New Jersey-based guitarist Steve Bello’s distinctive take on instrumental music is refreshingly uncontained. The long-time guitar/bass instructor has eight albums and several gear endorsements, such as with Ibanez guitars.
His latest recording Mood Swings, produced by Bello, Jon Hanemann and Michael Sabatini (Attacker) drums, was engineered and mixed by Sabatini and mastered by Joe Lambert Mastering.
Songs like “Never Be the Sane” and “Force Quit” take off and come back down to earth with tasteful guitar playing and other sonic surprises. Bello’s style is sometimes Living Colour funk-metal; other times it’s a varied fret-free-for-all.
Like many, Jimi Hendrix is the reason Bello first became serious about guitar playing.
“Back in the early ‘80s, my parents were watching a show about stars who died young,” recalls Bello. “It had Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and Jim Morrison. Then they showed Hendrix doing “Killing Floor” at Monterey. He had on a pink feather boa, and that was the first thing I heard from him. I’m just sitting there, this 12-year-old snot-nosed kid, going “Oh my God, that’s Jimi Hendrix.” I was like, “Okay, I have to play guitar for life.” That was it.
Fast-forward, it seems your songs are unique unto themselves. Do you feel that way? Is that a conscious thing for you during songwriting?
Yes, I do feel that way. I never write anything that’s “normal” in most people’s eyes—not even my own. But at the same time, I write what I feel, so it has to be normal in some way to me. I never sat myself down and said, “write a song like Zeppelin in 11/8” because it would never work. If something falls out of my head and onto the guitar in a funky time shift or chord progression, it has to be natural.
This is your eighth album. Does this time around feel different for you? (It has been very well-received, and people are connecting with it). If so, what’s different nowadays?
Yes, this is album number eight, who would have thought! This is the hardest I ever worked on an album, but at the same time, it was a joy to make. When the vibes flow nicely, the music will be a breeze to record. This is the first album I’ve made where people genuinely connected with it, despite not having vocals or lyrics. I honestly thought, “Well, my last CD didn’t sell so hot, so this one might follow the same fate”, but I was pleasantly surprised. It took Judas Priest and Rush eight albums and Scorpions nine, so I am in good company.
How did “Never Be the Sane” come to life? What effects are you using on that one? It’s a great song.
Thank you! That song was written with another title back in 2018, shortly after I released my seventh CD Marblehead. I’m always writing. I had the riffs, and then the melody followed soon after. I sat on that for close to three years, and after many false starts, it finally came to life. I am using the Whammy pedal for those sharp high notes (because I like making noise) and a wah for the melody to give it a singing sound.
You also love Whammy bar, don’t you?!
What gave it away? (laughs) Yeah, I was into it because of Jimi Hendrix and Ritchie Blackmore early on. And then, of course, hearing Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani. I hope to do different things with it, but sometimes I fall back on old ways.
When writing songs, do you come up with riffs first?
Most of the time, it’s the riffs. One song, “Surfing to Venus” (on my 2011 CD Go Berzerk!), was a rare instance of the melody coming first and having to build a chord progression around it.
Do you always write on an electric?
Yes, because I’m a terrible acoustic player. I don’t own an acoustic anymore, sold it in 2014.
On Mood Swings, you played and recorded all the bass and guitar parts. Was that a challenge—how did you approach it?
I recorded bass on my first CD Twisted Metal and my fifth CD Layers of Time. Bass is a more physically demanding instrument, but I enjoy it. I don’t think about theory, just groove and holding down the fort. I can slip in a Billy Sheehan-ish lick here and there, but for the most part, I prefer to let the bass be the anchor. I don’t see it as a challenge, but it can be a bit tedious after a while. I have to stop thinking like a guitarist when I play bass. If I had a real bassist on the album, I think my hands wouldn’t have hurt so much (laughs).
Onto guitars, you have an endorsement with Ibanez. What have the guitars offered you over the years?
Ibanez makes the perfect guitar. I am not saying that because I am endorsed with them; I’ve always felt that way long before. They are extremely versatile guitars. I can go from metal to jazz to whatever and never feel like “This guitar can’t do it.” If anything, I see how limited I can be as a guitarist because the guitar has eyes that look at me like, “Man, you can’t play reggae?!” (laughs) And to be super-honest, when I saw the picture of Steve Vai holding a JEM on the cover of Guitar World in 1987, that did it. I had to have an Ibanez.
What guitars did you play on Mood Swings?
All 7-string Ibanez guitars: RG7420MC “Pinkie” (because my daughter Emma named it when she was two), Steve Vai Universe, and GRG7221 metallic blue. I also used an Ibanez Soundgear 5-string that I borrowed from my friend Cathy (and now I own it!)
When did you switch to a 7-string and why?
When Steve Vai debuted the Universe in 1989, I ran down to Sam Ash to try one. Of course, I hit the low B and my teeth jumped out of my skull. But I told myself, “You’re not Vai, so put it down!” I heard John Petrucci play one, then Korn, and I was like, “I have to try one again.” It wasn’t until 1999 when I bought a beat-up Ibanez 7 from a girl who dumped her boyfriend and took the guitar back from him (laughs). So, I thought, “Well there’s no turning back now.” I learned how easy it was to adapt from 6 to 7 but standing up to play it was the hardest part. I sat with the guitar for a while, but when I stood up to hit what I thought was the low E string…nope. But it was pretty seamless overall. I love making deep-sounding chords with it, and scales are easier to play on it too. Plus, I felt like I finally had some sort of identity as “the seven-string dude.”
As you progressed over the years, what are some techniques, or practice routines, you’ve incorporated to get to that next level?
I try to absorb what I can. I love reading jazz charts to widen my chordal knowledge. I will never be George Benson, but it’s fun trying. I read articles about what Eric Johnson uses over a vamp, or how Satriani approaches a melody. I am still a student myself—never stop learning. I don’t really practice per se because I’ve been playing as long as I’ve been breathing. If my fingers are warmed up enough, fine with me.
For the song “Medusa’s Heart,” which has a real element of surprise, you mentioned using your signature Slippery Gypsy pedal (Checkered Pedals).
Yes! They are by Checkered Pedals; yeah, they’re in Nashville. I met Rick (Bethune) at Summer NAMM 2015, and he was basically making distortions and overdrives, and I said I have this really crazy idea for a pedal. It was for a chorus phaser dual pedal. He’s going to revamp that now, and my wah pedal. But for Slippery Gypsy, I said, “I want Bootsy-meets-Hendrix in the same pedal. That’s what I’m thinking.” So, I put him to work: one side is the envelope filter, and the other is a Leslie-type effect for the Bootsy side. I kicked it on for the intro to “Medusa,” and I was like, “Oh yeah,”—my theory’s true, you can play the same notes every day, but add an effect, and it’s a whole new guitar!
Who were your favorite guitar players initially?
My first influences were Jimi Hendrix and Ritchie Blackmore. Then I heard Yngwie Malmsteen, Tony MacAlpine, Akira Takasaki of Loudness. I felt like I was in the thick of all these amazing guitarists coming up and the gods were telling me, “play shred!” Of course, I flipped when I heard Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Vernon Reid of Living Colour. On the non-metal side, I dug Andy Summers of the Police, John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, Paco DeLucia, Eliot Fisk. I wanted to be a heavy metal guitarist who played more than metal.
You are also an instructor. How long have you been teaching?
January 2022 will be 26 years.
Is there a particular approach you take while teaching? Do you help students learn their favorite songs or evaluate what level they’re at first, obviously?
Each student is different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Some students are fast with learning; others need a bit more to move ahead. I have had students ask me to show them songs like Nirvana, Ed Sheeran, Queen was big for a while because of the movie in 2018. On occasion, a student will say, “I have to audition for jazz band in school,” and I get in ultra-geek mode.
Are you doing Skype lessons or in person?
I do lessons in-person and have the option of Zoom or Skype for those who live far away. I live in Ramsey, NJ and most of my students are around here, some in Paramus, Lodi, even had a student in Brooklyn doing Zoom lessons.
What do you find the most rewarding about being a guitar and bass instructor?
When a student’s eyes light up like a Christmas tree, it’s the best feeling. My job is hopefully inspiring someone to look at the guitar and think, “I can do it!” And that, to me, is what teaching is all about—when I see the lights in their eyes, whether they’re learning just a simple C chord or they’re learning a Green Day song.
You’re very supportive of fellow musicians. And I have to commend you on being so pro-women in music, too. The industry has changed—hopefully becoming a more universal arena perhaps? What’s your take on things?
Yeah. I think women in music usually tend to get put in certain boxes like, “You can only play folk,” “You can only do the Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez stuff. You can only do the Melissa Etheridge stuff.” But if you’re Jennifer Batten, and you shred on guitar, “How dare you? How could you?” And she toured with Michael Jackson, so that was a double whammy. A lot of males probably sat home going, “That should be me. What makes her better than me, because she’s got funky hair?” And you know what, you can’t hear hair on a record, you can’t see the gender of somebody on a record. I’m talking old school. Now it’s MP3. You don’t hear somebody’s sex on a record. You don’t listen to a record go, “Wow. I could tell that person’s female.”
Exactly, it’s about the music and the player, and in some cases, it’s about stage performance and the whole package.
If you enjoy the music, that’s all that should matter. And unfortunately, the emphasis is on image. I get it, it’s a third of the package. When you say Bootsy, you conjure up a certain image. When you say, Melissa Etheridge, you’re going to conjure up a certain image, but that’s all it is. And I think if you just sit down and listen to the music, regardless of what color somebody is, what gender somebody is, what religion they follow. It’s, do you enjoy the music? And if so, that’s the important thing. I could be wrong; I think some people are more open-minded to that. As far as the whole women and music thing: I’m a hundred percent for it.
Now Tanya O’Callaghan is in Whitesnake, which I think is fantastic. And I’m sure she’s got her share of detractors, and I’m sure she’s got a ton of support. But just because a bass player who happens to be female, now people are going to go, “Hey, she’s “pretty good for a female bass player,” or “I can tell the way she plays.” We all play our instruments differently. And they’ll sit there like, “I should be the bass player for Whitesnake, what the hell?” I think Uriah Duffy, who played with Whitesnake, went on Instagram and flamed all the people that were putting Tanya down. I was like, bravo. That’s freaking beautiful. I’m rambling here, I’m sorry. I had a crumb cake and a coffee, so I’m on fire right now.
No problem! Have another cup.
Back to the Whitesnake thing, this is the first time Whitesnake’s had a female in the band. It’s time to kick down more doors as far as I’m concerned. But I wouldn’t hire somebody that’s, I hope I’m saying this right, if you’re a mediocre musician, but you happen to be female, it’s like you’re fitting the narrative. “Well, it’s “in” to be female, so I’m going to hire you, even though you’re not that good.” I would want somebody who could play, and if you happen to be female, okay, that’s cool. But I’m not going to sit there like, “I can only have female musicians in my band” or whatever, but the thing with Tanya O’Callaghan, she played with Steven Adler at M3. She played with Dee Snider. She’s shown her stripes, but no matter what she does, she’s going to get flack. Because again, it’s a male-dominated industry and, as a male, I can say this, there’s a lot of fragile egos.
Yeah, I’ve heard it all and there’s still problems—probably coming from the more old school thinkers. But Tanya is a fabulous player with a ton of drive. She’s amazing for that gig. Who are some female guitarists you’ve admired over the years? And more recently, whose guitar playing do you enjoy?
Well, you would definitely have to put Jennifer Batten at the top of the list. I think she’s fantastic. Melia (Maccarone) she lives up in Rochester, New York. I’ve seen her play, and we’re both GHS artists. She’s fantastic. Then a bass player I really want everybody talking about is Abby K, that’s her stage name. She’s doing good. She opened for Nita Strauss recently. And as far as other guitar players, Lari Basilio, she’s fantastic. I also saw Yvette Young with Covet when they opened for Steve Vai at the House of Blues. I thought she was terrific. Nili Brosh, obviously just killer, amazing. I watch her videos. And whether she’s doing a Bettencourt thing, or she’s playing one of her own licks, I’m just like, my god, she’s unbelievable. I shouldn’t be near a guitar. And it’s just fantastic. Courtney Cox from The Iron Maidens, I got to meet up with her at the end of last year. She’s a riot. She’s a great player, just so much fun to be around. She’s really cool.
But we all have to mention, Fanny, I think they were the first female band, but there was another one, Ace of Cups. I think Jimi Hendrix even said very nice things about them way, way back. But I’m trying to think of other great guitar players. Gretchen Menn, she’s another one, and Sarah Longfield, she’s very creative. I don’t want to leave anyone out!
As far as acoustic players, there was a woman who used to come into the store I worked at. She’s doing well, Vicki Genfan. And I have to mention a really good friend of mine, Michelle Qureshi. She’s amazing. She plays acoustic. She’s got a harp guitar, and she plays some amazing, inspiring stuff. I tell her every other day, when I possibly can, that when I hear her play, even if it’s a 30-second thing, I’m like, “I wish my fingers could do that.” And she’s an absolute delight. Don’t know if you ever got to interview bass player Nik West?
She has been featured in the magazine. Yeah, Nik West is an awesome, funky player.
Oh, she’s unbelievable. Oh my gosh. I actually jammed with her back in 2015 at this place called Club Bonafide in the city. And she asked me originally, “Do you know “Back in Black” by AC/DC?” On stage, she whispered in my ear, “Do “Kiss” by Prince?” I said, “Yeah,” we did it with no rehearsal. And I’ll tell you that place was floored. It was sick. It was amazing.
Do you have many female students?
I have a lot of female students and again, I hate saying it like that, “female,” but I’ve never looked at them and said, “Oh, cool. I’m teaching a girl.” It’s just like, “Oh cool. I have a new student. Let’s see what happens.” I had one girl I taught a couple years ago, first words out her mouth, “Can you teach me death metal?” I’m like, “All right, let’s do this.” And she was learning Cannibal Corpse and she was learning Slayer and Deicide. I had the best time. She made it fun for me, and it was just such a joy.
I find teaching more rewarding than performing sometimes because as a performer, people stand there with their arms crossed, “Play something. Play something I know.” And I’m like, “Sorry, that’s not me.” Even with the cover band I’m helping out, I just know I play quirky, I know I play different. And as human beings that happen to be musicians, we’re all going to feel things differently. I hope I’m making sense.
Of course, so tell me about the song “Force Quit”?
Yeah, definitely. That’s the one song out of all of them that I get asked about the most, which is great. It’s an odd title, I guess. The title is actually twofold. Obviously, when you need to do a hard reboot on your computer, you have to do a force quit. But back in May of 2019, I just got fed up with everything. I didn’t want to perform anymore. I just stuck to teaching because that’s where my joy is. When I was writing music that became the Mood Swings album, I had these really heavy riffs; or heavy for me. I’m playing them, and I put the riffs together. And I thought about, okay, I forced myself to quit performing, and get away from all the BS, and I thought ‘force quit’—I think the title matches the music because it’s just so angry. It’s probably one of the angriest songs I ever wrote. Yet, now everybody goes, “Man, that’s one of your best songs.” I was like, I need to be angry more often. But that’s where the title came from.
And as far as the music, it was just me. It was purely visceral. Like, okay, just play these riffs, piece them together, whatever happens. And the drummer, Mike, he was like, “Oh, I can rock that.” And he did, he did a fantastic job. So, that’s where it came from.
The solo is fast at times, I hate the word “shredding,” but you shred, then go somewhere else.
No, that’s fine. It’s totally fine by me. But the thing with that solo was, I wanted to play something where I didn’t want to do a typical shred solo. I could have easily, but what I wanted to do was say, “All right, try something a little different. Go in this direction.” And you’ll laugh, I remember listening to jazz players like Scott Henderson. The way he would approach something, with a more thematic thing, instead of just ripping. Like, “Okay, what does he do? I’m going to try that.” It might not be what he does, but it’s going to be me trying to be him. And I’m like, “Okay, now, so I spaced out the shred,” if you want to call it that. So, that’s how I look at it.
For you and your music, what’s the spark or creative catalyst for a song?
Inspiration strikes when I least expect it. I could be going for a walk and a riff hits me. Or I could be in a weird spot like grocery shopping and a tune smacks me upside the head. I try to write things down quickly or rely on my memory. If a riff doesn’t let go of me, then it’s good. If I forget it a day or so later, then it wasn’t meant to be.
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