Total Guitar 2007-08 – Matt Bellamy: New Guitar Genius

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Total Guitar issue 165 cover
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MUSE

Matt Bellamy: guitar icon for the 21st century

Muse

MATT BELLAMY: THE NEW GUITAR GENIUS

IN 1966, JIMI HENDRIX TORE UP THE RULEBOOK AND CHANGED THE FACE OF ROCK, AS DID EDDIE VAN HALEN IN 1978. AND AT THIS PRECISE MOMENT, MATT BELLAMY OF MUSE IS DOING EXACTLY THE SAME. TG SALUTES THE FIRST GUITAR GENIUS OF THE 21ST CENTURY WORDS:HENRY YATES

Wembley Stadium, London, 17 June. The little man in the crimson suit arches a theatrical eyebrow, takes aim with his Manson electric and fires off a riff that shakes the gleaming arena to its freshly laid foundations. The architects of Britain's face-lifted national stadium must be shitting themselves, but the crowd is ecstatic; surging forward as though jabbed with a cattle prod; bellowing the spidery ascending lick like it's God Save The Queen'. And it's at this precise moment - amidst the pomp and fury of Plug In Baby, on the Sunday night of Muse's weekend residence in June - that TG has a moment of clarity. It's been a long, long time since we've seen a guitarist this good. It's been a long, long time since we heard riffs that push the boundaries this far. This concert is the Woodstock of our generation and Matt Bellamy is our Jimi Hendrix...

Everyone remembers when they first heard Matt Bellamy. For a lucky handful, that would have been at the Devon venue where he, drummer Dom Howard and bassist Chris Wolstenholme played their virgin gig as Rocket baby Dolls in 1994. "It was a battle-of-the-bands contest," the guitarist recalls. "We were covered in goth make-up, up against all these old men. We trashed our stuff and won. We weren't very good musicians, so it made me realise music should be about attitude rather than technical ability."
  For anyone living outside the band's hometown of Teignmouth, it would be another five years before Muse started to mean a rock band instead of a concept from Greek mythology. By then, the faith of the average British music fan had been sorely tested. It was 1999, and with Travis picking the bones of Britpop and the US offering an unpalatable alternative in the misogynist rap-metal of Limp Bizkit, the millennium was shaping up as a lean time for guitar heroes. There was no flair, negligible flamboyance, a chronic lack of panache and no light at the end of the tunnel. Apocalypse would have been preferable.
  Against that backdrop, Showbiz, Muse's debut album, seemed engineered to make us drop our Discman. This wasn't an album, it was an opus, and at its heart was a six-string newcomer who could grandly be described as Eddie Van Halen jamming with Hendrix on the rings of Saturn without fear of exaggeration. From the manic tremolo-picked solo of Sunburn, through the hypnotic Greek-inspired doublestops of Muscle Museum to the ghostly neo-classical picking of Unintended, this axeman didn't adhere to the rules of music or the mood of the time. Even his vocals were off the chart, like a Glyndebourne opera singer lamenting the end of the world. As one, the nation asked the same question: who the hell is this Matt Bellamy?
  It didn't take us long to find out. When Bellamy broke cover in the music press he was just as odd as we'd hoped. Here was a spindly coat hanger of a man, glowering beneath a bird nest haircut that changed colour with the

"We always need to push the boundaries of what we do. Muse could easily stretch into infinity" - Matt Bellamy

regularity of a traffic light and radiating an intensity that later saw him crowned the sexiest man in rock by Cosmopolitan. And Bellamy didn't seem to mind the female attention: "A few years ago, we certainly didn't have girls in PVC dresses turning up at gigs saying they'd do anything for us..."
  It soon emerged that Bellamy's opinions were as inflammatory as his technique. Government cover-ups, Ouija boards, the perils of giving birth to an alien, interstellar conspiracy theories... anything was fair game once the Dictaphones started rolling. "Are we supposed to believe that a man in a cave in Afghanistan orchestrated the most unbelievable attack on the United States of all time?" Bellamy mused of the 9/11 attacks. "I think America needed another Pearl Harbour-type event in order to invade Iraq."
  But it was onstage that Bellamy truly came alive. Doggedly silent between songs because of his pathological fear of bantering with the crowd, the striking of a single apocalyptic chord transformed the awkward 21-year-old into a whirling dervish of hair and fingers, throttling his electric guitar with a ferocity that saw him lacerate his mouth at one show, and soloing behind his back with a showmanship that hadn't been seen since Hendrix played with his teeth or Van Halen finger tapped with both hands on the neck of his guitar. "When I was younger," reasoned Bellamy, "it was more the loose and out-of-control improvisational playing -- with lots of mistakes -- that got me into the guitar. I wasn't into classical music back then. I was into grunge and Jimi Hendrix."
  The baton had been passed. But the similarities didn't end there. Just as Hendrix had divided opinion when he exploded into London in 1966 or when Van Halen shocked audiences with his outrageous divebombing for the first time, so Muse polarised the nation like a Daily Mail editorial. Alongside the proclamations of genius, sneering reference was made to Bellamy's onstage histrionics with particular venom reserved for his disaffected shriek (perceived as being lifted from Thom Yorke of Radiohead). Maybe they had a point. Once the space-dust settled and worldwide sales were chalked up as 200,000, even the band's most ardent fans agreed that Showbiz was a dazzling debut, but not equal to Bellamy's talent.

PLUG IN BABY

GET MATT BELLAMY'S SOUND - EVEN IF YOU'RE SKINT!


If you're on a tight budged you can cop some of Matt's sounds with any affordable multi-effects unit. Matt uses extreme sounds in a controlled way, so avoid processed metal distortions and whack up the filthy fuzz-tones instead. Set you pitch shifter effect to one octave up like Matt does on Muscle Museum and Sunburn, and add some Sweep Echo to really get the Muse vibe. If you've got some spare cash to spend, get yourself a DigiTech Whammy pedal (£179), a Foxx Tone Machine fuzz pedal (£139) and a Line 6 Delay Modeller (£219), and you're have most of Matt's greatest tones on tap.

"It was loose, out-of-control playing that got me into the guitar, not classical music. I was into grunge and Jimi Hendrix" - Matt Bellamy

What Muse needed was a supermassive hit to bulldoze the doubters.

In March 2001, Plug In Baby changed everything. It was released to lead the charge for second album Origin Of Symmetry, and although the credits told us this was a human playing a guitar, our ears could scarcely fathom the neo-classical triad that opened the track. In terms of its ubiquity, Plug In Baby was Johnny B Goode for the new millennium, while its No 11 UK placing represented Muse's commercial breakthrough.
  Bellamy's stock was on the rise and it exploded with Origin Of Symmetry. This was the record that delivered what Showbiz had hinted at, distilling influences as diverse as quantum physics and the pianists of the romantic period, then spewing them over a masterclass that swung from the drop-tuned grind of New Born to the glassy seventh chords of Hyper Music. Origin of Symmetry was dark, heavy and endlessly inventive, a mind-blowing synthesis of man and machine. It's arguably still their greatest album.
  The venues got bigger and Bellamy's performances grew to fill them. Logic defied that one guitarist with eight fingers could produce the doomy slabs of distortion, the burbling space-rock and the neo-classical leads that clashed like meteorites whenever the band took the stage. But Bellamy had a secret weapon. In place of the Ibanez models he had used in the early years was a collection of customised electrics, hand-built by the British luthier Hugh Manson and featuring built-in effects including a sustainer circuit and a hand-operated wah.
  "All my Manson guitars are influenced by the Fender Telecaster," Bellamy explained, "but with the pickups and sound of a Les Paul. They all have the same pickups: a Kent Armstrong Motherbucker in the bridge and a P90 at the neck. Having built-in effects is really good if you do a lot of moving around onstage and especially if you're singing as well."
  Lesser innovators might have settled on Origin Of Symmetry as their signature sound, but what Bellamy gave us next was something else entirely. When third album Absolution arrived in September 2003, it represented Muse's boldest statement yet, simply described by its author as "fat as fuck."
  Juse as we'd managed to categorise him, Bellamy had slipped the net again. In Stockholm Syndrome and thunderous first single Time Is Running Out, he matched aggression with radio-friendly hooks. In Blackout he created the bleakest ballad of the year. Alongside his heroic fretwork, Bellamy's approach to production had also changed with the guitarist recording many of his parts in a field to get the right vibe and breaking chords down to record them one note at a time.
  "In the past, I used to layer the guitars quite a lot," he revealed. "This time around I wanted to get just one guitar part to stand out and be just perfect. I've been influenced a little bit by System Of A Down, especially on songs like Stockholm Syndrome. I was getting into that kind of fast speed metal-type riffery, which is something I've never done before."
  Absolution sold over 2.8 million copies around the world, and while other British bands like Coldplay would better that, none could boost a guitarist as inspiring as Bellamy: it was his fretwork that lit up the band's first Glastonbury headline slot in the summer of 2004; his riffs that monopolised TG's reader poll in June that year; and his restless songwriting that earned the band a two-date residency at Earl's Court that December. It was hard to see how Muse could top this.
  For a moment in 2005, it looked like they couldn't, as recording sessions for their fourth album stalled in France and Bellamy confessed "we lost our minds" as they dabbled in classical jazz. But Bellamy doesn't do creative droughts. By the start of 2006, the guitarist had rediscovered his muse in an unlikeyl location. A move to New York saw him distil the grooves of Manhattan's nightlife into the lead-oof single from Black Holes And Revelations. "I was going out dancing in clubs around New York," he said in an interview, "and that helped

SUPERMASSIVE SOUNDS

MUSE INDLUGES IN SOME MAGNIFICENT SONG ARRANGEMENTS, NONE MORE SO THAN ON KNIGHTS OF CYDONIA...


Besides the insane riffs, mind-blowing solos and tight-ass rhythm sections, Muse songs are best known for their ultra-polished productions often filled with numerous guitar overdubs, synth lines and orchestral instruments. One of the finest examples of this is Knights Of Cydonia.
  Aside from the timpani drums, tubular bells and flanger-soaked drum kit on the introduction to Knights Of Cydonia, there are also crunchy guitars with almost no reverb. A contrast to these hard-edged rock sounds is provided by jangly strummed acoustic guitars. But the intro is just the start of things: the rest of the track features an array of guitar parts including double-tracked distorted guitars playing low, heavy chords, reversd guitars and clean guitars soaked in reverb and delay, playing mellow chords and arpeggiated triads. There are even guitars playing muted strings to enhance the galloping feel of the, er, galloping section. However, the stars of the show are the main melody guitars. These are treated with distortion and phasing and Matt Bellamy plays the notes while strangling the whammy bar to produce over the top sounds that only the Muse boys could get away with.
  All that would be enough for even the most grandiose of bands, but this track is finished off with synth playing arpeggios and sweeping pads. Add some trumpets to the mix and enough vocal tracks to make Queen sound as though thye had under-produced Bohemian Rhapsody, and the result is truly supermassive.

create tracks like Supermassive Black Hole, with that dance beat mixed with alternative guitar."
  Supermassive Black Hole was one standout in an album that represents Bellamy's best statement to date. Where previous efforts had distanced the guitarist from his peers, Black Holes And Revelations left them floundering in his wake: outclassed, outmodded and outplayed. From the ethereal chimes of Starlight to the insanity and bruising riff of Knights Of Cydonia, we hadn't heard an album this experimental since Hendrix released Electric Ladyland or Van Halen's Van Halen. It demanded the biggest stage on earth...

All of which leads us back to the sweaty delirium of Wembley Stadium, the roar of the crowd, and the realisation that the distant figure pumping out the deafening riffs is the most important guitarist on the planet right now. The most exciting thing is that nobody here knows where Matt Bellamy will take the guitar next - not even the man himself. "We need to always be pushing the boundaries of what we do," he noted with a smile before the gig. "This band could easily stretch into infinity..."

See also


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