"The Soundtronic Guitar of Vincent Bell", front cover
Vinnie Bell (born Vincent Gambella, July 28, 1935, New York, United States) is a leading American session guitarist and pioneer of electronic effects in Pop music.
One of the two or three greatest guitar geeks of the Space Age Pop era, Vinnie Bell will go down in musical history as the inventor of the 'water guitar sound' that was a big fad in instrumental recordings during the '60s.
Used most prominently on Ferrante and Teicher's 1969 Top Ten cover of the theme to "Midnight Cowboy", and on his own rendition of the "'Airport' Love Theme" in 1970, the effect became one of the most-copied technique among guitarists until the wah-wah pedal became standard equipment in the '70s. Among the other essential records that feature his trademark sound, we should at least mention Dick Hyman / Mary Mayo's "Moon Gas", released in 1963 and available here on Stereo Candies.
Originally a Brooklyn boy, born just about a mile from Coney Island, Bell started to learn the mandolin when he was four years old according to the old method: solfeggio and a good swat for every mistake. Then, at eight years of age came the switch to guitar, and at the ripe maturity of twelve years the start of his professional career.
His training was informal, but with some good teachers like Tony Mottola and Carmen Mastren. Mottola taught him the basic all-around fundamentals and made him his protégé, while Mastren taught him the rhythm guitar. He also studied under Everett Barksdale and Mickey Baker.
"The Soundtronic Guitar of Vincent Bell", back cover
Bell and effects
«I was always into electronics. I was always making effects pedals that weren't in the vogue. I used to fool with electronics - taking apart old radios, when I was nine years old! I can't count the many times I came close to being electrocuted! But I learned by doing that. I was just always inventing things...»
Long before any company commercially produced guitar effects pedals, Vinnie Bell was tinkering and inventing with his own electronic custom effects pedals for his guitars. He constantly came up with new effects like fuzz distortion and wah-wah pedals, before anyone else had them. This gave him an edge over most other guitarists in the '60s recording world, and producers loved to bring him on their sessions to get his unique guitar effects.
Vincent Bell, 1964
Although the invention of the wah-wah pedal in 1966 is attributed to Bradley J. Plunkett, Bell claims he actually built one in 1954 and used it on recording sessions, as early as 1956: «I came up with what later became known as the 'wah-wah pedal' while experimenting at my workbench with some filter circuits, so I started using it at sessions. No one else had anything like it, of course. I was the only one.»
At the time Bell didn't have enough money to patent his invention. His idea was unprotected and unfortunately he was enough naive and kind to explain how it worked, until he finally discovered that the wah-wah pedal had been made commercially available by someone else...: «Ever since then, I have a policy to never give out information about how my pedals work. In fact, Les Paul went to his grave, still begging me to tell him how my 'water sound' pedal worked!»
Vincent Bell and the Bellzouki, 1965
In Dana Countryman's book about Jean-Jacques Perrey, "Passport To the Future", from which a few of the quotes in this post are taken, Bell describes in detail the moment when the basis of his creation were stolen by a German manager who later sold the idea to a company for $500. Althought there's absolutely no reason to doubt about his words, I believe that we also should take in consideration that, during those years, many engineers were working with electronics to produce new ways to treat sound.
As the early phase of his recording career clearly confirms, Bell was probably one of the first to achieve the wah-wah effect - or even THE first - in the '50s, but, with the technologic advances of the '60, it was just a matter of time before someone else would come up with a similar device... Having said that, we should never forget the fact that professionals are still puzzling over Bell's 'water guitar sound' after almost sixty years. His genius in unquestionable, period.
Bell as a session guitarist
«I'd bring my pedals to sessions, and the producers would go nuts! They always want 'new sounds', whatever that may be. So, by playing these strange effects, I created a market for myself, which is why I'm on so many hit records. The producers knew they could count on me to bring something different to their sessions.»
Bell used to play nightclubs in New York City during the very early '60s, but by 1962 he decided to devote his energies to working solely as a studio musician. Well before that, he was already sitting in as a session player on various recordings, often to take advantage of the unique guitar effects he was known for producing.
Bell was one of the few session men to regularly rate a mention in an album's credits or liner notes, at least when his special effects were a major ingredient. On the other hand, for every credit, there were hundreds of sessions for which his name was never mentioned. For Space Age Pop fans, the sight of Vinnie Bell's name on an album is usually a sure sign of something well worth a listen.
Vincent Bell as he appears on the front cover of his "Big Sixteen Guitar Favorites" album, 1965
His early wah-wah designs can be heard on such rare singles as "Jersey Bounce / Blast Off"" by The Spacemen and "Smoke Rings / Hawaiian Haze" by The Overtones, both released in 1959. More of his signature guitar sounds can also be heard on the track "Barracuda", the instrumental flipside of the "Silently" single by The Gallahads released on Vik the previous year.
Throughout his career, Bell may have played on more hit records than just about any other session musician, as producers counted frequently on him for variety and uncommon tricks. Proof that he knew his stuff, is the huge list of artists who benefited from his work: Louis Armstrong (...the banjo on "Hello Dolly"...), Simon and Garfunkel (...no less than "The Sound of Silence"...), Frank Sinatra (...the theme from "New York, New York"...), The Four Seasons (...their rendition of the classic "I've Got You Under My Skin"...), The Lovin' Spoonful ("You Didn't Have to Be So Nice"), Bobby Darin ("If I Were a Carpenter")...
He added the distinctive 'chk, chk-chk' percussive sound that comes at the end of each phrase on Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By" and also stands out on Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You". An uncomplete list of hits that received Bell's contribution is available on his own website and is no less than impressive!
During the years, Bell has left his indelible mark on many other recordings that were not 'hits' in a strict way, but still they have sedimented in the musical experience of many generations of listeners.. Undoubtedly, Vinnie Bell is part of popular music history, and is surprising to learn how many people - even among those who are strongly interested in music - have never heard his name.
A Danelectro catalogue featuring Vincent Bell on cover, circa 1965-66
Charles Fox leaned heavily on him for his score for the legendary Jane Fonda space sex kitten saga "Barbarella". Even Lester Lanin succumbed to Bell's spell, hiring him and Fox for his album "Narrowing the Generation Gap". Several decades later, his pedalboard tremolo was used to tremendous effect in the bass guitar part that leads off Angelo Badalamenti's atmospheric theme to David Lynch's television series "Twin Peaks", and should I omit to bring to your attention that he also played the mandolin on "The Godfather" soundtrack?
Many times Bell's work has been left uncredited, for example on the two seminal albums "The In Sound from Way Out!" (1966) and "Kaleidoscopic Vibrations" (1967) by Perrey & Kingsley, or even credited to other musicians, for example his lead guitar on Kai Winding's version of "More (Theme From Mondo Cane)" (1963) which was attributed to Kenny Burrell in the liner notes.
These lists could go on forever, as a last trivia I would only like to mention that, in 1993, Bell even managed to be featured on the album "Sound of White Noise" by legendary New York thrashers Anthrax...
Bell and the Electric Sitar
For many years, Vinnie Bell has been a consultant to the Danelectro Corporation, Neptune City, New Jersey, a leading manufacturer of electric guitars and musical instrument amplifiers. One of his earlier contribution was the introduction of the first twelve-string electric guitar, called the Bellzouki, which he developed with Nathan.I. Daniel, president of the company.
Vincent Bell as he appears in an ad for the Danelectro Coral electric sitar, circa 1967-1968
When Bell heard the Indian Sitar for the first time, he recognized the potential of its sound. Althought the Indian instrument is extremely difficult to play, Bell, because of his exceptional ability and talent, was quickly able to master it. Soon he was using it on recording dates and the Sitar Sound became definitely 'In'.
Bell asked himself how could other pop artists learn to use such a difficult instrument. Why not create a new instrument, an Electric Sitar, designed along the lines of the guitar, which could be used on recording sessions and which could be played with the rest of the group, rather than be dubbed in separately, as in the case with the Indian instrument, one that would overcome another weakness of the original, the inability to play chords. Again he collaborated with his friend, Nathan I. Daniel, and after a year of intensive research and development, a new instrument was born in 1967: the Coral Electric Sitar.
Vincent Bell, circa 1967-68
During the same year Decca Records released the aptly titled "Pop Goes the Electric Sitar", an album where Bell applied the various possibilities offered by his freshly invented instrument to recent hits and classics like "Goin' Out of My Head", "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me", "Eleanor Rigby", "Quiet Village" and others.
In that time, Bell played the Coral Electric Sitar on Pop hits like "Green Tambourine" by the The Lemon Pipers, "Band of Gold" by Freda Payne, "She's an Heartbreaker" by Gene Pitney, "Glory Bound" by The Grass Roots and many more.
Vincent Bell as he appears on the back cover of his "Airport Love Theme" album, 1970
«When I recorded my own solo albums in the '60s, I used all kinds of effects that had never been heard before.»
Compared to his career as a session man, Vincent Bell's own output is not plentiful as you could imagine, infact all his solo recordings span a mere eleven years period. From 1960 to 1970 he released eight albums (including a collaborative one) and eleven singles.
In the following brief discography I will try to give an overview of his albums and also mention a few singles that contain exclusive material not available on the LPs. When mono and stereo versions of an album exist, the catalogue number refers to the stereo version, here we go:
|"Lead Guitar / Quicksand", 7"
(Independent Record Company - 102, 1960)
Produced by Monte Bruce, this single was released sometimes in early/mid 1960 by Independent Record Company, a small label distributed by Laurie Records. The single marks the debut of Vincent Bell as a solo artist and is probably one of his most rare releases.
|"The Soundtronic Guitar of Vincent Bell", LP
(Independent Record Company - 8012, 1960)
This album's release date is often wrongly placed in 1959. As a matter of fact, Billboard informed record dealers that such LP had a «limited sales potential» no earlier than November 21, 1960, so I believe that a late 1960 release date is more correct.
|"Whistle Stop", LP
(Verve - V6-8574, February 1964)
This is one of the best works that Bell has ever released, and a real showcase of his array of guitar effects. It was such a departure from its usual jazz fare that the label felt compelled to include a sort of warning in the liner notes which advised listeneres that «this is not a Jazz recording»...
|"51 Greatest Motion Picture Favorites", LP
(MusicVoice - MVS-3009, October 1964)
As per title, this album contains four long medleys of 51 movie themes and is far less daring if compared to the previous release. It seems like Bell has adapted his performance to more traditional schemes, even though every now and then some of his trademark sounds can still be heard.
|"Big Sixteen Guitar Favorites", LP
(Musicor - MS-3047, March 1965)
In this second album on Musicor, Bell returns to explore most of the possibilities offered by his different guitars and effects. This LP was also released in France with a different cover. In 1970, in the wake of the "Airport Love Theme" success, the album was re-released with a new title, "The Best of Vinnie Bell"...
|"Love Is a Guitar", collaborative LP
(ABC-Paramount - ABCS 568, November 1966)
Bell contributes his guitar to this Easy Listening album arranged and conducted by Peter De Angelis, along with other three famous guitarists of Italian descent: Don Arnone, Al Casamenti and Ralph Casale. Althought this is not a solo recording, I believe that it should be included in this discography for completeness.
|"Pop Goes the Electric Sitar", LP
(Decca - DL 74938, October 1967)
Following his invention of the electric sitar and its commercialization, for his first album on Decca Bell applies the possibilities of this newborn instrument on recent hits and various classics. The record was also released in Japan with a different cover and title.
|"A Sinner Kissed an Angel / California Summer", 7"
(Decca - 32418, December 1968)
The track "California Summer" was recorded during the sessions that later produced the "Good Morning Starshine" album, but is exclusive to this 45 rpm release.
|"Ballad of John and Yoko / Les Bicyclettes de Belsize", 7"
(Decca - 732530, August 1969)
"Ballad of John and Yoko" was also recorded during the sessions for "Good Morning Starshine", but wasn't used on the album.
|"Good Morning Starshine", LP
(Decca - DL 75138, September 1969)
For his second album on Decca, Bell offers his classy and imaginative interpretations of various late '60s hits using the usual plethora of effects and tricks. The electric sitar is also present in a few tracks providing an exotic touch.
|"Airport Love Theme", LP
(Decca - DL 75212, May 1970)
Bell's last solo album was also the most successful. Released as a single, the title track climbed all the way to #31 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 1970 and sold more than one million copies, celebrating Bell's trademark 'water guitar sound'.
Despite his ongoing studio work through the '70s and the '80s, I can't help but wondering why Bell didn't release any other record after the success of his own version of the "Airport Love Theme". I'm sure that he had plenty of aces up his sleeve, but anyway...
A closing trivia about Bell's discography: in 1970, riding the wave of the "Airport Love Theme", Musicor not only re-released the album that Bell recorded for them in 1965, but also came up with another album with an almost identical title and a similar cover... This LP included most of the tracks recorded and released in 1965, along with a version of the "Airport Love Theme" performed by another guitarist named Giovanni Matteo...
The cover was clearly arranged to mislead the public into believing that the album contained Bell's hit single, and in my opinion it is very sad to see how those professionals were motivated by fraudolent intentions, shame on them!
Decca took legal action against Musicor in June 1970 and the scam album was probably retired from the market shortly after its release. Nowadays it is uncommon to find copies available for sale.
Vincent Bell and his Danelectro Coral electric sitar, early '70s
"The Soundtronic Guitar of Vincent Bell" contains the following tracks:
01. Sentimental Journey (2:00)
02. The Faint (2:16)
03. Sunny Boy (3:08)
04. Stompin' at the Savoy (4:15)
05. Auburn (2:35)
06. Echoes of Spain (4:25)
07. Caravan (2:29)
08. I'll Remember April (4:27)
09. Travelin' Guitar (2:25)
10. Darn That Dream (4:05)
11. Malaguenia (5:40)
The following bonus tracks are taken from the single released shortly before the album, more information about it are available in this other post:
12. Lead Guitar (1:45)
13. Quicksand (2:17)
All tracks were remastered from October 2016 to March 2017 and are available in FLAC lossless format, along with complete artwork reconstruction and printable PDF files.
Please have a look at the comments for the download link.
Here's the complete credits and personnel list of the album:
Vincent Bell: guitar
Buddy Brower: piano
Joe Andre: bass
Bob Alexander: drums
Notes written by Max Bodden.
Cover designed by Walter Rich.
Produced by Monte Bruce.
Vincent Bell as he appears on the back cover of his debut album, circa 1960
The following is a slightly edited version of the liner notes printed on the back cover of "The Soundtronic Guitar of Vincent Bell":
«Wherever guitarists gather they talk, sooner or later, of the soundtronic guitar of Vincent Bell... and whenever Vincent Bell's group performs in nightclubs or on the concert stage these same musicians, professionals and amateurs, will flock to hear, see and enjoy.
Who then is Vincent Bell, this versatile young man who can capture any mood, any effect, with his almost magical musical mastery?
He was born in New York, in 1935. When he was four years old, Bell started to learn to play the mandolin according to the old method: solfeggio and a good swat for every mistake. Then, at eight years of age came the switch to guitar and at the ripe maturity of twelve years the start of the professional career. Since that time he has recorded with such great names in popular music as Eddie Fisher, Julius La Rosa, Lou Monte, Bob Eberly, The Mary Kaye Trio, Vic Damone and many others. As a matter of fact, whenever an outstanding guitarist is needed for a recording session, Vincent is the first choice.
In addition to his numerous recording sessions, Vincent Bell has found time for personal appearances on radio and television and has performed in most of the better supper-clubs and night-clubs from coast to coast.
In this recording Bell demonstrates his unusual command of the guitar to the fullest. From the explosive brilliance of the flamenco to the glittering technical proficiency of the classics, every number is full of sound, of vital force and imaginative treatment. From the first cut to the last, this magnificent record fairly crackles with excitement, with a range of moods from melodic nostalgia to uncontrollable enthusiam, with a variety of tempos from the fastest, most furious strumming to the softest, dreamiest rhythms.
The soundtronic guitar of Vincent Bell, the fabulous instrument that makes possible this dazzling display of dexterity, is the result of endless electronic experimentation. Countless hours were spent by Vincent and other electronic experts to perfect the special sound projections and effects that make this recording an outstanding audio treat. Not only guitar afficionados, but all those interested in amazingly fine sound reproduction, will appreciate the technical proficiency and unmatched fidelity of this album.
Instrumentalist-arranger Vincent Bell is assisted here by Buddy Brower, piano - Bob Alexander, drums - and Joe Andre, bass. “They work WITH me” says Vincent Bell, “they fit-in completely with whatever I am doing.”
Listen to "The Soundtronic Guitar of Vincent Bell" once... you'll want to listen to it over and over... and you'll be another of the dyed-in-the-wool fans of this "guitarists' guitarist".»
"The Soundtronic Guitar of Vincent Bell" was released by Independent Record Company with catalogue number 8012 sometimes in 1960. The release date of this album is often wrongly placed in 1959 or in the early '60s. As a matter of fact, Billboard informed record dealers that such LP had a «limited sales potential» no earlier than November 21, 1960, so I believe that a late 1960 release date is more correct. Anyway, how cruel is that limited potential thing? Isn't it...?
The album comes in an essential but effective cover designed by Walter Rich which features red and black concentric circles, simple typography and little else. On the back of my copy, the picture portraying Bell is of an awful quality and was reversed for unknown reasons. Two examples of the same cover coming with a better-looking and unreversed picture are available on these websites.
This LP is not an absolute rarity, but among Bell's discography it is surely one of those items that are rarely available for purchase nowadays. Even rarer than the version presented in this post, is the Australian pressing that was released by Top Rank International, you can catch a glimpse of its slightly different front cover here.
Right from the beginning of Side One Bell clearly conveys to the listener the sensation that the guitar they're about to listen will sound different from their previous experiences of the instrument, whatever they are. There's no doubt that the journey in, ehm, "Sentimental Journey" is by rail as Vinnie spends most of his energies reproducing a variety of train sounds. The original composition, featuring the voice of Doris Day, was written in 1944 by Les Brown and Ben Homer, with lyrics by Bud Green, and it stands out as one of the most remembered songs of the late WWII years.
"The Faint" is the first of the four instrumentals written by Bell that are included on the album, and the percussion-lead rhythm makes it one of its most lively tracks. This number was also included as the flipside on the "Caravan" single around the same time that the LP was released.
"Sunny Boy"is a retitled - or mistitled - version of "Sonny Boy", a song written by Ray Henderson, Bud De Sylva, and Lew Brown no earlier than 1928, and first performed by Al Jolson in The Singing Fool movie. The original is almost lost in Bell's version, who turns it in a series of impeccable guitar solos.
"Stompin' at the Savoy" is a Jazz standard composed by Edgar Sampson in 1934 and named after the Savoy Ballroom, a long since defunct ballroom that was located in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. Benny Goodman's 1936 version is probably the most famous. Bell's version retains the original structure and enriches it with his incomparable and infectious verve, great!
Although it doesn't feature exactly the same 'water guitar sound' for which Bell is famous, his self-penned "Auburn" has a sort of underwater feeling to it. Some of the parts of this gentle composition sounds like they were muffled somehow, and the tremolo effects adds character to the general pathos. Guitar is the only instrument that is featured in this track, and there seem to be at least three or four of them overlayed one on another, making this one of the most original numbers on the album.
"Echoes of Spain" brings the first side to an end. Written by Bell, this track is obviously inspired by the Flamenco classics, but also incorporates small parts played on an electric guitar along with the usual Flamenco guitar schemes.
Side Two opens with a superb version of "Caravan", a Jazz standard composed in 1936 by Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol with lyrics by Irving Mills. Bell's rendition is a tour de force where his multilayered guitars take care about all the musical parts which, in this piece, are usually shared by brass and woodwind instruments. Most notably, the piano is completely absent in this recording, and the only other instruments that seems to be featured are contrabass and assorted percussions. This tracks was aptly released as a single, backed with the aforementioned "The Faint".
"I'll Remember April" is another standard written in 1942 by Gene de Paul with lyrics by Don Raye and Patricia Johnston. The first half of the version found on "The Soundtronic Guitar of Vincent Bell" is mostly faithful to the original, but the levels of expression reached by Bell's guitar are sublime as he recreates the original vocal part using a swell pedal or a similar effect. Suddendly the mood changes and Bell embarks on a fast guitar solo as the other members of his small group aptly support him, just before returning to the initial calmness.
"Travelin' Guitar" is the fourth original Bell composition included on the album and its simple structure has a strong Country feeling. It may not be the best track on the record, but nonetheless it serves to balance its contents in an appropriate way.
"Darn That Dream" is a popular song written in 1939 by Jimmy Van Heusen and Eddie DeLange, which was first featured in the Broadway short-lived musical "Swingin' the Dream". This is a very calm peace which is completely built on Bell's multitracked acoustic and electric guitars, except - maybe - for a few bass notes. As usual, his playing is clean and expressive, and small portions of treated sounds are thrown in the mix for good measure.
The album ends with "Malaguenia", a mistitled version of "Malagueña", a piece written in 1928 by famous Cuban composer and pianist Ernesto Lecuona. The song has since become a standard and has been provided with lyrics in several languages. As is proof was needed, this closing number once again demonstrates Bell's technical capabilities and lyricism.
A visitor of this blog was kind enough to share more information about the album in the comments section: it looks like the four instrumentals penned by Vincent Bell, namely "The Faint", "Auburn", "Echoes of Spain" and "Travelin' Guitar", were later included on an album credited to The Platters and The Exotic Guitars. That's weird!
Such album was released by Guest Star in two versions: the first one was released in 1962 and the second appeared no earlier than 1968 with a completely different artwork.
Even weirder is the fact that The Exotic Guitars were usually a vehicle for guitarist Al Casey... Bell's name doesn't appear anywhere on the two records mentioned above: this is just another example of how frequently his work has been concealed for unknown reasons.
The following clips offer a preview of the remastered album: enjoy "Sentimental Journey", "The Faint", "Caravan", "Darn That Dream" and "Malaguenia"!
More information about Vinnie Bell is available here:
If you have other useful information about this post, or if you spot any dead links, please get in touch with me at stereocandies [at] hotmail [dot] com or leave a comment in the box below, thank you!