Get “That” Guitar Tone: Muse Edition

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Matt Bellamy of Muse manipulates an XY MIDIpad installed on his guitar. Image courtesy of Flickr user moses_namkung. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Matt Bellamy of Muse manipulates an XY MIDIpad installed on his guitar. Image courtesy of Flickr user moses_namkung.

Many guitar players, especially younger ones, are well-acquainted with Matthew Bellamy and his collection of custom Manson guitars.

But for those of you who have been living in a cave, avoiding new music for the past 20 years, Matt Bellamy is the lead singer, guitarist (and occasionally pianist) of the alternative rock act Muse.

The band has been captivating audiences all over the world with live shows consisting of intricate light shows, drones flying around stadiums, combined with virtuosic guitar-playing and vocal chops on par with some opera stars.

Bellamy approached Hugh Manson—longtime tech for John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin—back in his aspiring rockstar adolescence, and over the years Manson has built a number of custom guitars specifically for him. Many of these custom guitars are aesthetically stunning, innovative, and very expressive, much like Muse’s music.

Today we’ll look at both the techniques and the cutting-edge technology Bellamy has employed in crafting the sounds of Muse.

As of their 2016 Drones tour, Bellamy is using a handful of Manson guitars with some pretty unique modifications, along with a Fractal Audio Axe-FX system, a rack full of effect pedals, and two Kemper Profiling Amplifiers, which we will explore in more detail.

Finally, for those of you working primarily in the box, we’ve included a bundle of amp simulator presets for IK Multimedia’s Amplitube 4, Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig 5, and Universal Audio’s Marshall series of plugins to help you recreate some of these tones without spending another dime.

Some recommendations in gear to capture the Muse tone are:

Strings

Like Dave Grohl, who was profiled in the last installment of “Get That Guitar Tone”, Bellamy tends to use heavier strings on the bottom, relying on custom Ernie Ball 10-60 gauge sets for some added beef and character when he chugs on power chords.

Guitars

Manson DL-1 Matthew Bellamy Signature Guitar 2016 with internal Z-Vex Fuzz Factory & Phase 90 (£4,047.00 – approx $5,831)

This is as close as you’re likely to get to playing one of Matt Bellamy’s own guitars, though this this behemoth of an instrument comes with a pricetag that may be difficult to justify for the non-rockstars among us.

Cort MBC-1 Matthew Bellamy Signature Model ($599)

This guitar is surprisingly well-crafted and holds its own against a real Manson in terms of basic quality. I find the Cort MBC-1 to be a really great value, and to my eye, it is just such a stunning guitar. Recently, at winter NAMM 2016, Cort also announced a new red glitter finish for this model.

Schecter BlackJack SLS Avenger FR-S ($1049)

Though this guitar is not used by Bellamy (and doesn’t look especially similar to any of the guitars he slings) it does feature a Sustainiac electromagnetic sustain system and a Floyd Rose vibrato arm, two of the mods most commonly applied to Bellamy’s own Manson guitars.

Amps

Vox AC30 VR ($549)
Marshall DSL 40 C1 ($699)
Friedman Pink Taco 20 Watt Amp Head ($1499)
Peavey 6505 Mini Head ($499)
Kemper Profiler PowerHead ($2500)

Effects

ZVEX Fuzz Factory ($179)
Digitech Whammy 5 ($199)
MXR Phase 90 ($79)
Atomic Amps Amplifire ($599)

Click here for VST amp presets for IK Multimedia’s Amplitube, Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig 5, and Universal Audio’s new Marshall amp sims. The songs covered are as follows:

“Madness” (Solo) – UAD Marshall
“Map Of The Problematic” – Guitar Rig 5
“Psycho” – Amplitube 4
“Stockholm Syndrome” – All
“Supermassive Black Hole” – All
Techniques

1) Experiment with Chord Voicings

Chris Wolstenholme, bassist for Muse is known for coming up with some pretty brilliant and active bass parts. In order to prevent his guitars from clashing with the bass, Bellamy spends quite some time thinking about how to play less and avoid muddying up the sound of their records with too many lower-voiced power chords. Instead, he often experiments with playing octaves and chords voiced on only the four highest strings of the guitar. Examples of both these techniques can be heard on “Uprising”, below:

2) Fizzle, Sizzle and FUZZ

The song “Madness” features one of the coolest Muse guitar solos I have ever heard, and part of its appeal is the distorted, almost ugly, fuzz sound used on the track.

There’s a real difference between overdrive, distortion, and fuzz and the guitar tone on this track definitely leans toward the side of an uglier fuzz. One advantage of this kind of fuzzy, sizzly harshness is that it immediately attracts the listener’s attention. Too much of this kind of tone can be fatiguing, but in the context of the occasional solo, it can work wonders for a track.

3) To Tree or Nut to Tree?

Granted, this is more of a mod than a technique, but take a second and look through some pictures of Matt’s custom Manson guitars and you will notice a lot of them do not have guitar string trees. Why is this? Luthier Hugh Manson says:

“Part of the sound of this instrument [Cort MBC-1 Matt Bellamy Signature Guitar] comes from the fact that this head is designed like this. You get some quite interesting overtones from the string which come from the resonance of these strings after the nut.  People forget that the string on a guitar is from the machine head to the tailpiece. It doesn’t just go from the nut to the saddle.  The whole thing is integral to the overall sound of the instrument”

Want to try a cool experiment? Play an E major chord and strum it as loudly as you can, then immediately mute the strings. Hear anything? Now, try covering the strings behind the nut by folding a dollar bill, a playing card, or a piece of paper through the strings and then strum that E chord loudly. This time, you should notice a lack of residual overtones by comparison.

The string tree above the nut on a Fender Strat or Telecaster can raise the pitch of these overtones, subtly altering the tone of the guitar in their effort to create more even string tension when using conventional gauge strings. Try to hear this difference for yourself and decide which approach sounds better to your ear.  Please note you hear no discernible difference.

A Word of Thanks:

The good people at MuseWiki.ORG have spent years tracking the gear used by Bellamy and muse, and deserve a shoutout in any post about the technology the band employs. If you want more, I highly encourage you check out MuseWiki if you want to learn about every excruciating detail about Matt Bellamy’s gear.

Matthew Wang is a guitarist, songwriter, and jingle-writer from New York City. He is actively gigging, recording, posting guitar-related videos on his YouTube Channel, and studying music production at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU.

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