Nuno Bettencourt says rock songs are “nursery rhymes for adults” and explains his theory for adding depth to simple arrangements

Nuno Bettencourt
(Image credit: Scott Legato/Getty Images)

Nuno Bettencourt is totally down with the idea that we can intellectualise rock music till the cows come home, but when they do come home and it's time to pick up the electric guitar and write something, it does us all some good to realise that rock operates on the same level as a nursery rhyme.

Speaking to MusicRadar head of the release of Extreme’s first studio album in 15 years, Six, which is out 9 June through earMusic, Bettencourt said that rock bands can have a certain aura or mystique around them, and that’s fine, but there’s a simplicity to writing rock music that goes way back to the fundamentals.

“Everyone likes to think that rock ’n’ roll and rock bands, that we’re so fucking intricate, and we’re so fucking intellectual,” he said. “I’m sorry, we’re writing fucking nursery rhymes for adults at the end of the day. That’s what we are doing. And we all sing along with it, and it’s all anthems. What’s the difference from ‘The wheels on the bus go round and round’ to ‘Oh-woah-oh!’? It’s all the same shit! But it’s just the lyrics and the melodies are just a little more for grown-ups.”

Where he sees the real genius, however, is when you take the simplicity of the nursery rhyme and put something complex inside it. That’s what Queen did. That’s what Led Zeppelin did. That’s how Eddie Van Halen wrote rock music that was instantly accessible but with a playing style that was inventive and tricksy.

“They just got creative, even when they were playing rhythm, and there were sections, and chordal things underneath,” said Bettencourt. “We’re not doing jazz, right? We’re still doing rock ’n’ roll, and it’s still a three-and-a-half-minute song, and songs are supposed to be simple. But there’s nothing wrong with the genius of doing [simple] stuff – the great bands that we love, the Queens of this world, they still wrote simple rock songs but there was a complexity if you wanted to look deeper. 

“There were layers that you could peel back, and things that you could discover. So what I call it is ‘simplexity’, y’know!? [Laughs] But! If you wanna have some poetry, if you wanna have some shit that you want to do on guitar, and you want to go at the borders of this Simple Mountain to this Simplexity world, you can!”

Some of the simple ideas can come from anywhere. We consume pop melodies by osmosis all the time. Bettencourt says he was in tears of laughter when guitarist and YouTuber Mike G from The Art Of Guitar called his attention to a moment in Rise that referenced a melody straight out of Kesha’s catalogue. Bettencourt noticed it immediately. 

“Someone cracked me up the other day, a guitar player was doing one of those things where they break it down and they listen to song, and they react – it’s all these reaction videos now!” said Bettencourt. “I was crying in tears. He was like, ‘The chorus comes in, and where have I heard this before?’ And he cuts to a Kesha song, and she’s doing this yodelling thing! I fell off my fucking seat! He nailed it. It is exactly what it is. Not that I took it from there but, holy fuck, it is a Kesha fucking hook. I couldn’t believe it. It is [all] pop, man.”

The lyrics on Creep blew my head wide open, and it changed my life

Nuno Bettencourt

Also, simple musical ideas – sorry, simplexity – doesn’t need to mean happy. By Bettencourt’s estimating, there is no band that better exemplifies his principles of simplexity than Radiohead. How they manage to engage with complex themes in more simple contexts changed his life.

Radiohead does it as a fucking art form,” he said. “Y’know, they are singing these things, and it’s droney, and it’s nothing complex – it’s not jazz! – but man, there are some lyrics, and some melodies, and there's weird harmonies, and production, and still, okay, we call it alternative because it is a little smarter. I got you. 

“But at the end of the day, come on! They fucking hate the song Creep but that song changed my life because it was the epitome of simplexity. The lyrics on Creep blew my head wide open, and it changed my life.”

Bettencourt has covered Radiohead on a number of occasions. A couple of years ago, he hooked up with Julian Lennon to cover Karma Police, at a time when hooking up with other artists and jamming on tracks remotely was as close as bands could get to touring. And he and Phil X have been known to join forces and jam Creep live.

Extreme will release Six on 9 June through earMusic. The full interview with Nuno Bettencourt, in which he discusses the reaction to that Rise solo, explains why he is till a frustrated drummer, and reveals what everyone gets wrong about the Marshall DSL, is coming soon to MusicRadar. 

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.