With the recent loss of MusicRadar, Total Guitar, Blues Magazine, Classic Rock, Guitar World and Guitarist writer Ed Mitchell, we will be paying tribute to him by publishing some of his guitar interviews, starting with this 2011 story on Extreme's classic ballad, More Than Words. You can check out more of Ed's interviews, reviews and features here.
Power ballad was a derogatory term by the time funk metal band Extreme released More Than Words in 1991. A well deserved pat on the back, then, for guitarist Nuno Bettencourt who dropped the ‘power’ bit and in the process turned a generation of guitarists onto the noble art of fingerpicking on acoustic guitar.
His tasteful playing and harmonised vocals with the band’s singer Gary Cherone helped make this song timeless; it’s tough to nail it to a specific era like you can with '80s stuff like Poison’s Every Rose Has Its Thorn or Skid Row’s I Remember You. The song also picked up some unlikely fans.
“I remember being on a plane and seeing Andrew Stockdale from Wolfmother,” Nuno told Ed Mitchel for Total Guitar in 2011. “I walked over and said, ‘Hey man, I just wanted to introduce myself. I dig your stuff’. He said, ‘I know who you are. More Than Words was the first song I learned to play on guitar’. Everyone has a story about More Than Words. It was their wedding song, or the song they lost their virginity to in the back of a car…
“It wasn’t purposely written,” continues Nuno of the moment that More Than Words first appeared. “I think I was sitting on a porch somewhere. It might have been at Gary’s house. When we were first starting out I was crashing at his place a lot. The song came pretty quick. I was singing and hearing this melody and doing the chord changes. I ran into the house and grabbed a little Fostex four-track recorder and threw the song down as quickly as possible.”
Nuno was obviously intrigued by this quirky little tune that was quickly revealing itself to him, but he wasn’t quite sure what he had yet. “At the time I didn’t know if it was good,” he recalls. “I knew it was interesting and a different sounding song. But it wasn’t like I was sitting there thinking, ‘I just wrote a hit.’
"The melody was dictating where the chords were going. I remember telling Gary, ‘Look, I’ve got something pretty interesting here.’ We quickly attacked it lyrically. It all came together in a half-hour period.”
More Than Words was around when Extreme recorded their self-titled first album in 1989. In retrospect, the fact that it didn’t make it onto that poor-selling debut was a lucky break. By the time they were preparing to record their second release, the breakthrough Pornograffitti in 1990, at Scream Studios in LA with producer Michael Wagener, they were finally convinced they had a potential monster hit on their hands.
The song could have ended up as a big production number, but Nuno’s instinct led him to keep the arrangement simple. “I fought for that,” he says. “In fact, I probably fought myself for that. I think when we were recording it I thought it would get bigger with strings and drums. It was really tempting, trust me. But I think that was probably the best decision I ever made, to keep it as naked as possible. It’s one of those songs that people don’t get too tired of. Maybe the simplicity of it kept it tolerable.”
For Nuno, memories of recording More Than Words are vague over 30 years down the line. “Usually when you remember recording a song it’s because it was a pain in the ass,” he explains. “With More Than Words I don’t really remember recording it. That’s probably because it went down as easy as it sounds.
“I think we did it all live,” he continues before pondering our question about whether or not he used a click track. “I usually use a click because I’m really married to tempo, that’s really important to me. But I probably didn’t on that song. I should put the record on and run a click to it. That would soon let you know if I used a click or not!”
Nuno played a black shallow bodied Washburn Woodstock in the promo video for More Than Words, but not on the recording.
“No, it wasn’t the black one,” he says. “It was an all natural finish Washburn with a fuller body. You can hear on the record that it’s pretty beefy. That guitar is still sitting in one of my relative’s houses somewhere. I keep thinking, ‘I’ve got to find that guitar’.”
The guitar in question was tuned to Eb on the recording. Whether that was by choice or accident has also been lost to the sands of time. “Often when I knew I was going to be playing on my own I wouldn’t even bother tuning up. So that might have been a mistake. Chances are whatever felt good is what I tuned to.”
What is written in stone is that the guitar was mic’d up, not DI’d to the mixing desk. “It was definitely a mic, for sure,” he confirms before adding: “I’ve never recorded an acoustic guitar plugged in. It’s a shame when you do that because it never sounds like an acoustic.”
What continues to makes this track intriguing to successive generations of guitarists is the way Nuno plays it. He has a distinctive style that’s part fingerpicking, part percussion. “Many people have told me through the years that the fact I was tapping the backbeat on the strings gave it a unique feel and made the song a bit more difficult to play,” he says. “I didn’t realise that until they brought it up. That’s just how I always kept rhythm when I played.”