It’s an age-old topic of conversation that to this day still pits players against one another: “Does guitar tone lie in the fingers or the gear?”
Though it’s probably fair to say the majority of guitarists lean towards the former, it’s by no means a settled debate, and we’ve seen our fair share of evidence supporting both sides of the argument.
Now, even more anecdotal evidence supporting the tone hands side has arrived courtesy of Nuno Bettencourt, who recently recalled a rude awakening he experienced when he got the opportunity to play through Eddie Van Halen’s guitar rig.
Though he first expected to sound just like Van Halen after “decades” of trying, the whole episode turned out to be nothing but a “horrible nightmare”.
During a marathon two-hour interview with Rick Beato, Bettencourt reflected on the time he first met Van Halen, and when the late electric guitar god invited him to play through his mythical rig.
“I thought I was finally going to sound like [Van Halen], and I was so bummed out,” Bettencourt said. “I'm like, ‘I even have his sweat on the strings, I have his DNA, I got his amp, I just watched him rehearse. He’s asking me to play his rig.
“‘I’m gonna finally – after fucking decades of ABing Van Halen and Van Halen II to my sound – sound like Edward.’ And I was so fucking disappointed – I sounded just like me. It was so horrible. It was like a horrible nightmare.”
When pressed on what it specifically sounded like, Bettencourt asserted, “It sounded just like me. I’m telling you… it sounded like me!
“[I was] super-disappointed. I was like, ‘I’m never gonna sound like Edward, ever. Ever!’ But that was the big[gest] bitch slap of all time when you realize, ‘Holy shit, it’s all about you. It’s all about your fingers.’
“And it’s not even just your fingers here, it’s where you hold the pick, and how much you hold the pick, and where you touch it. You don’t think about those things, but that’s how individual we are.”
During that first meeting with Van Halen, it wasn’t just the gear he played that ended up sticking in Bettencourt’s mind – it was also what he actually played using the gear that he especially remembers.
Speaking to Guitar World, the Extreme virtuoso once recalled how he decided to play some two-hand tapping lines in front of the technique’s chief proponent on that same occasion.
As Bettencourt explained, “He handed me his guitar and said, ‘You’ve gotta check out this pedal.’ And it’s like, ‘You want me to play while I check out this pedal?’”
“So now Eddie is leaning in front of me, dialing in stuff on his pedalboard. And what do you do when the alien who walked off the spaceship that changed your life is in front of you? What do you play? Like an idiot, I kicked into the solo from [Extreme’s] Get the Funk Out. I became a cover of myself.
“But the second I go into the tapping part, Eddie turns around and stops me. He goes, ‘Hey, hey, none of that silly stuff.’ That scared the shit out of me.
“It took me a minute and then I said to myself, ‘He knows who I am. He reads.’ Because at that time an article had just come out – it may have even been in Guitar World – and the interviewer asked about Get the Funk Out. He said, ‘You’re doing tapping your own way.’ And I told him, ‘To be honest with you, I feel silly when I do tapping. Not because it’s embarrassing, but because it’s so Eddie.’
“Later on, after I got comfortable around Eddie, I asked him, ‘Did you read that article?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I read that.’ I was like, ‘Wow, Eddie Van Halen read an interview I did!’ Even that shit seemed impossible to me.”
Bettencourt joins the “tone is in the hands” camp alongside a wealth of high-profile players, including John Petrucci, who once spoke to Guitar World about how he ended up sounding exactly like himself while playing through Joe Satriani’s rig.