From assorted groundbreaking bands to his long, prolific and always experimental solo career, Bill Nelson is a guitarist in a category of his own. Douglas Noble applies his analytical skills to a selection of tracks from the classic mid-70s days of Be Bop Deluxe
A prolific writer, an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and one of the most underrated guitarists around, former Be Bop Deluxe mainman and subsequent solo artist Bill Nelson has worked in a dazzling number of different musical genres.
In the early days of Be Bop Deluxe, Nelson played role of ’70s guitar god up to the hilt – right up until the band’s third album, Sunburst Finish. He then took an unexpected left turn away from fretboard heroics for the next album, Drastic Plastic. ‘The guitar started to become more textural – an integral part of the sound rather than being an upfront thing,’ he explained. Years later, he further reassessed the role of the guitar in his music: ‘I think the guitar started to become less important to me in the ’80s with the sudden availability of really good affordable synthesisers,’ he mused. ‘I’ve always loved sound, even with guitars, and keyboards.’
Nelson‘s songwriting influences have developed and expanded over the years. ‘There are so many areas that inspiration can come from, and each lesson or discovery can bleed over into my music. Even esoteric studies – such as the occult, and the Rosicrucian thing I was into for a long time – have helped me understand the way one’s mind works,’ he offered. ‘It’s a matter of freeing yourself from that trap of being on a set of rails going in one direction.’ His mention of Rosicrucian refers to a secret society of mystics who believe in ‘esoteric ancient truths’ which ‘provide insight into nature, the physical universe and the spiritual realm’.
‘At various times in my life I have thought differently; back in the ’60s I used to hate singers on records because you’d have to put up with their whining until you got to the eight bars or whatever where the guitar player did their break,’ Nelson said. ‘That’s what led me to seek out instrumental records, and then jazz, with its acres and acres of intricate and difficult guitar playing. It’s not the guitar player I am now, but I’m glad I went through that “John McLaughlin” phase.’
Nelson‘s songwriting has encompassed so many different styles that it’s difficult to pin him down, so we won’t attempt to summarise any characteristic songwriting traits here – instead, we’ll concentrate on investigating his guitar playing with Be Bop Deluxe. By the way, we’ve looked at Bill’s work in Guitar & Bass before, in Vol 17 No 7, where we transcribed excerpts and arrangements from Axe Victim. Some final words of wisdom from Nelson: ‘You have to be true to yourself and just plough on.’