June 2013. By Greg Phillips
Guitar ace Steve Stevens begins a four city guitar synth clinic tour for Roland on March 21, 2013 in Brisbane. He’s back a month later to play for us in Kings of Chaos at the Stone Festival in Sydney. Greg Phillips spoke to Steve prior to the clinic tour.
Billy Idol may have been the star attraction back in the 80s but his guitarist Steve Stevens was always a huge part of the deal. The sneer alone would never have made such an impact on the charts without Stevens’ driving rock riffs and melodic lead licks. The pair recently reunited and are currently working on Idol’s new studio album, his first since 2005. In the meantime, Steve Stevens is heading to Australia twice within the next month or so, first for a series of guitar technology clinics for Roland and then later as part of the Kings of Chaos band, playing at the inaugural Stone festival.
A quick skim of Stevens’ discography will show that he’s a much in demand player, from his own band Atomic Playboys, to working with Michael Jackson on Bad, his prog rock outings with Tony Levin and Terry Bozzio and that award winning theme from the film Top Gun. Plus, there are a hundred other projects in between. Stevens has no real need to practice anymore, he’s playing so often he doesn’t need to. “I still have days where I think I’m total shit,” he laughs as he tells me about the point in his life where he recognised he was onto something with the guitar. “I think it is when you are finally able to play one of your favourite songs,” he remembers. “You learn it and it actually sounds like the artist. You play to your friends and they go, wow it sounds just like the record. That was probably when I was about 13 or so. I’d finally got a guitar and it might have been Stairway to Heaven and I actually learned the solo.”
It is the work with Billy Idol which really cemented Stevens place in the temple of renowned guitar gods. However, it wasn’t only his guitar playing but also Steve’s songwriting and sequencing skills from which Billy reaped rewards, particularly on the Whiplash Smile album. “That was actually a really difficult record because when you work with live drums and live bass, it is easy to marry electric guitar with those elements,” recalls Stevens. “Whiplash Smile was a bit more experimental with drum machines and sequencers and things. I remember spending a lot of time with the guitar tracks trying to work with those elements. Billy and I always laugh now because now we are writing on computers and shifting time and moving notes around. Back then, you had to physically cut and match the tape and it would take hours to do what now takes a couple of minutes.”
Stevens kicks off a four city clinic tour for Roland on March 21st, 2013 in Brisbane but don’t expect an in depth discussion on music theory. “I’m certainly not going to explain to them what a Lydian scale is,” Stevens states. “That’s not what I bring to the table but I know a fair amount about Roland guitar synthesis, especially the V guitar. I have put together some music that I’ll be playing. I’ll also be showing some techniques that have helped me because I get emails from people who have seen my videos, and they’ll go out and buy the stuff I’m using and get frustrated with how thick the manual is and stuff, so hopefully they can take away some important tips about how to make all this stuff work.”
The Roland association goes way back to 1982 when Steve first laid eyes on the prototype model of the GR707 guitar synth. “They took me up to a very secretive room at the Roland corporate office and showed me the GR707, which is that crazy looking guitar with the bar across the top,” he explains. “They showed me all of the sounds which were available. I said I’ll have to take this home with me. They said you cannot, this is not available in the United States yet. I cut them a deal. I said give me this and I will bring it back, we are shooting a video for Flesh for Fantasy. I said I will use that guitar exclusively in the video, so I literally took that guitar back with me. But in the context of the current Billy idol stuff, I am using guitar synths to trigger horns and there’s a bit in the show where I do an unaccompanied semi classical flamenco guitar solo and I use backing strings and some weird synth things. So yeah, I am intrigued by the whole guitar synth thing.”
Live on stage, Stevens uses a bunch of cool Les Paul guitars as well as another prototype instrument, his own signature model Knaggs guitar built by former PRS custom shop luthier Joe Knaggs. He plays through his own signature amplifier. “It is made by the guy who put together my whole system who is Dave Friedman at Rack Systems,” says Steve. “We just launched that amp at NAMM. It’s basically a two channel amp and the clean channel is pretty much a spot on replica of a Fender Twin. It’s super, super clean. The overdrive channel is a version of an old Plexi that I have recorded with since about 1985.”
In regard to strings, Steve likes them slightly played in “There’s that period when you first put strings on where they don’t quite settle in, so I think strings that are a couple of days old are exactly right but after a week or so they won’t hold their tune for me. I endorse Ernie Ball and I have been using these Cobalt strings, which are really good.” When he records his guitars, he sticks to what is tried and true. “I have pretty much got it down to a science of using a Shure 57 and a Royer 121 and that works for me. That has come from a lot of trial and tribulation to settle on that.”
After Steve’s series of Roland clinics, he flies home to begin rehearsals for an upcoming Billy Idol tour, then returns to Australia in mid April with Kings of Chaos to support Van Halen at the Stone Festival in Sydney with a possibility of sideshows. Previously called Rock n’ Roll Allstars, Kings of Chaos includes Joe Elliot (Def Leppard), Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple), Sebastian Bach (Skid Row), Matt Sorum and Duff McKagan (Guns n Roses).