Recently I came across Troy Grady’s awesome Cracking The Code series. While being a delightful trip down memory-lane, it also inspired me to go back and revisit some of the players that captivated me when I was younger. One I had laid aside for too long was Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt.
I had forgotten just how brawny and athletic Nuno’s playing was when he burst onto the scene. He appeared at the height of the Gun Slinger Age and more than held his own with all the other fretboard gymnasts. Of course the real gold was his oh-so-catchy songwriting and arranging. Extreme felt like a band destined for rock and roll glory, but the bottom fell out of rock when grunge hit the scene. Timing, as they say, is everything.
Unlike an Al DiMeola or an Allan Holdsworth (whom I both adore), Nuno seemed to have a bottomless bag of tricks and styles. Sharp staccato alternate picking? Check. Molten legato playing? Check. Requisite bag of late-80’s stunt-guitar tricks? Check. Fabulous hair? CHECK.
There are so many choice gems in Nuno’s playing, you could spend a year just picking apart Pornograffiti. One Nuno extravaganza that has always mystified me was the machine-gun like alternate-picking breakdown in It’s a Monster. How the hell did he do that? With a copy of Anytune I resolved to pick this song apart bit by bit until I figured it out.
The passage consists of series of sixteenth-note triplets. Each six-note pattern is its own unit and Nuno groups a bunch of shapes together to create the dizzying spiral of the lick. The trick is getting the picking pattern down for the six-note pattern. Once you have it down in one place, the rest of the lick (well, most of it) is that same pattern.
The Six Note Group
The opening is as good a place to start as any. Here’s the opening measure of the descent:
You can play this with strict alternate-picking. The trickiest part is skipping the third string. The last stroke on the fourth string is a downstroke and the next stroke (on the second string) is an upstroke. This type of picking pattern is what we call an “outside-in” picking pattern. If you aren’t yet used to this it can feel pretty damn weird. The trick is getting the downstroke to carry over the second and third strings to prepare for the upstroke.
There’s a similar jump coming back down where an upstroke on the second string is followed by a downstroke on the fourth string. Again, the trick is getting the upstroke to carry the pick over the third and fourth strings to get ready for the downstroke.
Making Twelve Out Of Eleven
One thing that mystified me for awhile was exactly how he was getting two groups of sixteenth-note triplets. I could hear where each group started, but the math didn’t work out. If each figure is six notes and you play it up-and-back, you get a total of eleven notes, not twelve. Where the hell is the extra note coming from?
After some experimentation and closer listening (at a syrupy half-speed) I realized that the elusive twelfth note comes from sliding down to the next pattern. This means that the last note of one twelve-note group is the first note of the next twelve-note group. At full-speed this repeated note adds a unique flavor to this mind-boggling lick. Such a clever boy, Nuno.
Grokking the Structure
The whole lick consists of the long group of six-note picking patterns (two bars) capped-off with two different endings (another two bars). Here are the first two measures that are same:
The first ending continues the descent until the last two beats of the fourth measure. There, Nuno finishes the first repeat with a quick series of sixteenth-note triplet ascents:
Again, the whole lick is played with strict alternate picking. If you can get that picking-hand motor to lock-in to a solid alternating motion you’re halfway to Nuno-mastery.
The second repeat ends the lick differently. This time the entire last measure is devoted to a big up-and-back picking run of sixteenth-note triplets. Remember, the whole piece is alternate-picked sixteenth-note triplets.
The interesting thing about the big up-and-back finish is the repeating notes on the ninth fret of the third string and the fifth fret of second string. The rhythm is a consistent sixteenth-note triplet pattern, but the repeated note alters the listener’s expectations slightly and makes this a quirky “beat displacement” kind of lick.
This summer has seen a complete re-invention of my alternate-picking mechanics. I’m left wondering if there are universal truths about “the right way to do it” or if everyone’s physiology is just different enough that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
Given the vast array of techniques and styles from guitarists producing similar sounds, I’m inclined to think that there is more than one way to do this. Sorry, no life-affirming universal truths from me. All I can offer are a few insights that helped me.
The first is getting the alternate-picking to flow smoothly. Earlier I talked about the string-skipping jump of the “outside-in” picking. Honestly, once I get this sucker up to speed my picking hand doesn’t even notice that jump. I think that getting that “flow” is key to pulling this lick off.
For me, I found that reducing the pressure of my picking-hand palm on the bridge helped get that fast alternation going. For whatever reason it just seems to free things up for me. It feels like I’m floating my entire picking hand over the strings but in reality it’s probably a 2mm difference.
Pick-angles matter here. A little rotation of the pick is going to help it get back and forth across those strings much more easily than if it’s parallel with the length of the strings.
The real trick is getting the hands to synchronize with each other. For this, I can only offer the tried-and-true approach of busting out the metronome and working the tempo up bit by bit.
Here are two samples I created of this lick. The first is slowed down so you can hear the pattern a little better.
The second example is a little closer to the actual speed of the song (about 126 bpm). Not my best work, but not half-bad for recording this with no warmup.
If you need inspiration or just a visual reference, check out this live footage of Nuno ripping through this song. The “monster” picking lick kicks in around 2:31:
There are plenty of other tricks in Nuno’s bag to figure out. But this lick is a good party-trick or guitar-store demo lick. If nothing else, it’s a fantastic way to get your alternate-picking and string-skipping chops in shape.
Until next time, rock on!