OF ALL THE BLESSINGS OF LUCK AND TIMING AND TALENT THAT
coalesced to make Muse one of the biggest rock bands in the world, perhaps the most surprising
is that the group captured the imaginations of millions by being a creative mongrel.
Unlike the simplistic, monochromatic exclamation mark that can be used to define many
pop acts of similarly mammoth stardom, Muse is one long sentence—and almost a runon
sentence at that—meandering through myriad styles, influences, and musical textures. Like its conceptual
cousins Radiohead and Queen, Muse can fuse seemingly obscure and disparate elements with often heavenly
melodies that simultaneously challenge and delight listeners.
While the dense mix that is Muse is a
tribute to the unrestrained creativity of the
composer Matthew Bellamy, bassist Christopher
Wolstenholme, and drummer Dominic
Howard—the main chef seems to be Bellamy,
who absorbs just about everything
from prog rock, Asian and Middle-Eastern
motifs, electronica, opera, heavy metal, glam
rock, rock and roll, gospel, and R&B. Bellamy
also boasts a significant Brit-rock
pedigree. His father, George, was the rhythm
guitarist in the Tornados, who famously
hooked up with the tragically mad producer
Joe Meek to score a massive world-wide hit
in 1962 with “Telstar.” (That record was also
the first U.S. number one single to be charted
by a British group.)
Into the shifting sands of the band’s musical
evolution, Bellamy inserts his own quest
for futuristic guitar sounds—to the point of
designing his own guitars with built-in
effects, wireless MIDI, and synth capabilities.
Not surprisingly, he’s a huge fan of Jimi
Hendrix and Tom Morello, and he tries to
channel the spirit of their sonic explorations
into technology-fueled approaches that work
for him and his compositions.
Last year, Muse released The Resistance
[Warner Bros.]—a sprawling conceptual
work that blends near equal parts genius,
pomposity, and familiarity. Audiences have
either winced at or lauded the album’s threepart
operetta “Exogenesis”—an endeavor
that ultimately required more than 40
musicians to bring to fruition—and yet The
Resistance has also managed to produce three
hit singles, “Uprising,” “Undisclosed Desires,”
and “Resistance.” It also appears obvious
that every track seeks to smash the restrictions
of stylistic genres, and embrace creative
Having said that, it’s even more transcendent
to hear Bellamy raging onstage,
unhitched from any considerations of
studio songcraft, and fully immersed in
improvisational bliss—an arena where he
can unleash Kaoss-generated cacophony,
multi-amp fury, and bizarre effects chains.
Click to YouTube, and scan the Muse tour
footage to witness how all the technology,
composition, and guitar chops come together
to express some spectacular moments.
You’re not exactly using conventional guitars
Oh, no [laughs]. I almost exclusively use
guitars designed by Hugh Manson and me.
He has a pretty decent guitar shop in England
that’s about 20 minutes from the town
where we were brought up. The idea of custom
guitars was something that appealed to
me at a very young age, even though I couldn’t
afford them. I think we’ve made about
12 guitars over the years. The one I used the
most on The Resistance is called “Black Ed.”
It has a really amazing tone, but it’s extremely
heavy, and it’s also louder than all of my
other guitars, so it doesn’t quite work for
performing live. It has a few gizmos in it, as
well—a Z.Vex Wah Probe, a Z.Vex Fuzz
Factory, and an MXR Phase 90.
Was incorporating onboard effects into the
designs the main attraction of customizing your
Yeah. All of my guitars made by Hugh
have some form of onboard effects built in—
mainly for live use. Being a singer, it’s nice
to be able to activate certain effects without
being stuck in front of the pedalboard all the
time. I like to move around, and that’s what
got me into the idea of building effects into
the guitars—to give me a bit more freedom
onstage. When I discovered wireless MIDI
about four years ago, it changed my concept
of what I could have onboard a guitar. That’s what led me to the idea of putting the screen
from the Korg Kaoss Pad into the guitar body
to send MIDI data wirelessly. Now, I can use
the Kaoss Pad to do all these spontaneous
noises while on the move.
How do you typically use the Kaoss screen built
into your Mansons?
I probably don’t use it as much as I
should, really. I don’t use the Kaoss Pad much
for effecting the guitar tone—although that
is a possibility. I’ve tended to use it more as
an independent synth sound that I can use
to create an additional melody part, like the
harmony on the first chorus of “Invincible”
[from 2006’s Black Holes & Revelations]. Or I
can strum a chord or hold a note, and then
quickly tap the Kaoss Pad to produce some
bizarre loud noise or any synth-style tone
you can imagine. I guess that’s my way of
doing what Tom Morello does with all his
crazy squeaks and noises.
This synth stuff goes far beyond using
the Kaoss Pad as a noisemaker, however. For
years, I’ve experimented in the studio with
morphing a conventional guitar or bass
sound into a synth tone. For example, when
I’m doing fast guitar riffs on the low strings,
I find the kind of saturated, square-wave,
low-oscillator sound you get from vintage
synthesizers such as the ARP 2600 to be preferred.
On “Stockholm Syndrome” [from
Absolution], we used some plug-in to morph
between guitar tones and synth sounds. I
was literally mixing my guitar tone with a
synthesized tone. The idea was that you
couldn’t really tell if the sound was a synth
or guitar. I quite like those “borderline”
sounds. This approach has been going on
for as long as I can remember. For example,
“Plug In Baby” from our second album
[2001’s Origin of Symmetry] was written on
a synthesizer, but I wanted to play it on the
guitar. At the time, the best way I could create
the synth-like sound I wanted was by
mixing a Z. Vex Fuzz Factory with an MXR
Phase 90. When those two sounds blended
together, it gave the guitar this extremely
saturated tone that sounded very much like
a synthesizer, but not exactly—it was that
borderline tone. That discovery is what led
me to having those two effects built into my
Progressive and experimental guitarists have
been hybridizing guitar tone since the ’60s, and,
to that end, guitar synths and MIDI controllers that
offer synth/guitar blends have been around for
years. What is driving your personal quest to evolve
and further hybridize the sound of the guitar?
Obviously, the guitar is a huge part of
rock history. At the same time, I feel that
music is evolving away from the traditional
rock format, which is why I make these modifications
to the guitar—Kaoss Pads and onboard effects or whatever—that allow me
to incorporate new and different sounds. My
prediction is that there’s going to be more
of an evolution of the guitar as technology
continues to evolve. As I’ve been doing, more
and more people will find ways to incorporate
technology into the guitar shape. I think
this is the way forward, because it allows
the performer to expand the sonic palette,
but still retain how the guitar feels when
you play it onstage.
You see, in terms of live performance, the
guitar is absolutely the most user-friendly
instrument. There are not many other instruments
that give you so much freedom to
express yourself visually and tonally. A keyboard
doesn’t let you have the same communication
with the crowd. You can’t spin
around. You can’t look at the crowd. You
have to look at your hands all the time. I love
the piano at home and in the studio, but I
find it unbelievably restrictive onstage.
In fact, I’ve just had a custom keytar made
that actually has strings on it [Editor’s note:
Keytars are portable keyboards that a performer
can strap on and play like a guitar.] Your left
hand feels exactly as if it was playing a normal
guitar, but when you put a finger on a
string at a certain fret, a contact sends out
a MIDI signal. For the right hand, in the place
where you’d normally be strumming with a
plectrum, I’ve inserted an actual piano keyboard—
about one-and-a-half octaves. I think
I’ll be able to play some quite interesting
parts with this instrument!
Given your commitment to expanding the tonal
palette, I’m wondering who your main guitar influences
Obviously, Tom Morello. Here’s always
in my mind because of his inventive
approach. I think he approaches the guitar
in a purer sense than me, in terms of wanting
to innovate and push it outside of what
it’s traditionally expected to do. I think he’s
done an amazing job of that, and he has
pretty much changed the perception of the
guitar. Going back before Morello, both Jimi
Hendrix and Kurt Cobain influenced me to
not get too caught up seeking technical perfection.
They realized you can just go crazy,
make a bunch of noise, and experiment.
Then, when I was about 15 years old, I went
through a weird stage where I was really into
flamenco guitar, and I’m sure that had some
influence on my current style, as well.
Do you still play fingerstyle?
Not really. As a teenager, I actually grew
my nails so I could play proper flamenco style
on a nylon-string guitar! But I sort of gave
that up when I discovered it’s much easier
to plug an electric guitar into a big amp and
make a ruckus [laughs]. These days, I only
use my fingers when I want every note of a
chord to sound simultaneous. Then, I’ll grab
four or five strings and pluck them all at once.
What other elements do you consider when
designing a guitar to conform to your specific
ideals of playability and tone?
In terms of feel, body style, weight, neck,
and frets, I do prefer Fender guitars. Telecasters
and Stratocasters feel really good to
play, but I don’t like the sound of those guitars
very much, so typically I’ll use them for
very small bits. The only guitar on the album
that wasn’t a Manson was my ’95 Fender
Aloha Strat, which I used to play the solo
after the first chorus on “Resistance.” Most
of the time, I want a Gibson-style sound—
that big and aggressive tone you can get from
Les Pauls and SGs. So for me, designing a
custom guitar was quite simple: Make a guitar
that feels like you’re playing a Fender,
but that sounds like a Gibson.
What sorts of amps do you plug your custom
I use all sorts of things in the studio, but
I tend towards vintage, Vox AC30 sounds.
My favorite AC30s are the 1964 and 1970 models—the ’64 in particular, because of the
extreme spike of its Top Boost. I don’t use
the vintage Vox amps live—they’re fragile
and too high maintenance for touring. I use
them exclusively in the studio, and swap
them out for a newer AC30 on the road. So
what I do is use the AC30 as the core sound,
and then I’ll mix in other amps to bring in
a bit of character. For example, I find that
Channel 4 on a Diezel amp is pretty unbeatable
in terms of really high-saturation
sounds. I don’t like the scooped metal sound.
I prefer unusual and unpredictable midrange
spikes that really jump out, and that Diezel
channel has some extreme midrange.
Then, I have a 100-watt Marshall Super Lead that was modified by Matt Wells in New
York to permanently link the channels together.
He also added a Volume knob for this feature,
so that I can adjust the amount of gain jumping.
Generally, if I want a real heavy sound,
I’ll mix the Vox with the Diezel, and if I want
something more punchy, I’ll go with the Vox,
and blend in a bit of the Marshall. I also use
direct sounds a lot, and I’ll sometimes blend
a direct sound with a distortion pedal. I’m
really into multiple amp and DI tones, but the
core sound is usually always the Vox.
In addition, I have a few random amps
that I use for special effects, such as a ’70sera
Ampeg SVT bass amp. This was also
modified by Matt Wells to deliver extreme
midrange—there are three preset EQ
switches on the back of the head that boost
around 600Hz and on up to about 1kHz. The
SVT has a really interesting distortion tone
that’s obviously in a lower register than the
typical guitar amp, but when you blend that
sound with the Vox’s Top Boost, it sort of
takes off and goes into another place. In fact,
it was Brian May’s treble-boosted tone that
first led me to this idea that very plain- or
conventional-sounding amps can be pushed
into very esoteric directions with a certain
midrange boost. It’s kind of like if you get a
wah pedal and leave it stuck halfway to get
that real extreme “Q” spike.
Why do you tend to go for such extreme
It’s about finding the best spot for the
guitar in the mix. In our band, we have big
bass-guitar sounds and huge drum sounds,
and then the vocal is on top, so we want the
guitar to cut through the middle. If the guitar
sounds are too broad—too wide
ranging—they can end up getting a little
drowned out in the mix because the rest of
the instruments and vocals are taking up
massive amounts of low, mid, and bass frequencies.
So I focus on making sure the
guitar’s midrange isn’t too weak—it has to
be aggressive to punch through everything.
I also like doing all of these tonal adjustments
at the amp, rather than leaving them
to the mixer and the console EQ. To me, all
the EQ fussing that goes on after the sound
has gone through the microphone doesn’t
sound as good as when you get everything
dialed in at the amp.
Was it dissatisfaction with the guitar sound
on past records that led you to develop your hypedmid
approach to tone?
No. It was actually over the course of a
year of touring and tweaking the guitar onstage—dialing in EQ, distortion, effects,
and so on—that I evolved the guitar sounds
for the album, as well as where those sounds
should sit in the band mix. When we went
into the studio to record The Resistance, all
the guitar sounds were good to go. Well, I
should admit that I did make a few little lastminute
adjustments to things on certain
How has your rig evolved through the years?
Every time I make an album, my guitar rig
has leaped forward a step. My current rig is
closer to someone like The Edge, I suppose,
but when I started, it was as simple and
straightforward as Tom Morello’s rig. Tom
hasn’t changed it much because he found a
sound that’s him, and he uses what little he
has to maximum effect. But, for me, something
happens with the songwriting for each
album that demands I do something a bit
unusual. As a result, I have to rethink the touring
rig in order to accommodate the new songs.
It seems like every album has forced me to
incorporate something new—a new amp or a
new effect—and instead of changing my whole
sound, I just added more gear. So about the
time of Absolution , I realized I was carrying
around a number of effects and amps,
and that I had to move to a system with a MIDI
pedalboard that controlled all the signal chains.
That opened up a new avenue of possibility,
and I thought I had a really solid rig by the
time of Black Holes .
You see, when you go on tour, you’re not
just playing the new album, you’re playing
all of your previous albums, as well. So you
need a guitar rig that’s a lot more versatile
than whatever was used on any one particular
album. What I’m trying to say is that it
took me four albums to develop a rig that
can deliver all the diverse sounds I want.
Previously, making a new record was always
a case of renting or buying new amps, trying
new pedals, and doing a ton of re-cabling
for almost every guitar sound. But for The
Resistance, I just wheeled in my live rig, and
said, “That’s it.”
How do you control the multiple-amp setups?
The primary guitar signal goes to a threeamp
switcher for the Vox, Diezel, and
Marshall heads, as well as an additional
switcher for two combo amps, although I
don’t use that option. The switcher also
includes two effects loops and two dry outputs.
I can plug into lots of things if I really
want to go over the top! Onstage, though,
the three different heads are routed to one
4x12 cabinet that’s miked up.
What kind of 4x12 cab is that?
It’s made by Mills Acoustics. I used to use
Marshalls, but one of the first things we did
when we started recording this album was
to set up comparative tests of about seven
different cabinets. I like doing relatively scientific
A/B tests where you’re using the same
mics and mic preamps to test things out. The
cabinets that sounded the best to me were a
Vox 2x12 and the Mills 4x12. The Vox 2x12—
which I highly recommend—has an unusually
aggressive low-midrange tone, and I often
used it for the heavy riffs on the album. The
main cabinet for the sessions was the Mills,
and I decided to use it on tour, as well.
What is it about the Mills that attracted you?
The Mills has a full range of tone that
seems to deliver everything you can imagine
from an amp. It also produces this
amazing brightness that I’ve never heard
come from a 4x12 cabinet. So when I went
back to the Marshall cabinet, I’d hear a
slightly muddy top end. I’m used to that very
chimey Vox sound, so the Mills was a much
better match for the tones I hear.
In addition to the effects on your guitar, I imagine
you’re still using a pedalboard?
My pedalboard is mainly a MIDI device
that sends out continuous controller messages
to a rack of effects that includes a TC
Electronic G-Major and a Line 6 Delay Modeler.
I’m trying out the Liquid Control
Liquid-Foot, which really goes deep in terms
of being able to customize MIDI control signals.
I like to change mix and blend levels
and control parameters. When I step on a
button, you see, I’m not just calling up one
effect, I may be turning on a number of effects that combine to make a specific program
I also have two expression pedals. One
is controlling my DigiTech Whammy via
MIDI. The pedal itself stays untouched in
the rack unit. I found the original Whammy
pedal was sometimes a bit unreliable—especially
when you used it on a regular basis.
But expression pedals are replaceable at a
very minimal cost, and they’re very quick to
change out if one goes down. The other
expression pedal is used for volume control.
I have a MIDI-controlled attenuator on my
rig, so I can use the expression pedal to adjust
the amount of signal level up and down.
Finally, I use one of those Boss pianosustain
pedals to control the Hold function
on an ’80s DigiTech reverb pedal. I can hit
the pedal, and send the reverb decay to infinity,
which is great for creating big washes of
noise. The other pedal is a Dunlop wah—
the rackmount model. I’ve yet to use it live,
so I don’t know if it will stay in the rack, but
it’s in there at the moment.
What strings do you use?
My usual set is gauged .010, .013, .017,
.026, .036, and .060. Those are Ernie Balls.
My picks are custom .73mm Dunlop Tortex
with the Muse logo printed on them.
Was there a main production concept for how
you approached the guitar performances on The
I wanted to stick with the idea of each
guitar part being a single performance. I
wanted to avoid double tracking—which is
an easy way to get a big guitar sound—and
just play each part once. What made that
approach possible was being able to blend
different amp sounds to construct a massive,
real-time tone. There are just a very few occasions where I did double a part.
You’ve already discussed your multiple-amp
setup, but for the album sessions, did you record
each amp sound on a separate track to be dealt
with later, or did you immediately bounce a blend
to a comp track?
Yeah, we tend to bounce them right there
and then. We’ll have maybe five or six sounds,
and we’ll pick the mix that we want, and we’ll
print that mix to two tracks for a left-andright
stereo perspective. We may end up using
a blend of two or three sounds, but, sometimes,
we’ll use all six options. I think it’s
better to make a commitment to a sound
immediately—especially from a compositional
standpoint, where you want a strong,
consistent character and vibe. Otherwise,
you can end up with so many tracks that you
leave more and more of the tonal decisions
until the mix. The danger in that approach
is that it can cause you to assess each track
as an individual component, rather than taking
into account what the parts should sound
like in the context of the song. The other danger
is that you may not know who will
ultimately mix the project, and that person
may select options that aren’t to your liking.
If you’ve already done the bounce, however,
then what you want is what they’ll get.
One of the aspects of your style that’s so
attractive is how you can get so rock without
always defaulting to rock and roll clichés. What
informs how you choose your parts?
I’d say the biggest influence of all is simply
being a pianist. I think that being a piano
player automatically gives you a more even
perception of how harmonies, chords, and
melodies are created. I feel the disadvantage
of the guitar as a writing tool is the fact that
the notes are not all equally placed, and, as
a result, there exist different levels of difficulty
to play certain lines. Certain scales—or
improvisations that incorporate scales—may
turn out to require maneuvers that are difficult
or quite easy to accomplish. And while
you can obviously play any chords you want
on a guitar, some of the more extravagant
chords can be a bit uncomfortable to play.
However, on the piano, I don’t find one
chord, scale, or key to be particularly easier
or harder to play.
When I write on the piano, I also feel like
I’m unhindered by influence of the shape of
scale boxes or frets or strings, and this presents
some interesting inversions when I
transfer the piano parts to the guitar. For example, a few people have commented on
some of the unusual chords I play during
the chorus of “New Born” [from Origin of
Symmetry]. They’re unusual inversions on
the guitar—and I had to tweak around a little
bit to get the exact notes—but they’re
really straightforward and simple on the
piano. So I suppose my biggest influence is
writing on the piano, and then translating
that onto the guitar. But what I do is, instead
of changing notes to make the parts easier
to play on guitar, I force myself to learn it
the way I originally played it on the piano.
That sounds like a lot of a work, or a lot of pain.
Sometimes, but it’s worth all the trouble,
because there are parts that just don’t
sound as cool on the piano—I need to hear
them on the guitar. You see, one of the things
I’ll always love about the guitar is that it can
take you into realms of chaos.