Before Adrian Belew, who's due at the Boulder Theater on Tuesday, November 4, performed and recorded with King Crimson, David Bowie and the Talking Heads, Nine Inch Nails and a slew of other artists, the adventurous guitarist spent a year working with Frank Zappa. Belew sees that year between 1977 and 1978 with Zappa as a crash course in a lot of things, musical and otherwise.
See also: The Ten Best Jazz Guitarists
Belew, who's a self-taught guitarist, says he asked Zappa if he should try to learn how to read music, Zappa told him, "Absolutely not. You've figured it out your own way and you know it, you just weren't taught the technical terms for things, and because you don't have that teaching somehow it's made you not have as many rules. So you break rules because you don't know they exist."
Belew says it's never been so much about notes, but rather the sound of the guitar. "It's never ever been about scales or anything like that," he says. "My drive has always been to make the guitar sound interesting and do interesting things with it, things that maybe other guitarists would not think to do or want to do even."
That's exactly what's made Belew one of the most inventive guitarists of the last three decades. He can coax animal sounds out of his guitar, like an elephant or seagull on King Crimson's "Elephant Talk" and "Matte Kudasai" or a whale or rhino on his songs "Ballet for a Blue Whale" and "The Lone Rhinoceros." That's scratching the surface of what Belew can do sonically, using various techniques and an array of effects.
Three decades ago, Belew says he was lucky to have a couple of pedals on the floor, at best, while now he plays through a laptop.
"So imagine the leap the technology has made in the years that I've been going right along with it," he says, "And I've always advocated usage of all kinds of techniques and technology because it inspires music and gets you do new things. New songs come out when I find new some sound or new technique - new music comes of out of me. I've been really lucky that it all grew up exactly at the same time that I came into the music scene as a player that everyone knew and it's all developed right alongside my career."
Since Belew has been touring internationally over the last eight to ten years and he can't take that much gear with him on those kind of tours, he says he's made a conscious effort to slim down his guitar rig.
"I've head to work and find alternate ways to create the same sounds that I could have created with a lot more gear," he says. "But it's not been a problem yet. I would say probably 95 percent of what I've done I can still do."
While Belew has had to recreate some of his older guitar sounds using new technology, he's also had to re-tool some of his older material and King Crimson songs for the trio format during this current Adrian Belew Power Trio tour with bassist Julie Slick and drummer Tobias Ralph.
"A lot of the music that we play really wasn't originally wasn't written for trio so it's a challenge to take some of those songs and remake them our own way," Belew says. "There is a lot of material that I've written in the last eight years that was made for trio because I use a looper. When I use a looper and make a loop then Tobias and Julie are playing to the loop then I can do whatever I want along with the loop or solo around it whatever along with the loop or solo around it or whatever and that kind of makes it like a four-piece band. But the reason I like a trio, I don't know, I think everybody has more responsibility. It's easier to focus together. It's easier to improvise together."
Belew's sets on the current tour are formatted somewhat to work like how FLUX, his app for iPhone and iPad that's slated to be released on November 25. He says he had the idea for FLUX about thirty years ago and technology finally caught up with his idea of "music of everything coming in shorter spurts and being more random and kind of fast paced and being interrupted by other sounds," he says. "That's what FLUX music is like. And even though we're not playing any of the music from FLUX music yet I thought it would be nice to apply that concept to a live performance."
Belew says they move from one song to the next rather quickly, sometimes just playing the first verse and chorus and then suddenly something like a sound might interrupt it and they're on the to the next song.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
"So consequently in the night we can cover about 14 different records of 30 songs," he says. "And every now and then there's a piece that will be full length and usually it's some of the more monumental instrumental pieces that we do like 'Beat Box Guitar' or something like that where there's some improvising as well as a theme, and that kind of gives the audience a breath before we jump back into the fast paced stuff.
"You know, everywhere we've gone I was very anxious to see if people would reject this idea but they love it. I've had so many people tell me that what it does is it really... if you've had a large catalog, as I do, it reminds people of so many different places you've been and what you've done because you can much more information. I sing 26 songs for these people over a night. That's nice."