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The Matt Bellamy Approach To Guitar Textures

December 1, 2009
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Muse’s Matt Bellamy is a truly gifted guitarist, keyboardist, producer, and arranger, and he’s a fervent sonic explorer. He’s also one gutsy pop star. After all, it takes some stones to put a three-part orchestral work on a rock album, but that’s exactly what Bellamy did on The Resistance [Warner Bros.] with “Exogenesis.”

This is definitely not a guy who embraces the obvious path to audio production. In particular, Bellamy’s searing and saturated, yet clear and articulate guitar tone is simultaneously ear catching and supportive of the other instruments in the mix. Here are some insights into Bellamy’s savvy tone methodology.

I Am One

On The Resistance, Bellamy focused on refining the sound of one guitar part, rather than overdubbing several counterpoint lines or stacking multiple rhythm-guitar tracks.

“It’s a single guitar performance,” he says, “but that part is often played with a simultaneous blend of several different amps to give the guitar tone more character.”

This may be a tough one for some players to get their heads around, as many successful producers advocate stacking guitar parts. Others, of course, maintain that layering parts actually make guitars sound smaller. And then there’s the ugly truth that stacking parts can blur the, ahem, inconsistencies of guitarists with less-than-stellar technique. But why not just conceptualize this step as an experiment, and develop a single, cool guitar part for your track? The following steps should prove whether the “Bellamy Approach” is a viable option for you.

Load Your Guns

Bellamy arranges his amps to offer a broad range of timbres that he can mix-and-match to construct the final guitar tone. His menu for The Resistance sessions included a vintage 1964 Vox AC30 with Top Boost that became the core sound of most every guitar part on the album.

“I like that amp’s extreme treble,” says Bellamy. “I prefer sounds with unpredictable midrange spikes that make them jump out of the mix.”

The amps employed to blend in with the AC30 tone were a Diezel (“Channel four is pretty unbeatable for high-saturation sounds,” says Bellamy), a modified Marshall Super Lead 100 (“I used that for the crunchy stuff,” he says), and a modified, late-’70s Ampeg SVT bass amp outfitted with three midrange-boost switches. Bellamy would also plug into a direct box that was routed to a distortion or fuzz pedal to get a fizzy, dry overdrive tone.

The main idea is to assemble tonal options for blending that coincide with your vision of the final guitar sound. Your signal path might include a Fender amp, a Mesa/Boogie amp, a digital-modeling processor, or any number of toys. Whatever floats your boat, make sure all the source sounds are routed to your mixing environment so that you can easily audition and select different tonal options.

Slap ’Em Across the Face

Bellamy is a huge proponent of getting the sound at the source (“To me, board EQ never sounds as rich and aggressive as when you can get the sound from the amp and a microphone,” he says). You already know he’s a midrange freak, so to craft a guitar tone that can explode out of a dense Muse mix of stacked keyboards, thunderous drums, and mammoth bass, Bellamy boosts the mids on his main amp sound to ensure the steely, knife-hard timbre slices its way to the forefront.

“The guitar needs to cut right through the middle without taking up too much space,” he says. “Most guitar sounds are too wide ranging, and they can end up drowned out in the mix.”

The big lesson here is to dial in a core tone that’s focused on a specific frequency range. Then, any other textures you add shouldn’t trip up the guitar’s ability to cut through the mix.

Don’t Waver

Bellamy doesn’t record all of his source sounds to individual tracks, and then leave the decision regarding which tonal blends will comprise the final guitar sound for the mix session. When he has his desired blend, he immediately submixes the four or so different sources to a stereo track.

“I think it’s better to make a commitment to a sound,” he says. “For the composition side of things, I think it’s better to sum them down so that you are always in control of the final sound. If you leave all these tracks for later, then whoever mixes the song gets the final say, right?”

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