by Lisa Sharken
Steve Stevens carved a name for himself
in the early '80s as guitarist for Billy Idol. Through the
decade, Stevens worked with Idol and contributed to his first
three albums, before setting off on other ventures. As a highly-demanded
guest player, Stevens recorded with major artists such as
Michael Jackson on Bad, Robert Palmer, Thompson Twins,
Ric Ocasek, Vince Neil, and went on to form his own groups,
including the Atomic Playboys, and Bozzio Levin Stevens (with
drummer Terry Bozzio and bassist Tony Levin). In 1999, Steven
released a well-received solo album, Flamenco A Go-Go,.
which spotlights his Flamenco and classical chops and gives
fans a chance to hear another side of his artistry.
Early in the new millennium, Stevens reunited with Idol and
appeared with him on VH1's Storytellers in 2002. Most
recently, Stevens and Idol connected on their first album
together since Whiplash Smile in 1986. Listening to
the new material, it sounds as if little time has passed and
things picked up right where they left off, sporting the same
trademark sound. For Stevens, certain things have changed
in terms of his equipment and his focus as a player, but the
music and the sentiment remain the same.
We caught Stevens shortly before a gig in Oklahoma City.
As a transplanted New Yorker talking to a fellow New Yorker,
we began our conversation with Stevens confessing his undying
passion for the local pizza and his dissatisfaction with most
others. From our own experience and pizza expertise, we both
agreed that there truly is no other acceptable substitute!
Once we settled down from our cuisine snobbery rant, we then
went on to discuss his work on the new Idol disc, Devil's
Playground, and what fun it's been to be touring alongside
his longtime comrade once again.
Hey Steve, next time you're in New York the pizza's on
Guitar.com: Tell us about making this album with Billy.
Was it a familiar process, where things just fall together
instantly? And was there anything different this time around
from working together in the past?
Steve Stevens: I would say that there were things
that were obviously familiar in that we did have the same
team with us as before in Keith Forsey and Brian Reeves -
producer and engineer. The one big difference is that Brian
Tichy, our drummer of about four years, started to contribute
some songwriting ideas. Obviously for me, that was a readjustment,
and I had to evaluate my own ego, and really think about what
is required of me. It was actually really liberating because
for some songs, all I had to think about was the classic Frank
Zappa saying, "Shut up and play your guitar!" Sometimes
when you write stuff, you're not so concerned with the guitar
parts, and you start to get concerned with all these other
things. And it was kind of liberating in a way because there
were things that I had written that I was more involved in
from a production and arrangement standpoint. But there were
also things where I could just play guitar and really get
off on that. When I realized that Jeff Beck didn't write anything
on Blow By Blow, and Robert Fripp didn't write In
The Court Of The Crimson King, then I realized it was
cool to just focus on playing guitar. So it was kind of cool,
and it took the heat off. It also enabled Billy and I to have
someone as a springboard and bounce ideas off of. So it was
different in some respects, and it's also different because
there's no bull**** between Billy and I. We're older and wiser,
and you just cut through that stuff when you don't really
have any pretense. We've been through all that. We've been
through the war, we don't need to be cordial.
Guitar.com: In what ways have your preferences for
Steve Stevens: One big factor is that primarily every
guitar part on the record was recorded with either a
Les Paul or a
Tele. There were absolutely no whammy bar guitars or any
of that kind of silliness. The
Tele I used was custom built by John Suhr. I used about
Les Pauls on the record, and my
Les Paul Junior. I think all the acoustics I played were
Billy's. He's got a
Martin Eric Clapton model that I used which is just stunning.
I brought in a couple of my acoustics, and that thing just
kicked the **** out of my guitars! In addition, we miked it
for a realistic acoustic sound, but I'm not sure exactly which
mic we used.
One of the great things for me now is that I can link up
multiple amplifiers, which is an idea I always wanted to try,
but you'd always have problems with phase cancellation, and
Radial Engineering had given me this unit that's basically
a splitter box, where you have one guitar in and seven outputs
that are totally isolated and transformer isolated. So I got
in every amp I could imagine I was interested in, from my
old Plexi Marshalls to one of the John Suhr OD100s, a Bogner
Uberschall, a hand-built combo amp that I use made by a guy
named Doug Roccaforte, a
Vox AC30, and a few other amps. We just had them all running
at all times. Depending on the track, we chose combinations
of amps and it was really cool for me. It allowed us not to
have to use as many keyboards on the record!
And for playing live, I finally got a master guitar switching
system that I'm happy with. I tried to do that in the early
'80s with the whole Bradshaw thing and I remember having to
fly Bob Bradshaw out to gigs because this thing would go down.
God bless him, he was the only one who could fix it back then.
So now this guy Dave Friedman from Rack Systems, he put together
this system for me. I use a lot of components that hadn't
been used before. The switcher is built by a company in Denmark
named Skrydstrup. I was the first person to get the Axess
Electronics rackmounted switcher. So we tried a lot of things
that hadn't been used before. My one demand was that if any
of this stuff didn't make my rig sound as good as me plugging
straight into the front end of my amp, then I'm not interested
in it. And any time there was anything that added coloration
in my sound, I just eliminated it.
Guitar.com: What type of effects did you have in the
Steve Stevens: I had a **** load of effects and a
lot of them are boutique pedals. I had a hard time finding
a wah that I liked. Then after searching and searching, I
ended up settling on the
Dunlop Dimebag wah. I thought that was the best-sounding
wah. It had the right sound I was looking for. I've also got
Moog Ring Modulator because I always loved the sounds
that Jeff Beck got with a ring modulator, and I never knew
how he did it until I plugged into that pedal. I've got a
Sweet Sound version of the
Uni-Vibe made in Florida by a guy named Bob Sweet. There
Line 6 rack units - a modulation unit and the delay unit.
I use a fuzz box made by a company out of Brooklyn called
Frantone. I also have a clean booster made by a Japanese company.
I need a clean booster because I play with enough front-end
gain. And with this switching system, if I want to switch
to a lead sound, I'll just switch to a different amplifier
because it's got effects switching and amp switching.
So for playing live, I'm using a John Suhr OD100 for my clean
lead sounds, and I'm using a modded
Peavey 5150 for my basic rhythm sound. So rather than
kick in distortion pedals for lead sounds, I just change amps.
Then the next step is to sync everything up through midi.
Our lights and some of our cue changes are on midi, so on
the next leg of our tour, I'm going to do all my program changes
on midi so that I don't have to change anything with my feet.
That should be pretty liberating! Then all I have to worry
about is playing my guitar.
Guitar.com: How different is your stage rig from the
gear you used in the studio?
Steve Stevens: Basically, it's the same stuff, although
in the studio, sometimes we would combine three different
amps. I'm using some of the same amps, but I'm switching between
them. I'm not using them all at the same time as I did on
the recording. On the road, I have a couple of 5150s and the
John Suhr OD100. We've got some backups, but I have four that
are main amps, and I use an H&H power amp in a wet/dry
kind of system. The wet/dry set up just always worked for
me and I've been using that for the last 12 years or so. I've
tried to get away from it, but I just really like having control
over when I switch to a solo, having effects on the left and
right, and echoes and things happening. It makes my soundman's
job a lot easier. I play through
Marshall 4x12 cabinets with
Celestion Vintage 30s in them.
We've been experimenting with different mics on the speakers.
We tried some
Sennheisers, and I keep going to
Shure 57sA. During every soundcheck, I'll go out into
the house and listen to my guitar. We'll try a new mic up
there, and then we'll switch to the
57, and invariably, I always end up with the
57. I tend to mic the speaker slightly off axis of the
cone, but pretty close to the cone. I don't have an incredible
amount of treble in my sound. I like to keep it set with more
high-mids and lower-bottom. In the '80s, I used Plexis which
were just bright as hell, and it was always very hard to try
to get any kind of mids and lower bottom. They're very clanky
and bright, and onstage that stuff just goes right through
Guitar.com: Which guitars do you have out on tour?
Steve Stevens: I've got three late-'80s
Les Paul Standards - one black and one white. Both have
been fitted with
Seymour Duncan Custom Customs, which is now my favorite
pickup. I used to use JBs, but I've gravitated towards the
Custom Customs because of the Alnico magnets on them. I also
have a Les Paul TV Junior that has a Duncan P-90 in it. I
do a bit of Flamenco guitar solo during the show, so I have
Godin nylon-string acoustic/electric which also has the
synth capabilities, and I'm using a
Roland guitar synth with that. I also have
Godin LGXT. That guitar does everything. It has two humbuckers
in it, and it has a piezo pickup in the bridge which also
Roland synth. For me, in things like "Flesh For Fantasy,"
I'm able to do all the horn parts on it at the same time.
It's pretty cool.
Guitar.com: Do you cover a lot of the keyboard parts
Steve Stevens: Just that aspect. During my solo, I
do some synth stuff behind my solo when I'm playing unaccompanied.
I'm sure the audience thinks it's keyboards behind me! I just
like having the control over it.
Guitar.com: Which guitar did you use to record all
the country riffs on "Lady Do Or Die"?
Steve Stevens: That's all the John Suhr Tele. I'm
not taking that guitar on the road because we're not doing
that song in the set.
Guitar.com: How are your guitars set up?
Steve Stevens: I use
Ernie Ball .010-.052 strings, which is a hybrid set. I've
had jumbo frets put on most of my guitars, so I like the action
set kind of high. A lot of people that have played my guitars
are really uncomfortable with them. I play occasionally with
an all-star cover band called Camp Freddy, which is Dave Navarro,
Billy Morrison, Jerry Cantrell and Billy Duffy from the Cult.
And Dave Navarro went to use one of my guitars and when he
picked it up, he said, "I'm not playing on this thing!"
I kind of felt good about that!
Guitar.com: What type of picks do you prefer?
Steve Stevens: I use the green
Dunlop .88 mm Tortex picks. It's not a medium and it's
just kind of below a heavy. It's a great pick.
Guitar.com: Do you tune to standard pitch or tune
down at all?
Steve Stevens: Most everything we play is in standard
tuning, but there are couple of songs that we do where the
low E is dropped down to a D. Two sings off the record, "Body
Snatcher" and "Rat Race," both use dropped-D
tuning. I wish we could tune down a half-step because I really
like the way that it sounds, but we have so much older material
that just wouldn't sound right with that tuning. I've tried
doing stuff with Billy in the lower tuning, and it just doesn't
sound right. It's not a Billy Idol thing.
Guitar.com: Did you experiment with any new or unusual
gear while recording?
Steve Stevens: The one amazingly cool box that I got
is the TZF flanger built by Dave Fox at Foxrox Electronics,
the guy who makes the Captain Coconut pedal. This flanger
is unbelievable! The thing about it is that you can't put
it in front of an amp. It has to be in the effects loop. But
it seriously sounds like tape flanging. It's totally got that
Robin Trower, Brian May "Keep Yourself Alive" kind
of sound., I got the majority of pedals through an online
store called Music Toys. They have a policy where you can
try stuff and if you're not happy with it, you can send it
back. So for the last year and a half, I just ordered stuff.
That's a dangerous weapon! I'd go on there at night, read
up on stuff and listen to their sounds files, and just order
things. That flanger is just amazing! I think they ended up
using it in the studio on more than just my guitar. They used
it on some drum stuff. I also got the Moog Murf pedal, which
is the sequenced filter pedal, and that's pretty amazing on
guitar. Certain effects, you know you can't put in front of
the amp, and it's one of those that you have to put in the
effects loop on your amp.
Guitar.com: Out of everything you've recently acquired,
which piece is the coolest?
Steve Stevens: To be honest, I was pretty knocked
out with that Bogner Uberschall for certain things. I haven't
taken it on the road with me, but all those heavy guitars
in "Rat Race" were done with the Uberschall. That
thing has got so much bottom, and it's very clear bottom.
It's not muddy at all. I was really knocked out with that
amp and also the John Suhr OD100. It absolutely has the best
clean guitar sound I've ever heard, with gobs of headroom.
And being able to switch to that kind of clean sound live,
it's what I always wanted. I always imagined that I'd have
an amp that would replicate things like "Flesh For Fantasy"
live, with that super clean, beautiful sound. It makes my
Les Paul sound like a Strat. It's chimey and really amazing.
Guitar.com: Since you're using so many different amps
while tracking, do you need to work in the control room?
Steve Stevens: I would say that 90 percent of the
guitar stuff was recorded in the control room, but I did start
missing some of that feedback. So what we did was we set up
a little amp in the control room with a volume pedal on it.
I think it was a
Fender Champ that belongs to our producer, Keith Forsey.
Any time I needed to have some feedback, it as literally aimed
right at my guitar pickup. I used it for things like the beginning
of "Scream," or anything with feedback. I would
just step on the volume pedal and get feedback going. I think
I read something about how Slash did that because you definitely
do have a different feeling playing in the control room. There's
something to be said about that direct connection between
your pickup and your speaker cabinet. But at the same time,
having to play to a track through headphones is not great.
You feel more connected to the music when you're in the control
room, but you feel more connected to your amp when you're
next to it, so there was that trade off.
Guitar.com: Which track on the record stands out as
a favorite? Which one best illustrates your playing?
Steve Stevens: On this record, I would say "Rat
Race," even though there's not a guitar solo on it. But
as a piece of music, and as a progression of what Billy and
I are capable of doing, I would say that. I was just really
happy with the way that turned out. At one point we were thinking
of putting a solo on it, but I just thought the song stood
on its own. It doesn't need a guitar solo. My two favorite
tracks are "Rat Race," which I co-wrote, and "Body
Snatcher," which I didn't write, but I love. It's great
to play. Our drummer, Brian Tichy, wrote it with Billy. Brian
has his own band and he plays guitar and sings in it, and
he's a great guitar player. When I heard the demo for that
I thought, "Man, I can't wait to play this!"
Guitar.com: How does working in the studio compare
to playing live? What is it that you like and dislike about
Steve Stevens: Playing live is just a pure adrenaline
rush. It's a totally different thing. And being onstage with
Billy, it's such a different feeling working with someone
you have a history with and can tell the audience knows that.
Our relationship as a team has probably outlasted most peoples'
marriages and they really look to us as a little piece of
their life. It's a comfort thing for them to see us up there
together. Another thing is that we genuinely like each other!
We stayed in contact when I had left after Whiplash Smile,
and there really wasn't any animosity. I was surprised whenever
anyone would write that there was, because it just wasn't
true. But being onstage and playing some of these songs together,
like every time we play "Eyes Without A Face," the
hair on my neck stands up. I've played with a number of artists,
and I just don't get that feeling with them. So that's what
it's about live. In the studio, it's a tough process, and
I used to feel really guilty because I wouldn't listen to
records after I had finished recording them. With all the
attention to detail that I go through when doing a record,
by the time I'm done with it, I have to take like a six-month
break from it. I once read an interview with Robert DeNiro
and he was saying that he can't watch his films. I understood
why and I know that I'm not so weird.
Guitar.com: What do you listen to for enjoyment and
inspiration? What would we find in your CD player this week?
Steve Stevens: Well, it would be an
iPod now! Let's see... With so many remastered records
being available, I find that I go and buy back catalogs. I've
been going through a real Robin Trower phase, and I'll listen
to anything by Jeff Beck, new or old. I like Beck's You
Had It Coming, particularly a song on there he did called
"Nadia." It's an Indian piece and it's just breathtaking.
I had gone to England about two and a half years ago to go
work with Juno Reactor, which is a friend of mine named Ben
Watkins, and he turned me onto a lot of big beat stuff like
Propellerheads and Chemical Brothers. It was not so much Fatboy
Slim, but all this kind of - I hate to say - "techno
electronica." But at the time it was being called "big
beat." I just really got into playing guitar stuff over
that, and it's exactly what Jeff Beck has been doing. I think
maybe it's the spontaneity factor. I love the kind of repetition
loops that that Jeff has going on in his newer stuff. I just
wish that when he got to a solo, he would make that the one
real thing and make it really stand out. People don't want
to be fooled into thinking things were manipulated too much.
There's so much fakeness in music, and I think that's a valid
reason why fans would kind of be turned off to some of his
newer, more techno stuff. I'm not in any way knocking Jeff
Beck. I mean, you go see him live and he's so amazingly brilliant.
It's great that he can play with all those loops under him,
but on the album, they really should keep his main guitar
track as a very live element.
I recently got into this Icelandic band Sigur R�s. A friend
of mine turned me onto them and I went to see them live and
they were just incredible. I thought they were absolutely
amazing. The guitar player plays almost the entire show with
a violin bow on his guitar, but I guarantee you, it's nothing
like Jimmy Page. I had read recently a biography of King Crimson,
so I wanted to go back to all the King Crimson stuff and listen
to that after having read these stories about how these songs
came about, and different incarnations of the band. I've always
loved Robert Fripp, and he was the one kind of prog-rock guitar
player that wasn't afraid to move to New York and kind of
embrace the New York new wave scene, and not see it as a total
threat to his career, where all so many other bands, punk
rock was really the nail in the coffin for them, and rightly
Guitar.com: What advice would you offer to other players
on developing their own style?
Steve Stevens: Listen to instruments outside of the
one you play. If you're a guitarist, listen to Miles David
and John Coltrane. For me, a lot of learning my own guitar
style came from listening to a band that Billy had turned
me onto called Suicide - Alan Vega and Marty Rev, which was
a duo from New York of just keyboard and voice. And through
listening to them, that's how I stumbled upon those kind of
guitar figures in "White Wedding" and "Rebel
Yell," which kind of go across the bass line and the
chord changes. That was something I got directly from Suicide
- the moving bass on those songs. Marty Rev moved the bass
lines around on the keyboard while he had a stagnant chord
figure on his right hand. Then I also listened to people like
Allan Holdsworth. Phrasing-wise, he sounded more like sax
players than guitar players. Phrasing is so important. One
aspect for me that's become a lot more important and something
that I practice a lot now is really wide vibrato and making
the most out of the least amount of notes.
Guitar.com: Which artists have been most influential
to you as a player?
Steve Stevens: I go through so many. At one point
or another I would just immerse myself into different players
for a couple of months at a time, either someone really rudimentary,
like Chuck Berry, or someone like Albert King, John McLaughlin
or Paco de Lucia. I wouldn't really try to play like those
people, I would just get into what they were doing. I also
went through an Adrian Belew phase and really got into his
stuff. I've been playing guitar for a long time, so I just
go through phases of listening to different people. But obviously
for me, from the standpoint of writing, production, and guitar
playing, the monument is still a Led Zeppelin record. You
can't get away from the fact that Jimmy Page wrote every great
guitar riff in the book. Those records are so well produced
and their use of color was just awesome. I really love that
Zeppelin DVD that came out last year. It's amazing to watch,
especially all the really early stuff he played on his Tele.