Playing Guitar for a Pop Star Isn’t as Easy as It May Seem, Nuno Bettencourt Explains

Guitar legend Nuno Bettencourt spoke up on his work with Rihanna, explaining how the gig ended up being way more challenging than it seemed at first. Bettencourt, best known for his work with the hard rock band Extreme, even said that some of his favorite guitar players, despite having great qualities, wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

Speaking to Planet Rock in a recent interview, Nuno reflected on his work with the Barbadian diva. Recalling how he got the chance to play with Rihanna, the guitarist said that, at first, he looked down upon it, thinking that it was a super-easy gig:

“When somebody like Rihanna reaches out to you to perform everybody thinks ‘oh, that’s cute. It’s a pop artist, whatever.'”

RIHANNA & NUNO BETTENCOURT Extreme RockStar 101 at LISBOA Diamonds World Tour 2013 HD

“Let me tell you something, what I had to do night after night… Put on a reggae hat [for one song] with a reggae feel, and go into R&B, then go into some punk rock and pop rock that she did, and then club tracks. All sorts of [things], all those different feels.”

And, as he adds, plenty of the colleagues that he admires wouldn’t be prepared for such a gig:

“I’m sorry, most of the guitar players who I admire could not in their lifetime play that gig. I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.”

Nuno Bettencourt live in Paris (with Rihanna)_20/10/11_part 4

And he gave Guns N’ Roses legend Slash as an example:

“Slash is one of the greatest rock guitar players of all time but I guarantee – and he’d be the first to tell you – that if he jumps up and he’s got play a clean intro to ‘Rude Boy’ from Rihanna, it ain’t happening.”

During the chat, Bettencourt also discussed how playing for Rihanna as one of her backing musicians has opened up a world of possibilities. Particularly, he reflected on the chance that he got to play with none other than The Beatles legend Sir Paul McCartney:

“I feel like I can really jump in and then be ready to play with Paul McCartney on ‘FourFiveSeconds’ at The Grammys and have that moment for me.”

In the end, it all comes down to being open to other styles of music. In other words, going outside of your comfort zone can teach you a lot more than you might think. And, as Nuno explains, this is especially important for musicians. He concluded by adding:

“I believe that if I wasn’t that diverse musically and accept everything I grew up on, there’s no way that I would have been in these rooms. And also being open, being an open musician in the sense of ‘up for anything.'”

Nuno joined Rihanna’s touring band back in 2009. He stayed with he ever since, even appearing on some studio recordings as well. Over the years, he often discussed this common misconception that playing mainstream pop music is a breeze, especially for a guitar player of his caliber. In an interview from earlier this year, he said:

“The hats you have to wear to really make it sound [good]… The musicians that you play with, they’re no fucking joke. These are musicians’ musicians… The greatest players in the world.”

Recalling how he was weirded out that they wanted a guitar player in the first place, he added:

“First I said, ‘Why would you need me? There’s no guitar.’ ‘That’s why we want you to come in.’ ‘So I get to be myself?’ ‘Yes, [bring out] your rig, rock out to great songs like ‘Umbrella’, make them heavy…’ It was amazing. I got to do so much with these tracks.“

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“And when I got in that room, when I was playing with these guys, is they’re not playing it like [it is on] the album. They’re like, ‘Let’s make this thing. Let’s stretch a bit.’ Great keyboard players, great bass player. Everybody was amazing on that tour — background singers and Rihanna.“

Another common misconception about mainstream pop artists is that they cannot really sing and that they’re often relying on digital pitch-altering tools — with Auto-Tune most often addressed as the main culprit — to sound the way they do. When it comes to Rihanna, Nuno cleared things up by saying:

“You know, a lot of people ask, ‘Can she sing?’ Hell yes. She never mimed once live. Productions these days have a lot more auto-tune. And they used it on her, [but she] didn’t need it. It’s more of a sound, like, ‘Oh, let’s tune this girl up. Because this girl can sing for sure.’ I was really impressed.”

Nuno Bettencourt RIPS (Rihanna Tour 2010)

And another thing is the production value that such artists have with their shows. In that same interview, Nuno said:

“Oh, it’s ridiculous. Dancers everywhere, fire everywhere – it’s like a KISS show in a pop world. It was amazing. You get to sit on a pink tank with her, and play a fucking beautiful song. The pink tank was 250,000 bucks for fuck’s sake! Rock guys aren’t going to pay for a pink tank [laughs].”

As far as his parts go, Nuno also said that the hardest part isn’t about the technical skills but rather being flexible:

“People don’t realize that easiness is not a technical thing. Because, technically, [it’s] probably not difficult. But it was almost like a gig I had been training for my whole life, and I could see why they had problems finding somebody.”

Rihanna - Made In America (Full Show)

“I grew up on [those] different genres, different things. And if I hadn’t had all that — Beatles stuff, all the reggae stuff, funk stuff — there was no way I could play this simple shit.”

Photos: SebastyneNet (Guitarist Nuno Bettencourt at South Park Festival in Tampere, Finland, June 2015 photo 02), oouinouin (Rihanna a bercy)


  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor.