Nuno Bettencourt on why Instagram players make his jaw drop, how Eddie Van Halen inspired Extreme's new album – and why he apologized to Brian May for one of its leads

Nuno Bettencourt
(Image credit: Jaime Ballesteros)

With his solo in the new Extreme song Rise, Nuno Bettencourt has animated the entire guitar community. “Fucking hell, that’s a ridiculous solo!” gasped Justin Hawkins of The Darkness on his YouTube channel. 

Rick Beato’s video breakdown of the solo rapidly garnered 1.5 million viewers. DragonForce’s Herman Li and a host of YouTube faces produced reaction videos proving Beato’s point that this is “the solo everyone is talking about”.

As Nuno tells Total Guitar: “When Rise came out, we thought, ‘OK, decent song, decent guitar solo’, but the reaction that it got was something else. When Rick Beato posted his video breaking down the solo, and he’s saying that Steve Lukather’s calling, and his brother is calling and Phil X is calling saying, ‘Have you heard the Nuno solo?’, it was really surreal for me.

“It’s that scenario that you fantasise about as a kid. He’s saying things like, ‘Other than Eddie, he’s the guy!’ You’re like, ‘OK, hold on a second!’ I had people I admire texting me, like Phil Collen from Def Leppard, Brian May reaching out and talking about it. You have to take a step back and go ‘What’s actually happening here?’”

Since the guitar internet has blown up with people talking about it, Nuno has been trying to rationalise the response. He has some bold ideas about what it is – and isn’t – about.

“Mateus Asato hit me up like, ‘What the fuck did you just do?’ and I’m thinking, ‘What do you mean what did I just do? You do this in your fucking sleep!’” he laughs. “I realised that it’s not about being able to do it. Anybody can play the solo. I’m not even joking. You break that thing down and there’s not much going on technically, really.”

If that’s Nuno’s idea of what anybody can play, we would suggest he holds off giving beginner guitar lessons for now, but his ideas about why Rise has struck such a chord are more convincing. 

“I believe the difference is that I never played the end of the Rise solo slow. I didn’t calculate it. I had no clue what was happening because while I was recording it I decided that I want the rhythm section to guide me to whatever I’m about to do. I’ll do a whole pass, and I might go, ‘What did I just do?’ 

“I might break it down for myself and then do another pass, but it’s got to be passionate and live at that time, even if you comp the solo from different takes. If you really want to break it down, I think it’s the first note I play, I miss the whole string completely, I was so excited.

“It made a sound that I’ve never even heard before, like a kick drum mixed with a guitar note mixed with a car accident! My 18-year-old self would have fixed that, but now I was like, ‘Oh my God, I couldn’t recreate that if I wanted to.’ It went through me, and that’s what I’m looking for.”

As Nuno is quick to point out, it is not as though we are living through a drought of good guitar solos. “There’s no lack of players in the world right now. As a matter of fact it’s at a bar that’s beyond belief. It’s exhausting almost. Every day I wake up and scroll to Instagram. There are players [where] your jaw drops. You’re like, ‘I couldn’t play that if I wanted to!’

All these amazing guitar players are incredible technically, but most of them are sitting down. The rock ’n’ roll culture, the passion, the fire, the danger and the joy – the physical part of it is missing

“But what was missing was a band that puts out an album, and more importantly a video. Why a video? Because all these amazing guitar players are incredible technically, but most of them are sitting down. The rock ’n’ roll culture, the passion, the fire, the danger and the joy – the physical part of it is missing. 

“I think when somebody saw me actually performing a guitar solo, not just playing a solo, that’s what inspires people. They want to do something that makes them go, ‘Fuck this is exciting!’ It’s on a stage, going all-in. It’s a physical-but-emotional way to play.”

Even more important, he contends, is that unlike social media videos, this solo belongs in a song. “I had a little listening party with Steve Vai, Tom Morello and some of my peers. Of course when you put yourself in that position, those guys are gonna say, ‘Yeah man, great album!’ They’re not going to tell you you suck, but what I was getting from everybody was it was a rock album. It’s just a fucking rock album in a time where my genre of albums don’t come out that often.

“One of the things Rick Beato was most animated about was to see a solo in a song and in an arrangement. There’s harmonies underneath. What the fuck! What is this sorcery?”

One of the things Rick Beato was most animated about was to see a solo in a song and in an arrangement. There’s harmonies underneath. What the f**k! What is this sorcery?

Nuno says he didn’t know the theory behind the chord progression until Beato explained it. “Those chords underneath the Rise solo – I did it as a vocal thing because I just heard it in my head. When Rick broke it down, I felt really smart. ‘He’s doing the bass over the perverted ninth’ or whatever the fuck it is.

“I thought for a minute, ‘Oh my God, I know what I’m doing!’ I probably wouldn’t have done it if I’d known; it was ‘wrong’ in a way. But that’s what’s makes that second half of that thing flourish.”

A couple of tasteful effects choices enhance the climax of the solo. Nuno is disappointed that no-one has so far commented on the first. “Nobody’s noticed it yet, but there’s a higher octave on the second half of it. It was actually a plugin because I couldn’t find an octave-up pedal that I liked.

“The flurry at the end, it almost sounds like these harmonics are happening which I think is making people even think it’s better than it is. It’s just an octave up at like 20 or 30 per cent to make it grow.”

The second effect was inspired by a surprise visitor to the studio. “I never record with anybody in the room,” he says. “I need to black out when I play. I don’t want somebody asking me if I want a fucking cup of tea because then it wakes me up from where I am as a player and creatively. 

“Gary [Cherone, Extreme singer] went to lunch and I go, ‘Yeah, come back around one or two and I should be done with this solo.’ During the recording my phone is blowing up, and it’s pissing me off because Gary knows not to bother me while I’m recording. He keeps calling me, then he’s texting me, ‘Come downstairs, I’m in the front.’ After the third time I’m like, ‘I’m gonna punch this dude out! Something must be going on.’ I go down, open the door and it’s Edward Van Halen!”

From 1978 onward, from the day we heard Eruption, Eddie Van Halen owns the Phase 90. It’s not MXR, it’s an Edward Phase 90

Gary Cherone was Van Halen’s singer in the mid-’90s, featuring on the band’s 1988 album Van Halen III. “Gary went to lunch with Edward, so I’m now talking with Edward in front of my house,” Nuno continues. “He’s like, ‘You guys working on an album?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t want you to come up and hear it yet. When it’s done will you come back?’ Stupid now in retrospect, not letting him come up and listen, but it wasn’t meant to be. 

“So maybe that’s why afterwards when I was finishing that solo, I patched in the Phase 90 at the front. I’ve never used one my entire life until this album, because we all know the second you punch in a Phase 90 and you play the way I do, it’s like ‘OK, it’s one thing to be influenced by Eddie, but now you’re being Eddie.’ From 1978 onward, from the day we heard Eruption, he owns the Phase 90. It’s not MXR, it’s an Edward Phase 90.”

Nuno is at least as famous for his acoustic playing as for his shredding. There is an entire section of the public that only knows him for More Than Words. On Extreme’s new album Six, that playing is exemplified on the ballad Hurricane.

“It’s about one of my best friends that I lost in a motorcycle accident about three or four years ago,” he reveals. “I think I do one note on that solo. After the first bend it goes away for like four bars. It’s one of my favourite parts of soloing on the album because the space is telling you the story about the pain that you’re feeling, that you don’t even want to play anything.

“I’m almost tearing up telling you about it right now, that’s how much I was feeling. When I went to play it, I couldn’t. I thought, ‘I can go back and fill those gaps in, or I can just leave what I felt at the time that meant something. Maybe somebody will feel that as well.’”

What may shock longtime Extreme fans is that for Six, they left the funk out. One song, Thicker Than Blood, has a syncopated chorus riff that reminds us of early Extreme, but as Nuno admits, “That’s about it.”

That wasn’t a calculated move, though. “We didn’t even notice when we were choosing out of the 40, 50 songs we wrote how much funk there wasn’t, but it really occurred to me as a producer. Actually I think that’s good news. I think that’s what it needed to be, when an album sews itself together on its own and says where we are at right now. I’m actually super-excited about the next album because of it. I’ve gotten really inspired.”

He scrolls through his phone, showing TG dozens of voice notes. “They’re all new song ideas. Ironically enough it’s so funky! I don’t know why – not even metal-funk, but funk funk, straight up. We even have a working album title that we’re talking about. So the idea is that we don’t go away for 13 years again. If we’re excited, let’s keep it going.”

Nuno Bettencourt

(Image credit: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images)

With the absence of funk and the presence of heavy drop D riffs, you might think this was Extreme’s attempt at sounding modern, but Nuno insists that wasn’t the plan. “The label were like, ‘Great, we can cross over with this!’ I didn’t do it on purpose. I grew up on Metallica and bands of that generation that already did some of this shit. It’s coming out now because it turns me on. Or maybe it’s Disturbed I listened to, or maybe it’s Five Finger Death Punch, subliminally.

“I’m definitely not trying to be them because this is like babysitting compared to how heavy they are. We’re so self-centred and in such a bubble that I don’t care. If it turns me on, I play it. If it’s too heavy, fuck you! If it’s too light, fuck you. I really don’t care what’s happening out there right now, what’s modern or what’s old or what’s new. I’ll listen to stuff but I’ve never sat down and gone, ‘Let’s make a more modern-sounding album.’”

Certainly, Nuno’s choices of gear were not more modern, being the same rig he’s used on tour for the last decade. “I’ve always been very boring when it comes to this. There’s no exciting Les Pauls or juicy stuff. It’s just the Washburn N4, that block of wood with no finish that I’ve always played. I used my version of a Tele, the Nele that Washburn put out for me. I used it on a couple of songs. They’re pretty obvious when they come up, like on Small Town Beautiful.”

Nuno’s guitar amp is a Marshall DSL100. “A lot of people go, ‘Really? We don’t really like the way those sound.’ The way I use it probably isn’t what most people do. I have the amp pretty loud but I hate harsh sounds. All my sounds have to be really warm and a bit more percussive. 

“When I hired a new tech he was like, ‘Somebody fucked with your settings!’ The presence, treble and midrange are at like one-and-a-half/two. The bass is like four or five, and it’s just loud. When you turn it up it feels just right to me. You can make shit scream without people going, ‘We got to leave the building.’ And you can play rhythm in a way that’s really punchy and really warm.” 

The Rat tightens up all the floppiness of any Marshall, any bottom end and just makes it feel like more of a kick drum. I cannot play without it

The secret sauce is his Pro Co Rat. “When I was on the Generation Axe tour with Zakk Wylde, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen and Tosin Abasi, they were like, ‘What is the Rat pedal doing? You have the distortion almost all the way off.’ I had every guitar player come up like, ‘I don’t get it, Bettencourt. It doesn’t do anything.’ 

“I said, ‘Play the way I play for a second. Play muted, make it go like gunk gunk gunk.’ It tightens up all the floppiness of any Marshall, any bottom-end and just makes it feel like more of a kick drum. I cannot play without it. If you take that thing out of my rig, of course I’ll play but it’ll be a very unhappy show for me.”

The MXR Phase 90 makes another showing on album closer Here’s To The Losers, a kind of anti-We Are the Champions anthem. “I was just like, ‘Fuck, let’s have Brian May and Edward come together and see what happens!’” he smiles. 

Brian May is the most beautiful and most iconic string-bender of all time. When he bends a note it goes through you

The Brian May influence also comes out hard in the acoustic-driven mid-tempo number Other Side Of The Rainbow. “There’s some phrasings right at the end of it that I should go to jail for even using. It’s just Brian all day. Not on purpose, though – it’s just in me now forever. It’s a virus, the Brian May disease! I even sent it to him and said, ‘I apologise for the solo. I know you’re going to want it back. I’m just borrowing it for a minute!’

“It shows you that when I go to the melody side of things, that automatically comes out. Brian May is the most beautiful and most iconic string-bender of all time. When he bends a note it goes through you, and that’s what I always picked up from him. I think that’s my favourite solo on the album. It’s easier when you’re playing a crazy song and you’re gonna go nuts. Maybe it’s technically not easier, but to me it’s a lot more difficult to hang with a melodic song and do something interesting.”

Another lead guitar highlight is Thicker Than Blood, and Nuno is taken by surprise when we suggest it sounds like Prince.

“Oh yeah, very When Doves Cry, even with the phrasing and stuff!” he grins. “Wow, I didn’t even think of that and I’m a massive, massive Prince fan.” It turns out both songs use the same octave pedal. “To me there’s never been a better octave pedal than the Boss OC-2,” Nuno asserts. “It just has a sound.”

One song would be heavy and then it’d be like More Than Words and then it’d be a Frank Sinatra track. People were like, ‘What is wrong with these guys?’

Overall, this album may not sound like Extreme’s previous efforts but, as Nuno points out, that’s always been true. “One song would be heavy and then it’d be like More Than Words and then it’d be a Frank Sinatra track. People were like, ‘What is wrong with these guys? They can’t decide who they want to be.’ Somebody said to me Extreme fans aren’t gonna like this. That this isn’t Extreme. There was a part of me that went, ‘Is that so?’

“Every album we’ve released, every song, I’ve heard, ‘This is not Extreme! This doesn’t work!’ I said, ‘You’re basically telling me that it belongs on the album.’ Every year the Extreme album ad should always be the same: expect the unexpected.”

  • Six is out now via earMusic.

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Jenna Scaramanga

Jenna writes for Total Guitar and Guitar World, and is the former classic rock columnist for Guitar Techniques. She studied with Guthrie Govan at BIMM, and has taught guitar for 15 years. She's toured in 10 countries and played on a Top 10 album (in Sweden).