Adrian Belew Presents the Fine Art of Making Guitar Noise — Past, Present, and Future

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Live in Rome, 1980: The Talk­ing Heads Con­cert Film You Haven’t Seen

Watch Phish Play the Entire­ty of the Talk­ing Heads’ Remain in Light(1996)

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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