2023 was an exceptional year for guitar music, with no shortage of talent old and new dazzling us with world‑conquering riffs, miraculous fretwork and life-affirming compositions.
But no-one ruled the roost quite like Nuno Bettencourt, whose work on Extreme’s album Six – notable for being their first in 15 years – left everyone speechless in its sense of bold ambition, indicative of a band who knew how to play to their strengths while also reinventing themselves in other ways for the modern age.
Particularly, it was his solo on lead single Rise that got the guitar community talking in every corner of the globe, ultimately proving why Bettencourt remains one of the finest gunslingers of his era.
In this new interview, Nuno offers what he describes as “the most detailed analysis yet” of the Rise solo, and tells the full story of how it was created – from Edward Van Halen dropping by the studio while it was being recorded to Nuno’s unorthodox amp settings and the secret pedal used during the rapturous climax of its very final moments.
As he’s told us in the past, his approach often boils down to how pentatonic-based blues lines and neoclassical shred runs coalesce into what he refers to ‘simplexity’.
So without further ado, we present our Guitarist of 2023 and also the man responsible for delivering our Solo of 2023 – in the process motivating everyone from devout guitar aficionados to more casual listeners to appreciate just how powerful the right solo at the right time can truly be…
Congratulations, Nuno. 2023 was quite the year for you!
“Thanks! It’s been a bit overwhelming. When I look back on 2023, there are definitely a lot of different emotions there. The response has been crazy. You always go into an album doing the best you can, but we definitely did not expect this response at all, with a lot of sold-out shows and excitement about the new music.
“Being called guitarist of the year and being voted solo of the year at this age and time in my life is remarkable… it’s a miracle! I’m grateful for everything.”
What better place to start than the Rise solo itself? It tells a story almost like different acts within a play, using a smorgasbord of gravity-defying techniques, heartfelt blues and lyrical phrases…
“Wow… can we just leave it at that? Because what I’m about to say probably won’t sound as good! When solos like this happen, or any leads for that matter, you never go in thinking all of those things you just said. You try your best but it’s never like, ‘This is what I’m going to do and I’m going to blow people’s minds by opening with this, and then go into some three-act play that sounds like that!’
“It’s not pre-decided or predefined. I’m usually guided by the song itself… like, what is going on behind the solo? What is the rhythm section playing? What areas have been left open for me here? When you start asking yourself those sorts of questions, they help you find what the song calls for and what to superimpose on top.”
So how exactly did it start to take form?
“I remember thinking I wanted to black out all the lights and kick everyone out of the studio. I stood up, put my guitar on and cranked the shit out of all the speakers so everything was super-loud, and just went for it. The first thing I remember is that everything stops in the beginning – the whole band cut out.
“You instantly get this direction either from Led Zeppelin or Van Halen, because both had these hits where everyone would stop and the guitarist would carry on. For whatever reason, I went straight into this tremolo [picking] thing. I don’t know why; I just started doing it. For those early takes I was thinking I wouldn’t keep it, it was just fucking around. But what’s really strange is what happened next…”
Was this the Eddie Van Halen visit?
“Yeah! My phone kept vibrating. I ignored it because I didn’t want to be taken out of my zone. But I started thinking something bad was going on, so I looked at my phone and it was our singer Gary [Cherone]. I was like, ‘Leave me alone – I’m recording!’ Then he sent a message saying ‘You’ve got to go downstairs right now and come out front!’ And I’m like ‘No, I’m recording!’
“Then he calls me… we haven’t called each other in 25 years, never mind five times in one go! So I thought ‘Right, I’m going down to knock this dude out because he’s fucking up my vibe!’ I walked out the door and he was there with Edward Van Halen. I remember looking at them, smiling and thinking ‘Okay, that’s a good reason to interrupt my solo!’ It would end up being the last time I saw Edward.”
What did you guys talk about?
“There were lots of big hugs and big kisses. I was asking about what he was up to and he told me, ‘Keep it between us for now, but Van Halen wants to go out the way we came in – we’re reaching out to all the original guys for a big tour!’ I thought it sounded incredible and he was so excited. Then he went to his car and started blasting some music out the window telling us that it was his son Wolfie, who had played all the instruments on this debut album.
“It’s crazy – the Rise solo was anointed by whatever DNA I grabbed from Edward that day. Whatever kiss he gave me on the lips, I definitely went back into the studio and brought it with me. You can’t get more inspired than Edward showing up. He changed the world, yet was always very loving and very giving.”
And he is greatly missed. Did you invite him up and play him the solo?
“He said, ‘I know you’re doing an album up there!’ And I regret not asking, ‘You wanna come up and hear it?’ But I was only in the early stages. I wanted to give him the proper version once it had been finalised, not some demo! So he said, ‘Okay, I’ll come back, let me know when it’s done!’ The fact I never got to play it to him is brutal.
“Nobody will ever take that throne from him, but I hope he’s looking down at me like, ‘You done good, kid… you done good!’ This guitar solo would 1,000 per cent never have existed if it were not for Edward, and maybe a couple of others like Brian May and Al Di Meola. You have to tip your hat to the players who shape you. At the end of the day, you are what you eat.”
Did that meeting change what you did next with the solo?
“I went back up feeling amped and inspired, because it was effectively him saying, ‘Go get ’em, kid!’ – like a coach coming out before play. I probably sat down to catch my breath because… no pressure or anything! Seeing him pumped me up, and I think you can hear it. I remember listening back to those early takes afterwards thinking, ‘You know what, this is 80 per cent done!’
“Seeing Edward that day made me listen to it with a different pair of ear goggles. If he hadn’t come by, I might have redone or swapped things. In a weird way, that beginning part – that couldn’t have been more Eruption-esque! – maybe I would have felt it was too Edward-sounding. But the fact he turned up made me think, ‘Just go for it and let it fly!’ I stopped asking questions or worrying.”
The next section of the solo has some pretty ambitious whammy bar work – again, not a million miles away from what Edward was famous for.
“So where do you go after that? I hadn’t used a whammy bar much in years. So I grabbed the damn thing and started doing things with it. I remember listening back after a few more takes and listening out for this big epic bend that I was going for. That did not come out, I hit three or four notes instead! I thought I’d go back and fix it, but it made such a weird sound I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I played it.
“It was one of those ‘what the fuck?!’ moments where things sound a bit horrible, weird and twisted. I decided to leave it, because that’s another thing I learned from Edward: leave the weird shit, embrace the imperfect. After a certain point on guitar, you start getting more excited about the accidents – the things that show how human you really are, the emotions and the cracks. That’s what connects with people. By the end of this second act, we’re all moving…”
At this point, as well as merging ideas from the D Mixolydian, D Aeolian and D minor pentatonic scales, you also slow down and speed up for certain lines – adding to the unpredictable thrill of it all. Was that a conscious decision?
“I was almost thinking of it like drum fills. The groove is going but my lines go slow then fast. Nothing goes out of time, but I’m definitely fucking with time. When I speed up for those bluesy licks, those are the kind of things I would do if I was playing timbales! That side of me comes from Al Di Meola.
“He’s the king of all that stuff, making his guitar sound like percussion. That connected with me and worked well against the Edward influence, who is the total opposite and legato-led. Al’s stuff is meticulously fierce and on the beat while Edward was so elastic-y and stretchy. The Rise solo is those two worlds colliding!”
And, as for the final act, there are those heavily muted open-string legato arpeggios that you play on the three lower strings. Given the speed you’re hitting and the rolling rhythms created through hammering on and pulling off, it’s as climatic as a guitar solo can get.
“There’s something about the drums going from that punk groove to half-speed. Funnily enough, everyone else slowing down made me want to go faster! It felt like the soundtrack to a movie. I didn’t think about it or write it, I just started doing this percussive muted thing that I’ve probably been doing for 30 years on tracks like Peacemaker Die.
“And because I was playing in drop D, my fingers started naturally going to these patterns. It was like an out of body experience where I was telling myself, ‘I don’t know where you are going with this!’ while my fingers kept following the chords. I cleaned it up a little, but 90 per cent of the idea was there. Every now and then you play a solo and it just happens.”
You’ve told us in the past that your trusty ProCo Rat distortion pedal is what tightens up your signal and helps give certain lines a percussive feel you liken to a kick drum.
“You’re absolutely right, because that palm-muted thing at the end of Rise is the epitome of why the Rat pedal is so important to me. It tightens up the floppiness of any Marshall or whatever I use, making it sound more percussive and much tighter. A big reason why people think there’s a delay is because I don’t pick every note.
“I only pick the notes I want to pop forward to create a wide dynamic. If I’d picked every note or muted every note, it would have been very straightforward and might have actually sounded like an exercise! The way I look at it, this section is more like a drum solo that ebbs and flows than a straight beat.”
As for other pedals, it definitely sounds like a Phase 90 was engaged for that alternate picked ‘first act’?
“You’re right… but it’s hard to remember exactly. I might have stuck it on lightly for the whole thing! To be honest, this is the first time I’ve broken down the solo into this level of detail. One thing that I’ve never told anyone is what happens in the second half of that palm-muted bit.
“All these interesting harmonics come out of nowhere and no one seems to hear it because the vocals come in to trick people into just hearing that. I also kick in an octave pedal going up, just enough to be faintly heard. I’ve never said this in an interview, nobody has ever asked, so here you go!
“It’s funny, in some of the clips for the video, you can see me playing that section high and some people were commenting, ‘You’re fucking with us and playing it in the wrong place of the neck!’ Because there was a pedal creating that octave up, I moved up to the higher frets even though I didn’t play it like that. I felt stupid that these octaves were coming in but my hands weren’t showing it!”
Which octave pedal did you use?
“It was the latest Boss one, the OC-5, which has a new octave up feature. The old ones could only go down. I set the pedal so low that at soundchecks, I find myself wondering if it’s even on, but I can tell as soon as I turn it off. Because the original guitar doesn’t go away, that part is almost like a synth.
“Octave pedals don’t sound the same and can be a little synthetic… that’s why we use ’em! Right now I have the Rat pedal sitting on my head and the OC-5 next to it, but I don’t like what it does when I’m not using it. I can hear it in the loop, so my tech plugs it in just before Rise and takes it out for the next song!”
You mentioned Marshall amps earlier, are we hearing a vintage head or something more recent?
“It was the same head for the whole album, a straightforward JCM2000 DSL. It’s not modded or anything. It’s the same head I’m using on tour because I love the way it sounds. My settings are crazy, though!
“People often tell me they can’t make their head sound like the same and here’s why. I have everything almost off. The Presence is on one, the Treble is on one, the same goes for Mids and the Bass is on about four. I know that sounds like I’m putting a blanket on the amp but when it’s loud it sounds fuckin’ big, warm and crunchy.”
It was definitely a strong year for you. But do you feel it was a strong year for guitar music in general? What kind of musicians have impressed you?
“There are so many great players out there, like Andy James from Five Finger Death Punch. He’s the epitome of someone doing all this heavy shit but still keeping it really creative. He surprises me with every solo he does. And it’s not super out-there or jazz crazy.
“He’s able to be creative in an area we can all do if we worked hard enough, but he’s also inventive enough to take the left turns you don’t expect. Things that make you go, ‘That’s so good… fuck you!’ Because he’s that great. And then there’s Matteo Mancuso, who is an Allan Holdsworth or Pat Metheny-level guitarist that’s completely jaw-dropping but also knows how to play really emotive.
“So it’s weird when people say Rise is the best solo of the year. I remember texting Steve Lukather and saying I couldn’t believe they’d chosen me. And he replied, ‘Nuno, I’m excited it’s you – who else could it be… when was the last time we were all texting each other like this about some solo?!’ I didn’t have an answer so he said, ‘Yeah, not for a long time, so suck it up, tough shit!’ I still find it strange to be on the receiving end of stuff like this because there are so many great players out there.”
Well, there’s no shortage of note-perfect Rise covers on YouTube to prove how universally it’s adored…
“There are guys who can play the Rise solo with their fuckin’ eyes closed. It’s really not that crazy. The creativity always comes first. Edward did it best because on that first album he changed the whole world with Eruption. End of story. I don’t give a fuck if you’re Jimmy Page, Brian May or a beginner, back then you just knew things would never be the same.
“But on the same album, Edward was playing Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love and that solo was so simple, just an ascending line on the second string with the first ringing out. The same thing played twice and that’s a wrap. He had the courage to play what the song needed. If it was fun and fast like Hot For Teacher, he went and did it. If it was something slow or tasty, he did it.
“He was fearless about being human when it was needed. That’s something that never gets talked about. It’s always about the flashy stuff but people miss out on the stuff that really matter – doing what the songs call for.”
And like many of the guitar greats you just mentioned, some of your most famous solos are the ones most indicative of your personality – musical truths, if you think about them from a philosophical standpoint…
“Edward was smiling the whole time. You could easily hear his personality in his playing. The same goes for Brian May, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan and David Gilmour. Gilmour even talks like how he plays. It’s not just technical stuff; it’s the human touch.
“You play who you are. I can try and learn all the chops, but whatever I do with my hands and my mind will be uniquely me. You get good at guitar by being yourself. Even though we all learn the same notes and scales and have access to the same kinds of gear, you will always sound like you. It’s important to embrace that.”
- Six is out now via earMUSIC.