in VG’s November 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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