Breaking The Mold Are Matthew Bellamys Custom Instruments And Pianistic Approach To Composition Forging The Future Of GuitarCraft

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
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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 trio’s members—guitarist/vocalist/primary 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 chaos.

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 there, sir.
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 own guitars?
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 custom guitars.


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 might be?
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 babies into?
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 midrange timbres?
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 songs.


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 [2003], 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 [2006].


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 or preset.

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 Resistance?
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.