Nuno Bettencourt

Extreme Versatility
Nuno Bettencourt
Nuno Bettencourt: Kyle Bertrand.

When Extreme reunited for its fifth album, 2008’s Saudades de Rock, it seemed a foregone conclusion the band was back in business and returning to a regular record/tour cycle. Well, not exactly. Though there was a smattering of live performances in the ensuing years, album number six remained elusive. Until now.

The appropriately titled Six once again features singer Gary Cherone, guitarist Nuno Bettencourt, bassist Pat Badger, and drummer Kevin Figueiredo. Its material and performances are inspired and match well with the band’s earlier recordings, including the 1990 breakthrough, Pornograffitti.

Since the beginning, a large part of Extreme’s sound/approach has centered on Bettencourt’s guitar wizardry. Though technically gifted, he has always put the song first. But, as evidenced by the leadoff single/video, “Rise,” he still wows with his six-string skills.

Bettencourt spoke with Vintage Guitar before the release of Six, discussing the album, his gear, and a couple of bucket-list gigs.

This natural-finished Nele Deluxe signature model (left) is Bettencourt’s latest collaboration with Washburn. A departure from the N4, it has a Seymour Duncan Vintage Stack at the neck and a Bill Lawrence L-250 in the bridge position. “The sonic range of those pickups is taken up a few notches with the six-tone mod that is standard on the Nele,” he said. “The Freeway Ultra switch gives access to the three common settings and three additional hot-rod options.” Bettencourt’s Washburn WJ45SCE Jumbo Acoustic has flamed-maple back and sides with a spruce top. His personal instrument, it has custom-tempered frets.

Why did 15 years pass between Extreme albums?
It wasn’t on purpose. Fans hate us because five times over the last 10 years I said, “We have an album coming.” I wasn’t lying, but as I’ve always said to Gary since we started writing music and putting out albums, “It’s got to mean something.” I never wanted to put something out just for the sake of touring or money. It has to have a feeling that, as a player or composer, you’re giddy to share; you can’t wait to put headphones on someone and say, “Hey, check this out.”

If you don’t have that feeling where you’d call your brother or best friend and have the heart, guts, and the want to share it with them, then you shouldn’t be releasing it. That’s what this album was for us. In 2016 or ’17, even though we had 40 or 50 songs and probably should have put out four albums, it wasn’t until this crop started popping out that I was like, “Okay, this is giving me that feeling I got from Pornograffitti, III Sides to Every Story, and Waiting for the Punchline.”

From a guitar perspective, how do you approach making music?
I never look at guitar as a body of wood, strings, and “You can change the model.” I look at it like a best friend, in a way. And, like a best friend or somebody you’ve grown up with, sometimes you’re inseparable, and sometimes you want a break from each other. And that’s okay. It’s an authentic relationship.

There was a period where I was like, “I need a break to gather myself. I’m not inspired.” Then you come back to it when other things make you inspired. Sometimes, you get on the Generation Axe tour and you’re onstage with Steve Vai, Zakk Wylde, Tosin Abasi, and Yngwie Malmsteen, and you’re like, “Wow! These are some of my heroes,” and we’re doing “Frankenstein” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It reignites a fire in the relationship with “your friend” and you find yourself playing more and being creative.

So, the mood finally struck to start making the music that led to Six?
I said to my band and my manager, “I’m always all in with what I do. But right now, I want to go for blood in a way that brings joy into guitar playing, that brings fire and excitement in a song and melody.” From the reaction to “Rise” so far, I realize that instinct was right.

This ’98 Marshal DSL JCM2000 is the only guitar amp heard on Extreme’s new album, Six. Bettencourt acquired it from a backline company that rented it to him for an Extreme show. He was so impressed that he bought it on the spot. Though stock, he says it’s unlike any other JCM2000 he has heard.

This is not like back when we first came out. Back then, you put out an album and you didn’t know if people liked it for two, three, six months. You do interviews, you see if people are buying tickets, if radio is playing it – then you know. Now, you post stuff on Youtube and within 24 or 48 hours, the world is telling you either “This s**t is good!” or “You suck!”

With “Rise” and the solo, when my phone started blowing up in a weird way, it reminded me of the Pornograffitti days, when you talked to people, “Hey man, you’re on MTV. Something’s going on.” I started getting screenshots from my heroes, like Brian May and Steve Lukather, saying, “Hey, I heard the single. Good job, kid,” and, “What the f**k? Dude, do you see what’s happening?” And then all this crazy stuff, like, “After Eddie, Nuno’s the guy.” I watch this and I’m like, “This can’t be happening.”

Of course, as a guitar player in a band, you go all-in and hope you connect with people, and believe it can do something good. After the dust settled and “Rise” hit a million views in a week or so, I was thinking, “That’s not right! (laughs) But if something’s wrong in a good way, I’ll take it.”

That solo got a lot of attention right away.
Yeah, I started realizing, “Everybody’s flipping out about this solo,” but I don’t think it’s the solo that people like so much. I think it’s decent, but, as a guitar player, what’s strong about it is the thing I’ve always tried to do out of fear of being that douchy guitar player who takes every solo like it’s about him. To me, if a song is ripping and fun – like “Rise” – I think, “Man, stay with that fire. Stay with what you’re feeling.” But you play for the song. It might be disappointing to some, but even a guy like Edward Van Halen would sometimes play a 10-second solo with a couple of strings open, then get out of it. He played what was right. So did Brian May, so did Jimmy Page. Whatever the vibe is, I’ve always thought it’s important to play for the composition, even if you get a feature in it.

On one of the first notes I hit on the solo to “Rise,” I missed the string – it sounded like a kick drum mixed with a car accident (laughs). I couldn’t re-create it if I wanted to. Most guitarists would have been like, “That’s not the note I went for,” but I’m like, “Let’s go.” So, I guess what I’m saying is don’t forget the emotion and physicality of what you’re doing.

Bettencourt’s mainstay guitar for more than a decade has been this ’91 Washburn N4 signature model designed by Stephen Davies with a Bill Lawrence L500XL pickup in the bridge and a Seymour Duncan 59 in the neck. The tape stripes represent each color of tape used by Eddie Van Halen on his guitars. Bettencourt added it in remembrance after Van Halen’s passing. The other graphic is the logo of his company, Atlantis Entertainment. The feathers hanging from the tuner are decorative.

Which other tracks from Six are you particularly fond of, from a guitar standpoint?
My favorite guitar moment is “Other Side of the Rainbow” – the 12-string song. Sometimes it’s easier to play a crazy solo on a crazy song, but when you have a song full of melody, something about it asks you, “Can you hang with this?” And it’s harder to be in that middle gear – beautiful and slow, trying to be David Gilmour. It’s like what Mark Knopfler did in one of the greatest solos of all time – “Sultans of Swing.” That, to me, is the hardest – where it’s just cruising but every time he plays, it’s tastier and tastier. To me, the solo “Rainbow” is the epitome of that. People might not think it’s impressive, technically, but when I hear it, I have a “proud dad” moment because it hangs in that gear. Melodically, I learned a lot more about bending and stuff like that from Brian May. Like how you can bend one note and feel something. Neal Schon also does that amazingly well. By the way, I sent it to Brian to say, “Sorry, I think I borrowed everything from you on this…”

Another that sticks out is “Thicker Than Blood.” I had a listening get-together at Sound Factory and was really excited to play it for Tom Morello, Steve Vai, and a couple other close friends. I was nervous, but Morello was like, “Let’s just listen to the thing from top to bottom.” What was really cool is when it came to the solo for “Thicker Than Blood,” they stopped it (laughs). And it’s not even a crazy solo – it’s almost like a conversation, like a robot talking to you, because I used an octave pedal. It’s one of my favorites because it’s awkward and unique, but more importantly, it suits the music, which is a bit electronic. I’m proud of those moments when a solo really connects with what’s behind it.

What’s a good example of someone else’s solo that connected with you like that?
To me, “Hotel California” has the greatest solo of all time, because it’s a pretty song and you can sing every moment of that solo and tell it was played with the quirkiness and swagger of [the rhythm]. That’s when magic happens.

When I watched Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eddie Van Halen, I never saw a human playing a guitar – I saw an extension of the instrument. When I first saw Stevie Ray bend a note… I get chills just talking about it. I’ll always remember that, and I believe that’s what people respond to. With “Rise,” they’re seeing a guitar player in a video with a band, and it’s exciting again.

There are players on Instagram doing jaw-dropping stuff – playing circles around me, technically – and hopefully they’ll see it and think, “Wait… I can get out there and do this.” It’s exciting to see and smell again. People are responding to that passion and emotion, not just the guitar.

Bettencourt doesn’t rely on many pedals, but this mid-’80s “whiteface” ProCo Rat is crucial to his sound.

Which guitars did you use on the new album?
When it comes to that stuff, I’m so boring (laughs). I’ve played the Washburn N4 since before it was the N4, when it was just a paintless guitar because I couldn’t afford Warmoth parts when I was 15.

What were your first guitars?
The first guitar I owned was a red Kramer Pacer, then that was destroyed and I got the black Jackson with the Pet Sematary cat on the body. That one was stolen at a gig, and then I went through a bad financial period and could only afford unfinished guitar parts; I bought a lefty Warmouth neck, a raw body, and a Bill Lawrence pickup.

When and how did you start working with Washburn?
I got a phone call from their local rep in 1989.

How many versions of the N have there been?
Several – the N4, N5, N12, N7, and other limited ones.

Are yours different from off-the-shelf versions?
No, they’re exactly the same.

“As a guitar player in a band, you go all-in and hope you connect with people, and believe it can do something good.

Which amps do we hear on the album?
I used a Marshall DSL 2000. I like it loud, and the way I set it to sound warm and punchy for me would look wrong to anybody else who saw the EQ – like, “Oh, he forgot to turn it on.” Presence and Treble is on 11/2 or 2, Bass is all the way up to 4. That way, when it’s loud, it’s punchy, but it doesn’t hurt – it’s warm. I guess it’s a form of a brown sound – not to be like Eddie. That’s what really sounds good to me when it’s loud.

Any pedals?
I’ve always used a [Pro Co] Rat distortion. Whatever amp I’m using, the Rat’s Distortion knob is almost all the way off and Volume is up. When the pedal is on or off, there’s little difference, but it’s a feel thing. I play very percussively, whether it’s my muted stuff or the rhythm, and I use this setting on the Rat that gives this really cool kick-drum feel to everything. That’s my secret sauce. When I play without it, it changes the way I feel and play.

What do you recall about playing this year’s Super Bowl halftime with Rihanna?
It was a bucket-list moment. I’m soon to be 57, and Extreme probably won’t have a chance to play the Super Bowl. I’m a big football fan and was at the stadium for two of the Patriots’ Super Bowls. So, to experience it – watching from stage, the production, the rehearsal, the excitement of walking out there in the middle of a Super Bowl – was great.

When we were rehearsing in the stadium that week, I went down to the field, and you’re not supposed to. A voice on the PA started yelling at me, “You cannot be on the field!” I’m leaning down to smell the grass, and get up with fresh paint on my arm from the Kansas City Chiefs’ logo they’d just drawn. I’m that guy (laughs). But it was an amazing experience and I got to play with some amazing musicians. The guys who play with Rihanna – Adam Blackstone, Omar Edwards – are the best in the world. And the arrangements are always crazy.

Everybody asks me, “You play with a pop artist?” and I’m like, “You have no idea the different musical feels you have to have with Rihanna – from reggae to pop to traps to their pockets.” So yes, it was incredible.

You’ve done other big-time shows, like the Grammys with Paul McCartney.
I spent three days with Paul in a rehearsal space, and got to ask him about John Lennon. We jammed, and even wrote a song together for two and a half minutes (laughs). It was amazing.

This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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