Since 1989, the Chicago Humanities Festival has been “devoted to making the humanities a vital and vibrant ingredient of daily life.” A quick perusal of their site should convince you of their seriousness. The most recent lineup features a lecture on Josephine Baker and Eva Peron, a history of the banjo, and three University of Illinois professors discussing the first book-length academic study of Mad Men.
But while the focus of CHF may be scholarly, the festival is not all lecture-based. In the summer of 2011, guitarist Adrian Belew appeared on a panel entitled “The History and Future of Guitar Noise.” Musicians out there will likely know Belew’s name, but for those who don’t, he was an integral part of prog-rock giants King Crimson, played with Frank Zappa, the Talking Heads, David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, and has made a name for himself as one of the most unique electric players of the past several decades (reference his solo below, for example, at 2:20, in a 1978 live performance of Bowie’s “Jean Genie”).
In the video at the top of the page, see Belew in conversation with host Stuart Flack and a live audience. He talks the history of Fender guitars—his instruments of choice until he started playing the Parker Fly he holds on stage. He discusses his current effects setup, and the influence of effects pioneer Jimi Hendrix on his playing. But more than just guitar noise, Belew talks about, and demonstrates, the physicality of his playing, and the ways that he adapted the instrument as an extension of his body.
Belew’s physical ownership of the guitar makes him a fascinating player to watch, and listen to. He respects the shredders who practice sixteen hours a day in their bedrooms, and yet Belew’s affection lies with players like Jeff Beck, “the guys who make it sound like a voice.” Whomever he’s played with, and whatever tech he uses, Belew makes guitars sing, in weird electric tones no voice could match. The conversation above is a treat, but if you’re anxious to hear what Belew sounds like lately, watch his instrumental performance of “Drive” (below), a composition built of layers upon layers of looped “noise” and Belew’s individual chordal phrasing, bends, finger tapping, and vibrato.
Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness