Guitar king

By Paul Rigg

American Adrian Belew (23 December, 1949) is an incredibly versatile guitarist whose skill on the six string often puts in the shadow his exceptional gifts as a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer. Among his many achievements, he recently won an Oscar for his musical contribution to the Pixar film ‘Piper’  

Perhaps best known as the co-leader and co-guitarist of King Crimson for thirty years, Belew has also worked with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Bian Eno, Talking Heads, the Tom Tom Club, Paul Simon, Robert Fripp, Peter Gabriel, Jean Michel-Jarre, Stewart Copeland, Mike Oldfield, Peter Frampton and Nine Inch Nails.


Recently Belew has been working with his own band The Power Trio, and preparing for his upcoming 2018 tours with Gizmodrome and Celebrating David Bowie.

Guitars Exchange
catches up with Belew at his home near Nashville, following his routine morning coffee and guitar practice session. An engineer friend of his is helping him restructure some rig in his studio, the sun is shining, and Belew is happy to talk about guitars, the power of love, and how his incredible journey as a musician all got started.  

GE: I understand that as a boy you were a very popular drummer with the ‘Cincinnati Beatles’; what made you pick up a guitar?  

AB:  I had songs I would hear in my head. I would just daydream these songs and I thought they were pretty good, but there was no way I could explain them to anyone, being a drummer, as I didn’t know any chords. Then at 16 I got mononucleosis, and they told me ‘you can’t be in your Beatle band; you have to stay at home for two months and be tutored’. So I borrowed a guitar from one of the guys in the band and thought ‘I am going to learn how to play, so I can write these songs’. I hadn’t had any training, I didn’t know what the chords were - some of them were pretty odd I think (laughs) - I just figured out my own way in my head. And so you could say that those two months sitting in a bed kickstarted my career!

GE: What was the guitar?

AB: It was actually one of our guitarist’s father’s guitar - it was an old tobacco sunburst acoustic electric Gibson, with one pickup on it, not expensive, kind of a jazz guitar, small-bodied. It was basically a run-of-the-mill Gibson.    


GE: Some years later Frank Zappa famously came up and introduced himself to you while you were playing in a bar. Can you describe that moment?

AB: Yes, Frank asked his chauffeur, a young guy named Terry Pugh, who his favourite band in town was, and the chauffeur happened to love our band.
  So Frank walked in and we continued to play for about 40 minutes. He then came up to the stage while we were still playing and he reached up and shook my hand and said ‘I’m going to get your name and number from the chauffeur, and when my tour is over I’ll call you for an audition.’ He finally did call about six months later and gave me material to learn from about 12 different records - records I had to borrow because I didn’t have any of them and I didn’t have any money - and the next thing I knew, about a week later, I was on a plane to his house.  

So my first real memory of Frank is walking into the basement of his house in Hollywood Hills, shaking his hand, and starting my audition. 

GE: Did you hit it off straight away?

AB: I think that Frank took me under his wing, I don’t know why. I was the only person who didn’t read, so while the readers in the band got their sheets on Mondays for the rehearsals, I stayed at his house every weekend and learnt things by rote. So my relationship to Frank was totally different to everyone else. I hung out with him when we were on tour, on a plane… I really think he liked me, and I enjoyed being with him a lot. 

Beyond the music, he taught me about life. Travelling the world I got a crash course in how to be a professional musician from Frank.  

GE: Can you give me a specific example?

AB: Yes… this happened a couple of years after I stopped working with him. Everytime I was in Los Angeles I would always go to his house and sit with him for maybe an hour or so, and see what he was up to. But every time I went to his house I noticed that it was growing more and more into a world class studio - there were always things being added – and one day I said ‘Frank, how do you afford to do all this stuff?’ and he said: ‘It’s easy, I don’t do coke!’ (laughs). He said ‘I’ll tell you this: whatever you make in the music business put it back into yourself, get your own studio and your own record label.’ And it was that kind of advice that has lasted forever for me – I have done exactly what he said.

GE: Great story, thanks! Some time afterwards you worked with Brian Eno and David Bowie; how did that come about? 

AB: Well, Brian came to see a Frank Zappa show in Cologne in Germany – I didn’t meet him then, but he knew that David was looking for a guitarist so he called David and told him to go and see this guitarist. Two nights later we played in Berlin, where David lived, and that is when David and Iggy (Pop) showed up on stage.

The first time I met Brian Eno was when we did the Lodger album. I showed up at Lake Geneva in Switzerland and he was the producer, along with Tony Visconti, and the four of us spent I don’t know how much time together doing all my parts on that record. Everyone else was gone by then.

GE: What was it like working with Eno?

AB: I love Brian, he is a great producer and, more than that of course, he is a great artist. He would find ways to do things that aren’t normal; so he would put you in a situation where you would come up with something that you normally wouldn’t come up with. And so now I try to do that to myself all the time in my own music. I’ll change the tuning of the guitar so I don’t know what I’m doing, or I’ll play an instrument that I am not that competent on, or stuff like that. I learnt to think outside the box from him – push yourself, challenge yourself and don’t just do what is expected of you. 

GE: You also really seemed to click with Bowie…

AB: First of all I knew David’s music. Even when I was a struggling musician I was in bands that would play his music primarily because it was very popular, but also very creative, and I was always drawn to those kinds of bands. Later when I got to know him I found that he was very easy to get along with because he was very humorous and very self-effacing. You knew you were standing there with a superstar, but he never pushed it in your face or made you feel less than him. He was very enthusiastic about what I did.  

GE: Do you recall any particular moment now?

AB: When I try to break it down it doesn’t work out so well for me; it is like one film that is running in my mind, there are many, many, times. When you know someone like that it becomes more about the way they said things, their facial expressions, or the way they held their cigarette. It is not big moments but the small things.  

GE: I am thinking now about that popular Youtube video, when you played a guitar solo on ‘Stay’ and he just stands back looking at you with his arms crossed…

AB: Yes, that is exactly the kind of thing I am thinking about. He would kind of stand back, smiling, and in some ways just be proud of me. David’s music has always been really good for guitarists. I think he was a really big fan of guitar playing so he allowed places where we could just stretch out and do things.  

GE: You have also worked with Peter Gabriel…

AB: When we first did King Crimson, the first show we played was in Bath – where Peter was living at the time - at a little club called Moles, where you could barely fit 120 people. Peter invited us up to his house and we spent a couple of days there and got to know him.  

Later on I was recording with him on ‘Out Out’, which was produced by Nile Rodgers. As far as I know the record was put in the Gremlins movie, in the scene where all the gremlins are fighting; it is in the background being played through the juke box. It was a very cool song. Eight minutes long; a lot of guitar playing!

GE:  My favourite Talking Heads live performance, outside of ‘Stop Making Sense’, is when you joined them to do the track ‘Drugs’ in Rome. Do you recall that as a special moment?

AB: I do recall that whole period very clearly. I was really thrilled at that time, the music was just tremendous, and you could tell that Talking Heads were breaking through to stardom. I felt like I was on the sidelines, watching history being made.  

The band and the audience were just incredible. It was just one big, groovy feeling, everybody was so happy, and the band sounded great. And my role in the band was especially nice - like with David Bowie, I was instructed to play what I want, go wild, do all the solos and stuff; for me that was a holiday. Talking Heads music was the most comfortable music I ever got to play, because it is pretty simple music and my ideas and guitar playing just seemed to fit right in.  

GE: Are you still in touch with David Byrne; could you play together again?

AB: Of course I would love to. I’ve seen him once or twice recently. I am on great terms with all those people and if they ever did want to do something serious again I would absolutely love to be a part of it. As I said that was one of the most joyful experiences I have ever had. And I believe that there is a place for that band in the world today. I can’t instigate it, it is up to David, but hopefully he will feel one day that he’d like to do that again.  

Jeff Beck  is also a friend of yours, and I was wondering if you ever jam together?

AB: We have almost never played together. What we do when we are together is sit, drink wine, and tell stories until four in the morning! (laughs). 
  Anytime I can I go and see him play, I love his playing. He was my guitar hero so I’m always thrilled to be sitting there with the guy who I liked the most. People have said to me many times ‘do you think you and Jeff would ever play something together?’, but I don’t know, I’m not sure what the chemistry would be. I probably would end up trying to sound like him, because I know his stuff so well! (laughs).  


You have worked a lot with Trent Reznor of NIN; what was it like working with him?

AB: Trent was very similar to David in the sense that he is a fan of what I do, so he just wants me to do that. I set my stuff up in the studio and he says ‘listen to this, there won’t be any vocals, it’s wide open; is there anything you’d like to play on this? and I’ll say ‘yes, I’ve got five different ideas’, and I’ll do them. I have played on four different records with them: ‘The Downward Spiral’, ‘The Fragile’, ‘Hesitation Marks’, and the last one was ‘Ghosts’.

What was the difference between working with Frank Zappa and Robert Fripp; two of the most iconoclastic guitarists ever?

AB: They were very different. With Frank he needed someone to play his music and play it correctly and consistently; he didn’t need you to come up with ideas or be part of the creative process on that gut level. With Robert it is exactly the opposite. Robert definitely needs a partner, he is not a singer, lyricist, or songwriter; but when he starts playing guitar, he is brilliant, I love it, it is very iconic. So another guitar player can do all the things that Robert doesn’t do and when you put those two people together you have a great partnership, which is what we had for 33 years. Robert is very good at doing things on his own like ‘Frippertronics’ and ‘Soundscapes’, but I think he really needs a foil, someone to bounce around ideas with and a partner, so that’s why it worked for us so well. 

GE: Is there any chance of you touring with King Crimson again?

AB: I think it is possible. It is really a different band now with a different attitude and music and members. I just have to wait and see how that plays out and if there is a place for me down the road, and if it is the right time in my life, why not?  

GE: I have some technical guitar questions for you now: what was it like playing a guitar with six necks on your hit song ‘Oh Daddy’?

AB: (laughs) that’s funny. You know someone just sent me a picture of that about two or three weeks ago on my facebook page; I had totally forgotten about it. That was a prop they brought in on the day of the video shoot, I don’t know who made it or what happened to it. It was totally unplayable. It was in my hands for all of about five minutes.  

GE: You looked like you had a lot of fun on that video?

AB: Yes, I felt good about that video because first of all I love animation. I knew instantly there was going to be a lot of colour and it was fun because my little 10 year old daughter was going to be involved in it. It was the first and only time I got serious about making those kind of videos for MTV, because I am not a video maker.  

GE: More seriously, you once said you ‘look at the guitar as a sound controller’ - what did you mean by that?

AB: I look at a guitar as being like a kind of voice. It is an integral part of me. When I put a guitar on it just feels so comfortable and so much a part of me. My thoughts instantly go right to notes on the guitar, you know 50 years of guitar playing gets you to that point. One of the things that is great about the electric guitar is how expressive it is, you are bending notes, pulling notes, changing the volume, just like you do with your mouth when you sing or when you talk. And if you master that, to me there is nothing you can’t do; you can make it sound like just about anything. And if you put on top of that all the technology that has come about in the time that I’ve been playing… well, anyone who says that rock guitar is dead is out of their mind. I believe it is blossoming, always.  

GE: How and why have your guitar tastes changed over the years?

AB: I think the day it changed was the day I picked up a Parker guitar; it was actually an epiphany for me. I was in Tokyo and they brought one to my room – they had a little box that they wanted me to try out and they brought a Parker so I could have something to play - and from the moment that I put my hand on that guitar I felt it was like nothing else. It stayed perfectly in tune, the feeling of it was amazing, my hands flew up and down the neck; it just made me play guitar better.  

GE: What was the last guitar you bought?

AB: I bought my first Les Paul ever three weeks ago. I was just looking around the web for other reasons, and I suddenly saw this guitar and I thought ‘that is the most beautiful Les Paul I have ever seen; if I don’t get this one I never will’. So I made a deal - I could tell that it was going to suit me and it turns out it does. I’m loving it.  

GE: With the Power Trio travelling the world you use a smaller rig – what is the gear that you can’t live without?

AB: The main item I have is a rack device called Fractal Audio Axe-FX ultra. They now have a more up-to-date one but I have stayed with the first, and it is perfect for me. That is 85% of my guitar sound. I also use a Boss GP 10 and with that system I can get different guitar sounds to combine with the Axe-FX, or use it on its own, and I can also have it tuned differently, so I can write a program where each string has a different tuning. With that I can play harmonies with myself that are impossible to play without a second guitar player. The third thing that is so important to my rig, especially in the Trio, is the use of looping. I have been doing looping now, and writing songs that way, for a very long time. My looper is actually in the computer and you can download it for free. My computer is really my centre piece: I can mix my sounds, do my looping, write programs, with each of the items, without having to go to the interface of the item.  


The real object of all of this is to have something that is super small and that gives you the most bang for your buck. I can pretty much do everything I could do before and yet it goes in one box and weighs 79 pounds – and that is everything. The pedals on the floor are mostly volume pedals, but I also have a midi pedal called the Liquid Foot 12 plus that sends all the programming to the right places. 


The other thing in my set up is that I run the guitar from the beginning of the line. It goes through a Keeley Compressor, which is always on, and then everything else goes through an MO-2 unit which sends it either through the Axe-FX or the GP 10 and routes it through the computer. It is a small set up and it is amazingly versatile. It has taken me five years to get that, but I am still on a quest though – some day I am going to show up with a computer and a guitar on my back and that’s going to be it!  

GE: Looking back over your long career, which do you consider the happiest period?

AB: If I had to choose one specific period it was when I came back from the 1990 Sound and Vision Tour with David Bowie. I had fallen in love for the first time in my life - and that is a big deal right there - and I had been away for an entire year, so my life had been turned upside down. I didn’t even know who the president was. And I arrived back and rented this tiny cottage on the lake in Wisconsin, and I sat there for a few months with my baby grand piano, my guitar set up, my bass, my drum kit, a room full of plants, and not much else, and it was one of the most fertile periods for me. I had been holding out for a long time with all the ideas that I had – my head was almost exploding with ideas – and most of my songs centred around my lovely new wife-to-be. That was one of my favourite periods because everything was just right in the world. It was a simple moment in time, and you don’t got those moments very often.

GE: Indeed. Thank you very much.