Making Landmarks in Rock History
By Paul Rigg
Portuguese-American Nuno Bettencourt is known as the lead guitarist of the Boston rock band Extreme. He has released albums with Rhianna, Nickleback and solo, and has founded a number of bands including Mourning Widows and The Satellite Party (headed by Jane's Addiction's Perry Farrell).
Although Bettencourt perhaps does not have the same level of public name recognition as some of his peers, he certainly has their respect. Queen’s Brian May, for example, felt strongly enough about Bettencourt’s guitar skill to post a video talking exclusively about his playing on Extreme track Get the Funk Out. “After the funky opening riff [you ask yourself] ‘where does this go, just more funk right?’” he wonders aloud, but then Bettencourt starts shredding and May continues “that should bring tears to your eyes as a guitarist; that is the epitome of what a solo should be like on a record… it is preconceived and constructed, but within that there is this incredible spontaneity that sounds like it is coming out from inside him - and it is! On pure technical ability alone, it is colossal...”
Nuno Duarte Gil Mendes Bettencourt was born on 20 September, 1966 in Praia da Vitória, Azores, Portugal. When he was four years old, his large family moved to Hudson, Massachusetts, where he resided until his mid-twenties.
Bettencourt grew up surrounded by music. “I was the youngest of 10 kids and my dad played multiple instruments. My brothers and sisters also played multiple instruments and we are all two years apart, so imagine the decades of music there,” he explains in an interview. “I walked into one room and heard Led Zeppelin, into another and heard the Beatles, Bee Gees and Joe Cocker… those were the beginnings, man; you are what you eat!”
The house was full of musical instruments including drums and Les Pauls, so it was natural that at a young age Bettencourt would walk around playing ‘a bit of this and a bit of that’. “The Bettencourt household was like a university, you had no choice man,” he says. “But as far as being a rocker it was Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings album that fucked my head up enough to say ‘Wow that’s cool, that’s rock n roll!’”
Bettencourt’s older brothers were playing in bars and clubs, so from the tender age of 12 Nuno was making money by playing with them. The first guitar he bought was a candy red Kramer in the early 80s, which he says he “chopped the shit out of, and made it unusable.”
Bettencourt’s brother Luis tried to help him develop his guitar chops but Nuno found that his skills developed more quickly when he began teaching himself. Soon he was skipping school to practice for seven hours a day or more, and he eventually dropped out altogether, such was his desire to play and improve.
Van Halen, Brian May and Pat Travers were early guitar influences but he also liked lesser known acts like Ronni Le Tekro (of Norwegian band, TNT), Spaniard Paco de Lucía, and Al Di Meola (of American group, Return to Forever).
“I was in a band called Myth and then got in a band called Sinful playing rock in Boston in 1983, and that was the first time I ran into Gary Cherone,” explains Bettencourt. “And two years later I ran into Gary again and we said one word that changed our relationship: ‘Queen’, and then I said ‘the Queen II album’ and it was his favourite album as well. So later he phoned me up and said ‘I just want you to join my band’; and I said ‘no!’ [because Bettencourt was just finishing an album with Sinful] but I said ‘come and see me play’.
Shortly after however Bettencourt shocked his band and even himself by spontaneously saying the words ‘I quit’, because he felt deep down that he wanted to play with Cherone. Extreme, then with drummer Paul Geary and bassist Patrick Badger, signed to A&M Records shortly afterwards and released their debut, Extreme, in March 1989. Healthy sales led to them producing the more successful Exteme II: Pornograffitti in 1990, which mixed glam metal, heavy, funk and pop, and spawned the singles Decadence Dance and Get The Funk Out.
It was the release of the acoustic ballad More Than Words however that catapulted the band to international recognition, as it became a number 1 hit on the US Billboard charts. Hole Hearted, also from Pornograffitti, later made number 4. Around this time Bettencourt also played rhythm guitar on Janet Jackson’s single Black Cat, which also made number 1 on the Billboard charts.
Bettencourt showed his extraordinary musical virtuosity on Extreme’s folllow up album III Sides to Every Story in 1992, by composing and producing a full orchestra. The band had further success at that time, but by 1996 Bettencourt was eager to pursue a solo career, so Extreme began what was to be an 11 year hiatus, and Cherone joined Van Halen as lead singer.
In 1997, Bettencourt released his critically well-received solo album, Schizophonic, but it sold slowly and he formed a new band, Mourning Widows, which featured his nephew Donovan Bettencourt on bass and New Yorker Jeff Consi on drums. Over the next few years the band built a strong following, especially in the US and Japan.
Bettencourt formed and played in various bands over the following years including Population 1, Near Death Experience, DramaGods, and The Satellite Party, and featured with Cherone on the film soundtrack to 2008’s Smart People.
The guitarist then collaborated with a number of high profile artists such as Robert Palmer (on Palmer's album Honey); Journey lead singer Steve Ray Perry; and Dweezil Zappa; before partnering with Rhianna to play on her Last Girl on Earth Tour as lead guitarist. This led to a long term working collaboration with the Barbadian singer, which Bettencourt said first came about after he finished an Extreme tour and was contacted by his friend, Tony ‘Bruno’ Rey, who asked if he would consider doing a ‘three month promo’. Bettencourt declined until he heard that Rhianna wanted to do a much heavier act live, and then he heard her sing. “I couldn’t believe it when I first heard her sing live,” he said, “it was amazing!”
Bettencourt is known for his long-term love of Washburn electric guitars, of which he has a signature series, and can be seen playing them, particularly the N4, at many of his live concerts. His skill on the electric is often breathtaking, but it is matched by his staggering ability on the acoustic, which is evident, for example, on his live performance, with a Washburn EA20 BK, on Midnight Express; don’t miss the video link below this article!
Away from the music Bettencourt married Baby Animals’ lead singer Suze DeMarchi in 1994 and they had two children.
Bettencourt is a ‘guitarist’s guitarist’ with a huge cult following, and gains respect from nearly all who hear him play. He has made key collaborations to many international artists’ songs, as well as composing with many of his own bands, and producing outstanding solo work. Guitars Exchange can only concur with Brian May when he said “his ability is colossal… on pure technical ability alone his solo is a landmark in rock history.”