“It felt like I had been training my whole life for that gig”: How Nuno Bettencourt ended up playing with Rihanna

Rihanna and Nuno Bettencourt
(Image credit: David Wolff - Patrick/Redferns via Getty Images)

Rock fans watching this year’s Super Bowl likely experienced a jolt of unexpected delight when they caught a glimpse of one of their own – Nuno Bettencourt, ever-present Washburn N4 in hand – performing alongside Rihanna during her halftime-show extravaganza. But while his screen time was exceedingly brief – “about 1.5 milliseconds,” he jokes – Bettencourt’s partnership with the international pop superstar, as many now know, stretches back more than a decade.

If some fans believe it to be a strange place for one of hard rock’s most lauded six-string shredders to end up, well, there’s precedent (Eddie Van Halen’s star turn with Michael Jackson on Beat It, for one; Bettencourt’s guest appearance on Janet Jackson’s radio edit of Black Cat, for another). Even so, Bettencourt understands the concerns. “A lot of people were probably thinking, ‘Why is Nuno doing a pop thing?’” he says. “The truth is, and I’m not bragging here, I feel I was kind of made for the gig.” 

Indeed, as much as Bettencourt is known for his amped-up and advanced rock chops, he is also recognized as one of the genre’s most versatile, not to mention funkiest, players. All of which no doubt contributed to his being tapped for the Rihanna position in the first place. 

As he recounts, “I got the call from a great guitar player in New York named Tony Bruno. He was MD-ing [musical directing] for Rihanna, and they were looking for a guitarist to do a run with her. He got in touch and he goes, ‘Dude, I know you’re gonna say no because you don’t do this stuff, but we need somebody. We’re on the 31st guy now, and this is getting tough.’” 

Bettencourt continues, “I remember thinking, ‘Why is this so difficult?’ But when he sent me the tunes I understood. Because it was like, I have to be able to play reggae. There’s trap. There’s straight-up hip-hop with 808s. There’s pop. There’s club tracks. And playing in that pocket, you know, everybody thinks it’s simple, but it’s not. It’s a feel thing, and it’s not easy.”

Despite the various styles on tap, the good news was that Bettencourt was also told, “‘You can be you and you can do you,’” he says. “Which was a nice thing to hear. Because I was like, ‘Why do you need me? There’s no guitar.’ And Tony goes, ‘Exactly. She wants to rock out the show.’” 

I was like, ‘Why do you need me? There’s no guitar.’ And Tony goes, ‘Exactly. She wants to rock out the show’

And rock out Bettencourt did, serving as guitarist and at times band leader for Rihanna on multiple outings, including 2010’s Last Girl on Earth tour, 2011’s Loud tour and 2013’s Diamonds tour. 

“All the funk shit and everything we were doing, it was crazy,” Bettencourt says. “And then I’m playing with some of the greatest musicians I’ve ever played with. These were player’s players – our drummer did a Stevie Wonder tour, for fuck’s sake. It was like having the R&B version of Neil Peart next to me. The fusion and the jazz and all the jams that were going on, it was beyond belief.”

Bettencourt points to one Rihanna song, Where Have You Been, as a standout. “That’s a synth riff on the album version,” he says. “But onstage we were replacing it with a live band and crazy playing. It was all fast funk, really clean. You had to wear five hats to be able to do that.

“So it felt like I had been training my whole life for that gig – growing up with the Beatles, then Al Di Meola, then loving Bob Marley, then digging Parliament, then doing all the funk stuff in Extreme, it was insane. It kept me busy for sure.”

And while it’s clear that Nuno has a true appreciation for Rihanna’s music, the question remains: is Rihanna an Extreme fan?

“You know,” Bettencourt says, “I think she was blown away by stuff like Get the Funk Out, just because of the funk element and the horns and all that. That might’ve been one of the songs that got her to go, ‘Okay, let’s hit the dude up.’ And she obviously knew More Than Words.” 

In fact, Bettencourt continues about the hit acoustic ballad, “There was one point where we were almost doing it live. Because we did Redemption Song by Bob Marley, and I would sit onstage with her and play it on acoustic. And she would threaten, ‘Come on, let’s kick into that!’ It would’ve been amazing to do More Than Words with her, sitting side by side. But it never happened.”

If that duet were to come about, it likely wouldn’t be any time soon. What Bettencourt initially thought would be a three-month stint with Rihanna wound up being three tours over the course of several years. But as much as he loved playing with the pop singer, he eventually had to bow out. “It was fun and I learned a lot,” he says. “Then they had the Anti tour coming up [in 2016] and they asked me to do it, but I felt it was time to go.” 

Bettencourt laughs. “I was like, ‘I gotta get back to my rock,’ you know? ‘I gotta rock!’ ”

  • Extreme’s new album, Six, is out now via earMusic.

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.