AFTER 20 YEARS OF METICULOUSLY
CRAFTING A MULTI-FACETED CAREER,
BRYAN BELLER IS SUDDENLY EVERYWHERE
| Beller onstage with Dethklok
IT’S 12:30 ON A WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, AND
I’M TALKING TO BRYAN BELLER,
who’s on his way to the helicopter that will take him to
Dethklok show. Klokateers, the
band’s hooded helpers, will be at the door to pass out Dethklok
bartenders will serve drinks
with specially made cocktail napkins. Eight hours later, the band is scheduled
to take the stage, kick ass,
and accept the adulation of the thousands of rabid fans who snapped up tickets
Beller’s got a million things on his mind—there
are albums to mix,
sessions to plan, and tours in the
balance—but his primary job tonight will be to make William
bassist of Dethklok, sound
good to a Comic-Con audience full of hardcore metal fans. And
ever seen Adult Swim’s hit
cartoon series Metalocalypse knows, that’s a
mighty Herculean task.
| Beller’s all-star band also features Griff Peters
(guitar), Mike Keneally (guitar/keys), Rick
Musallam (guitar), and Joe Travers (drums).
Lucky for him, Beller has a skill set heavy enough to inspire a
character: He’s a rocker’s rocker with superhuman chops,
ears of gold, a tone
own, an intense work ethic, and a sense of humor
that just won’t quit. He can groove, he can solo, he
can compose, and he’s ridiculously well organized;
he’s a damn good writer, too. And as popular as the
real Dethklok band has become—Dethalbum I and
Dethalbum II are the highest-charting death metal
albums in the history of the Billboard 200—Dethklok
is just one of Beller’s gigs. If, to paraphrase
that old bumper sticker, the one with the most gigs
wins, 41-year-old Beller just might be the champ.
The New Jersey native’s musical journey began with five
classical piano studies and went
into overdrive after he graduated from Berklee in
1993. Beller’s first gig out of school was with Dweezil
and Ahmet Zappa, which began his affiliation with
the L.A. “chops squad” and introduced him to Zappa
alums such as Steve Vai and Mike Keneally. His next
big adventure was with amp giant SWR, where he
spent eight years working his way up from amp tester
to artist relations guy to, eventually, vice president.
As if a full-time gig and sideman work with MC5
leader Wayne Kramer and Dream Theater singer
James LaBrie weren’t enough, Beller began blogging (a “web
called it then), wrote columns
for Bass Player from 1999 to 2003, and put out
his first solo album, the raw and youthful View, in
2003. But 13 years after he arrived in Los Angeles,
Beller quit it all, fell in love, and moved to Nashville.
He set the journey to music on his second album,
2008’s Thanks in Advance, as well as an
DVD, To Nothing. Snagging choice touring gigs
with Vai and Dethklok kept him busy through 2009.
In the last year, though, Beller’s career seems to
have gone into overdrive. His Wednesday Night Live CD/DVD
finds him joyfully
romping through his songs with an allstar
band of old friends, including Keneally and Berklee cohort Joe
Travers. On his new instructional DVD, Mastering Tone
[Alfred], Beller breaks down those subjects in a way that
only someone with his wide range of experiences can. Live at the
White House [Mermaid Holler] is a snapshot of the house concerts
he does with his R&B-singing, keyboard-playing wife, Kira Small.
The self-titled debut of Brendon Small’s Galaktikon
by the mastermind behind Dethklok, gives Beller a chance to fl ex
his melodic metal chops; he’s been in the Dethklok touring band
for years, but he’ll make his studio debut on the band’s
album. And he’s got the Aristocrats, his virtuosic rock instrumental
trio with drummer Marco Minnemann and guitarist Guthrie
Govan. All that time at SWR hasn’t gone to waste, either: Beller
is a partner in Boing, the Aristocrats’ label, and he runs his own
imprint, Onion Boy.
| The Aristocrats (L–R): Guthrie Govan, Marco Minnemann, Bryan Beller
Clearly, the man has more than his share of chops, focus, and
drive. Which is why, while most of us can barely get to rehearsal
on time, Bryan Beller is landing in a helicopter, bass in hand, and
getting ready to be mobbed.
Where did you develop such a strong work
It’s innate. I’ve been this way since I was a kid. For a
rebelled against it, and it made me miserable; now, I embrace it
as a gift because I love what I do. I love all the aspects of being a
musician—the communication, the organization, the promotion,
the music itself—and I just love working on it all.
Were you this busy at Berklee?
I wasn’t a fl ashy player, and people weren’t asking me to
stuff when I was at Berklee, so I set up my own concerts and
asked people to do my stuff. In order to do that, I had to keep it
organized, because there are so many moving parts. So I started
making lists, which I still do today. Putting something on the list
helps me choose how to focus my energy.
What did you want to do after
| With Kira Small
I was ready to move to New York to be in an original bluesrock
band—this was 1993, the age of the Spin Doctors and stuff
like that. Then I got a call from a drummer friend of mine, Joe
Travers, who was in Dweezil Zappa’s band, and he got me an audition.
When I got the gig, I moved to L.A., and suddenly I was that
guy—the guy playing in the Zappa entourage.
Is there a relationship between landing big gigs and
When you’re auditioning, one of the biggest determining factors
is whether you have the right tone for the gig. Before the
amplifier, before the pedals on the floor, before your strings and the pickups
and the wood in the bass, there are your hands. Your
hands are the ultimate tone-shaping devices, because they’re the
only things that are always there, no matter what gear you use.
What does it take to get gear
First of all, you don’t “get gear
endorsements”—you, as a player,
endorse the company. If you want to know how to be an endorser,
get a gig. The only way that you’ll ever get a deal without a notable
gig is if you’re a freakish technical player. Another point I
make strongly enough: Love the gear first. If you’re looking at a
company because they’re going to publicize you, but you’re
love with the gear, you’re doing it wrong. Get your gear and your
tone straight, get a gig, and then worry about the endorsement.
What led you to use Mike Lull
I was working at SWR in 1999 when he sent in an active Jazzstyle
5-string for our showroom. It was a little more aggressive
in the midrange than what I was used to hearing, but I took it on
a couple gigs with Mike Keneally, and everything I tried with it,
my hands were just like, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” It was the
hadn’t even known I was looking for. Twelve years later, that bass
is still my main instrument.
You’ve taught at Gerald Veasley’s
Bass Bootcamp. What do you
talk about in your clinics?
Younger players are usually more focused on developing
technique instead of groove—but when I teach clinics, I bring
it down to earth. The first time I went, we talked about tone; we
looked at the signal chain, from the beginning to the end. The
second time, I showed students my six steps to learning songs
by ear. I’m not teaching the fireworks in my group instruction.
What’s your method for learning songs by
First, figure out the meter. If you can’t count through it, you
have no business learning what the pitches are. What’s the time
signature? Is it swinging or straight? Then decipher the pitches.
What notes am I trying to hear, what key are we in, is it major or
minor, and how do the notes relate to the key? Then figure out
the rhythm—what’s the groove? What are the accents or
that make it groove? Once you’ve got all that, place it
in harmonic context. What are the chord changes? How do the
meter, pitch, and rhythm fit into the chord changes of the song?
Once you’ve learned the line and you know how it fits into the
chord changes, think about song form. Are you playing a verse, a
chorus, a bridge, or what? And then finally, after all that, figure
out how to execute it on the bass.
Have the requirements for up-and-coming players changed
since you hit the scene?
Not all that much. There’s more technical facility now than
there was ten years ago, and there will be more technical facility ten years
from now. I ask all my students the same
thing when they come through the door: How well
do you know the neck? Most people hang out in
the first five frets, aren’t comfortable on frets six
through ten, but are okay at the 12th fret because
there’s the double dot and it’s the octave. We start
with exercises—I ask them to play a scale starting
with the 1st, 2nd, and 4th fingers, and then I ask
them to name every note in the scale. Then they
move up two frets and do it again.
Do you encourage beginners to practice with a
If I had a student whose time was all over the
place, I might tell them to get a metronome and
play eighth-notes until they feel even, but I recommend
playing with music. My metronome was
John Bonham, and I played with him over and over
again. I never practice with a metronome. It bores
me. I can’t deal.
Do you emphasize theory?
Theory is important. Know the circle of 5ths,
know the keys, know your scales—you don’t even
have to start thinking about modes, just the basic
keys and key signatures. I encourage my students
to know all that stuff and apply it to the instrument as soon as they can. To
learn about tone, play along
with records. For ear training, play along with records.
My practice routine is just four words: Play along
On your DVD, you tell the story of your two auditions
for Steve Vai’s live band, 11 years apart.
For a gig like that, the audition booby trap is
thinking you have to show them that you can do
the gig. But in reality, they won’t hire you unless
you can, right? And there will likely be more than
one person who’s capable of doing so. So the decision
of whether or not you get the job is based on
other factors—appearance, tone, stage presence,
likeability, professionalism. It could be anything.
Being able to do it is a given. It’s easy to forget that.
That’s exactly where I was coming from when I
first auditioned in 1996. In the end, I didn’t get the
gig because there was somebody else who was capable
of playing everything exactly right and who also
had some other “X” factors that were more attractive
Then you auditioned a second time.
Eleven years later, I heard he was auditioning
bass players, so I asked if I could audition. This was
after I had recorded several records with him, gone
to Europe with him, and done a live gig with him
and the Metropole Orchestra. So he knew about my
playing. He said, “I appreciate that and I love the way
you play, but I want to hear what else is out there.” I
maintained my sanity long enough to write him back
and say, “Okay, that’s cool. Just let me know if you
change your mind.” I told him could get to L.A. on
short notice. A few days later, he called and asked
me to be there in two days.
I had 48 hours to learn the audition material,
including a very difficult song called “Freak Show
Excess.” I got most of it, but there were ten seconds
I just couldn’t figure out. I started getting into that
mindset again, wanting to show Steve I could play
anything he threw at me—but thankfully, I was awake
enough to realize that if I wasn’t going to get this
gig because I missed five notes, then so be it. It had
to be about more than that. So I just made up the
hackiest bullshit I could and just ran with it [laughs].
We played “Freak Show Excess” and one other song
and it went fine, and then we jammed for 15 minutes,
and that was great. I just tried to come from a
place where I had no pre-conceived notion of what
I wanted that jam to be. I listened and played from
that space. Three hours later, he called and told me
I had the gig.
What made the difference?
I think maybe Steve had some reservations about
my stage presence and tone. I wasn’t the most naturally
rockin’ guy onstage—Dethklok has really helped
me get more comfortable with that in the last couple years. And I worked on my
tone a lot in those 12
years. But as I said on the DVD, I choose to believe
that it’s because I approached the second audition
from a different mental standpoint. If I didn’t get it,
life would have gone on. As a matter of fact, fast-forward
fi ve years, and Steve’s going on the road right
now with somebody else. Life goes on.
Tell me more about the evolution of your tone
between your auditions.
One thing is that although I don’t play with a pick,
I worked up a technique that simulates the strike
and the chime of a pick. I take my right-hand index
fi nger and wind up, and then I let it fl y across the
string. It helps if it’s a steel string on a bass that’s
designed to be bright, hopefully with a maple fi ngerboard
and an ash body. Then I just let my fi nger
fl y across the string and—chang! Not with my
just the fi ngertip. It will never sound exactly like
a pick, but it’s close enough. If I add a bit of overdrive,
I get even closer.
You’re known for your bright attack, which is
distinctively yours, no matter what gig you’re
Until a few years ago, I was chasing one particular
thing—that bright, slightly aggressive Jazz
Bass sound. If I’d known more, or gone faster on my
tonal journey in my 20s, I might have used different
sounds for different things. But I’m happy with the
way things turned out. The highest possible compliment
is that people recognize my sound, because at
the end of the day, that’s all I’ve got.
Do you go for a darker sound when you play R&B
with Kira Small?
I can roll off the treble on my red Lull, play with
my fingers closer to the string, and do all the right things to make a darker
sound—but no matter
what I do, my hand just doesn’t naturally do dark
sounds very well. There are a lot of R&B bass players
out there who have a natural, bright Jazz Bass
tone, and that’s what I go for.
You do get some warmer tones on The Aristocrats,
I managed to get a dark and chocolaty sound by
getting a Lull P+J 5 that was designed to be darker,
putting nickel strings on it, and then letting them die.
I’m using it more with the Aristocrats now because
honestly, I can play faster on it; there’s less attack
noise, so I can get a little smoother.
You sound like you’re having so much fun in
We get along great, and it’s a real band—I
been in a real band since I was 21! Playing with
Guthrie and Marco is an opportunity to take a lot
of things I’ve learned over the years and apply it at
the highest level possible. There are definitely guys
out there who could play faster or more out than
I do in this trio, but I think the band has just the
right balance of fire and earth. Marco and Guthrie
are incredible musicians, and they really push me.
So you find the gig difficult even after playing
Oh god, yes! The Vai gig is very challenging—
Steve is very particular about what he wants, and
it’s your job to deliver it—but at the end of the day,
there’s not a lot of improvisation. He wants a very
consistent backdrop so he can execute what he’s
executing, so in a two-hour show, there are maybe
15 minutes of improv. With we’ve got form, but
I have to keep my ears open. Marco could do anything
at any time, and you’d better hold on to your
hat, because it gets nuts, fast.
Do you consider yourself a fusion
I lean toward rock fusion, not jazz fusion. Whenever
I’ve had the choice between jazz or rock, I’ve
always gone for rock. When I was four semesters into
my time at Berklee, I could see that the next step
was to learn Charlie Parker solos, and I didn’t want
to do it. I wanted to practice Red Hot Chili Peppers
songs. I was never inspired to pick up a straightahead
jazz record and put it in my CD player.
How does that affect your relationship to
I love drummers who are capable of doing all different
styles, complex rhythms, polyrhythms, odd
time signatures, and all the things that are required
to play the complicated things that I play—but who
are coming from a sense of rock, and for whom the
fountainhead of knowledge is John Bonham. I can
always tell when I’m playing with a jazz guy who’s
playing rock, and I’m like [groans].
How’d you decide to have a drummer-less duo
She got a gig inquiry, and she didn’t want to
bring a band but didn’t want to do it solo, either.
I had been hinting that I wanted to play with her,
but she had been reluctant—we were married, and
you know, the last thing we wanted was for things
to be more complicated. But we decided to try it,
and we had immediate chemistry. I’d been doing
duo stuff with Mike Keneally for clinics, and I had
worked out a way to generate percussion on bass,
adding a lot of hits with my fingers, and I use some
of those techniques—in a much simpler way—with
Kira. We began booking gigs, doing house concerts,
and we did 150 concerts in two and a half years! I
do a couple of my solo pieces, but otherwise it’s all
Kira’s original R&B music, which I love. No one asks
me to play R&B, know what I’m sayin’? And I get to
play the part of the guitar player, too.
Can you imagine perhaps producing artists one
day? What would you like to be doing at say, 70?
Still working, I hope [laughs]. I don’t know if
necessarily want to be a Svengali-type of guy, but
I really enjoy the educational stuff. There could be
a time down the road when I pass on what I know
and make that my calling, which is the highest state
of evolution as a musician, to be a teacher. But I’m
not ready to settle down just yet.
Basses (all by Mike Lull) Modern 5,
P/J 5, T-Bass 4 and 5-strings, fretless
Rigs (all by Gallien-Krueger) Fusion
550, 2001RB, two Neo 4x12 cabs; MB
Fusion and Neo 2x12 cab for small gigs
Strings D’Addario ProSteels (.045–
.130) for fretted basses, D’Addario Half
Rounds (same gauges) on the fretless,
D’Addario ProSteels (.065–.130) for
Dethklok’s C standard tuning
Effects Roland volume pedal, Boss
OC-2 Octave, Xotic Effects Bass BB
Preamp, DigiTech Bass Driver, Electro-
Harmonix Bass MicroSynth, Aphex
Bass Exciter, Retro-Sonic Stereo Cho-
rus, DigiTech Digital Delay, Demeter
Opto-Compulator, Dunlop Bass Wah,
Voodoo Labs Power Plus 2 (or G-Labs
power supply for European tours)
Studio gear ART TubePAC, Dunlop
M-80 bass DI/drive into a Raven Labs
PHA-1 headphone amp into a dbx 163x
compressor; SansAmp PSA-1
Other Patch cables self-built using the
Planet Waves Pedalboard Cable Kit