George Bellas Interview
Berklee School of Music
by Ivan Chopik, Editor in Chief / 2006
Thanks for checking out my column, “Talk with the Guitar Masters.” This issue features the guitar virtuoso George Bellas. George is one of the leaders of the current neoclassical scene, with three solo albums released and a style that combines some of the scariest technique out there with very intricate compositions to create truly unique music. Check out www.georgebellas.com for news on his upcoming two records, which will be released later this year.
How did you get started with playing guitar and studying music in general?
I was 7 years old when I started playing guitar. And ever since I was really young, I remember my parents playing Frank Zappa records and myself always having an affection for music. I have a brother and a sister, and one day, our father took us to the shopping mall and I asked if I could browse the music section of the store. This music section had some guitars, just really cheap orchestral instruments. I took one down from the display and I fell in love with it instantly. My father bought the guitar and my sister got a flute that day. All the way home I was plucking the strings of that guitar and making a whole bunch of noise in the car. There was really no person that made me think, ‘Wow, I want to play guitar.’ Many people have said, "The day I heard such and such play I wanted to play." Not me, I just had this burning inner desire and love for the instrument. I really don’t know why, but I had an instant passion for it. I got home with my new guitar and I never put it down.
What kind of other influences did you have early on?
As we all do, I went through phases. A lot of guys are shocked when I mention Robin Trower’s name. I was never a big Hendrix fan. I sort of got my bluesy-rock fix through Trower. There was a couple years in my youth where Robin was all I would listen to, these long extended blue- sy-rock solos. He was one guy, Nugent was another. His guitar solos and just how rowdy he was (and we’re talking really old Nugent). And then of course Schenker. ... I remember back in 6th or 7th grade hearing ‘Strangers in the Night’ for the first time, I just stared at my speakers, mesmerized, listening to those solos. Kiss was another band that I liked. With all due respect to them, we’re not talking high caliber musicianship, but just great aggressive rock tunes. So I listened to that stuff and got really energized and inspired. And then later on I got into the theory of it all. I became very disciplined in my studies and later expanded some more into, I don’t want to say serious music, but classical music and stuff like that; classical and jazz music. But I got extremely energized by a lot of the rock stuff.
And as far as your composition style is concerned, where do you draw inspiration from?
Probably my biggest source of inspiration is not any music source. If I wasn’t a musician and totally into creative writing, I probably would have done something in the sciences. I really love astronomy, astrophysics, and math. Carl Sagan was a tremendous influence on me; truly mind-expanding. That stuff inspired me in such an incredible way, significantly more than any other artist ever has. It made me try to expand, to go far beyond the mediocre and ordinary.
You have an incredible technique and a unique feel to your playing. How did you go about developing this?
Well, thank you very much. I appreciate that compliment. ...The technique, I’m assuming you’re talking about physical technique, which a lot of people are so obsessed with these days, in turn they actually lack composition techniques and other mental techniques, but by all means I understand your question. The physical side of it, yes I did spend a lot of time. People think I was exaggerating... when I mentioned there was a period where I played for 18 hours a day. I would do this for days in a row, then just burn out for a day and kind of catch up with my sleep and then do it again for the next few days. My dad thought I was nuts, but he was very supportive. So I spent a lot of time practicing, very disciplined practice, not sitting in front of the TV and just kind of noodling, but sitting down with the metronome for intense practice. And I also spent years playing this old Fender acoustic that I had 13 gauge strings on. I played this acoustic guitar for years and my fingertips were like black. People would come over and be sort of frightened by my fingertips, because I used phosphor bronze strings, so my fingertips would turn green a little bit. I actually got carpal tunnel syndrome. I could play fine, and I never had surgery, but I did have cortisone injections and wore a wrist brace. I tried to balance my playing with my composition activities.
18 hours a day - that’s quite a while! What kind of practice sessions did you have? You mentioned that they were very organized. How did you divide them up?
Some of them were, and sometimes I would just go with my gut instinct, regarding what I was going to be working on. There was never really a period where I would... maybe there was actually, where I had such a steady regime, where it’s like ‘OK, I'm gonna wake up 8 o’clock, sight- read from 8:30 to 9:30, then improvise from such and such....’ But when I learned a new technique or I was working on something, I would practice that to the bone until I got it. So if there was something that was giving me troubles, like 8-finger technique or something, I’d just work on it until I got it really comfortably. There were periods where I did break it up, where I worked on my sight-reading, my ear training, and composition skills, too. I spent a lot of time actually studying and writing, as well as playing.
Have you received any formal music education?
Yes, but I cannot attribute my knowledge and abilities to any institution; those were acquired and continue to be developed through my own passionate pursuit of lifelong learning and perpetual personal growth. During my first experiences at school as a young child, I got in trouble for insisting to write in cursive when everyone else was just learning how to print, and for incessantly asking thought-provoking questions that didn't pertain to the teacher's agenda (questions about the universe and the origin of homo sapiens, etc.). During that time my parents had my IQ tested. After which, they considered placing me in a private school for the gifted, but my father decided against it. I struggled in public schools where everyone was forced to learn the same material and at the same pace in a group environment and take the same standardized tests. I didn't like that methodology. I yearned for creative enrichment and encouragement of independent thinking.
My favorite way to learn is through interactive learning (not rote learning as forcefully taught in public schools) and at my own pace and totally alone. I wanted to focus on and learn all about what I loved while being exploratory and intensely creative. So, I started studying classical composition principles and techniques when I was in grade school and worked feverishly through Harvard University's course books, amongst others. I studied harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, and form extensively, alongside astrophysics.
I had a few private guitar lessons in third grade when I first got my guitar. The teacher showed me how to tune the guitar and went through the first few pages of a Mel Bay book, you know, that kind of mundane pedagogy, and I just ran with it after that. It might have been easier to have somebody to study with and to be able to ask questions. But, I did it the hard way, which, in retrospect, was the ideal and most effective way for me to learn.
For me, the entire human experience –– not just twenty-six years of it –– is about learning, exploring, discovering, and constantly striving. There is a balance that I have always maintained between the learning zone and performance zone. The learning zone is where I maximize my potential by researching, exploring, discovering, and further developing my abilities while making mistakes and refining those abilities. The performance zone is where I put those abilities to use while making an effort to minimize mistakes and simultaneously push myself to achieve an exceptionally high performance level.
Astonishingly, I see much of society stop the learning process after they exit the campus and enter into the real world. That certificate of degree is their entranceway into the workforce, and also, to me, bewilderingly, the cap of their education. After graduation and finding a job, one that they can do adequately, they maintain that level of adequate performance throughout their life without any pursuit of personal growth. As an example: doing a particular job for thirty years doesn't necessarily equate to thirty years experience, rather it can result in one year experience repeated thirty times at the same 'good enough' adequate level if one doesn't strive for ongoing growth. No matter who you are or your current level of skill, there will always be room for learning and growth.
Never stop striving to further develop your abilities while simultaneously expanding your skill set with ongoing research and deliberate training.
I know you devote a great deal of time to your work, but what kinds of things do you like to do aside from music? You mentioned science as being one of them.
Science is cool, absolutely, very fascinating to me. Besides music, I love just being outside and basking in the beauty of nature, riding mountain bikes, hiking, etc.. I also like the simple things in life. I love my dogs. I’ve got a couple pets and I love them to death. I love a cool movie, just like the next person. I’m also a big technological geek. I like writing code. I learned C, C+, and some other programming languages, basically to help my students. I devised this 12 CD-Rom instructional series. I learned some coding techniques, but that is purely a hobby of mine, really for my students to benefit from. I created ear training software and other other music-related softwares. During my coding ventures, I discovered that programming, the fine detail of it, is very much like writing a dense symphony.
What kind of music do you listen to nowadays? Are there any guitarists out there whose work you particularly enjoy?
In these past couple of years, as much as I love music, I really have isolated myself. Sometimes when I’m writing and in the process of producing an album, which I am currently in the process of working on two, I shut myself out from everybody. I listen to a lot of classical music when I do listen to music. But there’s a lot of great players out there.
You mentioned you have two new albums coming out this year. How do these upcoming albums differ from your previous releases?
I don’t want to reveal too much right now, but one of the records, ‘Flying Through Infinity,’ is gonna be purely a vocal band. It’s a lot of progressive material in combination with some neoclassical stuff, some double-bass tunes. I really like to explore odd meters and different progressions that really haven’t been utilized too much.
Do you have any other plans for 2006?
After these two records are done, I’ve got a whole DVD [instructional] series all planned and it’s partially done. But I put those on hold, because I kind of got burned out after I did the CD-ROM and went into the separate subjects. It took a lot of time. It wasn’t a million dollar bud- get thing or anything, but it took a lot of time and the content is pretty cool, but the DVD’s I want to be just spectacular. I want people to be able to put them in their TV and watch them in High Definition. But I’ve got to get these records done first.
Let’s talk a little bit about your gear on the new albums. Could you tell us about your guitars, amps, effects, etc.?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m a pretty big Gibson and Fender guy. Two years ago I came across this awesome Gold-top [Gibson] Les Paul that I just fell in love with. I was never a big Paul guy, but I fell in love with this thing and this guitar is all over these two records. And of course, my [Fender] Strats. My old workhorse, my favorite red Stratocaster amongst the others I use and I’m also a big fan of the [Gibson] Flying V’s, which I actually grew up with. I don’t play them too much anymore. When I was a kid, I was like ‘man I can’t play a Strat, everybody plays a Strat. I wanna be different, have a V and the Explorer.’ But I tried to toggle the switches for my V’s to try to mimic that Strat single-coil sound and it kind of worked, but not really. So it was later in life that I switched over to Strats. I just gave in. A friend of mine lent me a Strat and it was all over. I went out and bought ten of them. As far as amps, I’m a big Marshall guy. I particularly love the JCM900 series, specifically the 4100 series. These Marshalls are really funny things. Even the same models sound dif- ferent depending upon what transformer they had lying around in the factory that day. They all really have their individual tones. But I like the JCM900’s along with the old, early 70’s Mark II, which are great. That’s it as far as the amps go. Not much effects in between my guitar and the amp. I just use one Tubescreamer, the old original green Ibanez one.
Do you have a certain preference for pickups, picks, and things like that?
I don’t use picks, I play all my guitar with my toes (laughs). Guess that would be something, huh? But in all seriousness, I use these Dunlop picks, little Jazz III’s, the black ones and I’ve been on this phase for maybe the past 6 or 7 years. Before that I used to use the purple Tortex picks, the Dunlops. I use Dean Markley strings, [gauge] .10 - .46 on the electrics and .13- .56 on the acoustic, although I’ve taken it easy the past decade on the 13 gauge strings. They were killer. And I’m not talking about just strumming simple chords and stuff on the acoustic with them, I’m talking about really laying into it and practicing your leads and arpeggios...
And I hear you have some pretty high action set up on your guitars?
Yeah, relatively high. I just really like being able to get underneath the string a little bit. ... if the action is too low for me, the strings can kind of slip out from your fingers if your bending a note. A lot of players feel you can play faster with lower action, but the speed issue is never a concern of mine. I never tried to play fast. I’ve always just practiced a whole lot with the metronome. A little bit of high action never hurt anybody.
Is there any advice you can give to aspiring musicians here at Berklee?
Number one is: practice and practice very hard and stay focused. I see a lot of people that think they may be practicing deliberately and with discipline, but they really could be more deliberate and disciplined. Perhaps you’re sitting in front of a TV and you have your guitar in your hand, although you you're playing a little bit, it’s not deliberate and definitely not intense practice. You want to be laser-focused and break a sweat; really put your very all into it. Practice with great intensity and do it consistently. Not a couple of hours one day, and then skip a few days and then try to catch up, but consistently on a daily basis. That advice is from my personal experience. I will never quit learning and refining. Practice and study as much as possible. Some instrumentalist's may become overly focused on the physical techniques of their instrument and overlook the compositional aspects. I understand that not everybody wants to write music, some people may just want to play guitar, improvise, and play other people’s music, and that’s of course fine. However, for those that really do want to write their own music, make sure you spend time studying counterpoint, harmony, and classical scores to see how masters of yesteryear have composed using the techniques you've learned. My main point would be to practice deliberately and with great discipline while balancing that with your exploratory studies and creative composition skills.