Belew’s reputation began in the late 70s when he was poached by Frank Zappa after the moustachioed guitar god spotted him playing in a covers band in Nashville. He contributed rhythm and lead guitar to the 1979 Zappa classic Sheik Yerbouti, before David Bowie lured him into his band.
(Belew tells a great story about how Bowie met the guitarist at a restaurant but hadn’t counted on Zappa also being there and Bowie’s attempts at small talk were met with a swift, “Fuck you, Captain Tom,” from an understandably protective Zappa).
Belew then appeared on The Thin White Duke’s avant-pop album Lodger, and his career was set. He became the go-to guy for the eccentric and the super-musical: King Crimson, Herbie Hancock, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Paul Simon, Nine Inch Nails and, er, William Shatner, to name just a few.
Like we say: wild.
Back in 1980 he he was drafted in to work with rising stars Talking Heads. Like Bowie, the band had previously collaborated with producer Brian Eno, and their arty, imaginative edge called out for Belew’s highly experimental guitar playing style.
The solos on The Great Curve (at 1:53 and 5:28) are characterized by a searing fuzz tone, huge intervallic skips, and end-of-the-world dive bombs. On top of a frenetic funky afrobeat track, Belew’s six-string work changed people’s views of how a guitar could sound in a non-rock context.
So where did that sound come from? Back in the early 80s, Belew’s bag of tricks included a Fender Stratocaster, a Roland JC-120 amp (opens in new tab) – the "king of clean" – and an effects palette that featured an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress flanger, Graphic Fuzz and Big Muff distortion, a Foxx Tone Machine fuzz, and an MXR Dyna Comp compressor.
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