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Before Clearwater show, Nuno Bettencourt breaks down Generation Axe’s all-star guitar hero lineup

One might think having five lead guitarists swap show-offy solos on the same stage would result in an alpha-male musical disaster. Too many cooks, and all that.

Thankfully, Nuno Bettencourt said it’s not like that at all.

“Most guitar players that I know are f—ing insecure as s—,” the virtuosic Extreme guitarist said by phone recently. “It’s never like showing off. It’s more like, ‘I gotta step up. I gotta make sure I’m the best version of myself. I can’t let myself down. Because if I do that, I’m going to look weak to the crowd.’”

No guitarist wants that, especially on a tour like Generation Axe, which arrives at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Tuesday. The tour unites five renowned guitarists for a night of nonstop riffage: Bettencourt, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Zakk Wylde and Tosin Abasi. They play solo sets, pair up in combos and eventually come together for an all-star finale.

“You can play whatever you want,” Bettencourt said. “You can go up there and hold a note for 20 minutes during your set. Or you can play 3 billion notes during your set. You have a chance here amongst your peers to show the audience that while you’re in between these guys, what do you got? Who are you?”

Bettencourt is best known as the guitarist for ‘80s/’90s rockers Extreme (More than Words), but his nimble, wailing style is widely respected across genres. He’s played with members of Queen, Led Zeppelin and Jane’s Addiction and recorded with Janet Jackson and Joe Jonas. A couple of years ago he toured with Rihanna, and contributed an aching solo to her song Kiss It Better.

Bettencourt is working on Extreme’s first album in 11 years, for which “we have a good 10 to 12 songs that we love, we’re excited about.” he said. “We’re looking pretty good for early next year.”

But first, to get fans ready for Generation Axe, we asked him to break down his fellow guitarists on the bill.

Zakk Wylde

The guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne and Black Label Society is a metal guy, but “he’s also a really tasty guitar player as well,” Bettencourt said. “Zakk brings muscle and intensity. What I mean by that is not even physical. I just mean emotionally. He’s got that fire. And he also brings tradition, I think. He’s the closest one out of everybody that brings that more rock ‘n’ roll blues-based tradition.”

Yngwie Malmsteen

“Everybody knows what Yngwie brings,” Bettencourt said of the Swedish star. “He’s the classical guy. He brings that Paganini, that classical stuff that he does with a hint of (Ritchie) Blackmore. He looks at the guitar like it’s a violin. He treats it that way. It’s very specific to his genre and what he does. And nobody sounds like that. A lot of people have tried. A lot of clones came out. He spawned a lot of different guitar playing. But when Yngwie does that s—, nobody does it like him. Nobody.”

Steve Vai

Vai played with Frank Zappa and stepped into Eddie Van Halen’s shoes as the guitarist for David Lee Roth. Yet Bettencourt said Vai’s style is unique. “He has his own approach, his own language when he plays guitar,” he said. “You know that when you hear Steve Vai — one note, one lick, one whatever — you really know. I’s always going to be very Vai. And it’s not necessarily related to a genre of music. He’s got his own place and his own language that he speaks.”

Tosin Abasi

At 35, the Nigerian-American guitarist for heavy prog act Animals as Leaders is the youngest guitarist on the bill, but also one who’s “raising the bar of technicality,” Bettencourt said. It’s a generational divide that comes across on stage. “He’s got a really abstract and crazy approach,” he said. “A lot of the attraction of progressive rock is, ‘Man, I want to be able to try to play a riff in 7/8 and 5/4.’ We used to think it was complicated doing Yes or Rush. This s—? This is like kids saying, ‘I want to f—ing be an astronaut and play guitar!’ You know the saying, it’s not rocket science? This is rocket science.”

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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