By Andrew Bansal
Los Angeles-based guitarist Steve Stevens has enjoyed a prolific, multi-faceted 35-year career in rock ‘n roll thus far, and is still going as strong as ever with no sign of stopping. Known primarily as guitarist for Billy Idol, Stevens has also collaborated with musicians such as Vince Neil, Slash, Sebastian Bach and several others. Currently he’s getting ready to go on another huge Billy Idol tour, but before doing so he took part in Franky Perez’ monthly residency show at the Viper Room as a guest guitarist on Friday March 28th, and before the show I sat down with him over a cup of coffee for a detailed interview to discuss his current musical endeavors, the Sunset Strip, his gear setup, his beginnings as a guitar and his love for the acoustic guitar, impromptu jams, his take on rock vs metal, and a few other topics. Enjoy the insightful conversation below, along with a couple of live videos from the Viper Room. (Photos and videos by Joe Dolan)
Steve, it’s great to have you on Metal Assault. First of all, what brings you to the Viper Room tonight?
I’m guesting with Franky Perez who’s a fucking phenomenal singer, and I’ve known Franky for almost ten years now. He guest sings with Camp Freddy who’re now called Royal Machines. But that’s when I first met Franky and we’ve done tons of shows together. He’s been doing a monthly residency at the Viper Room and asked me if I’d come down and guest, and here I am!
Is this monthly residency going to continue for a while?
Actually this may be the last Viper Room show for a while, at least for me, because I head into rehearsals for the Billy Idol tour.
Cool, so as you were saying before the interview, this is home for you and you live around the corner. What do you love most about playing the Sunset Strip?
I moved to Los Angeles 16 years ago and I’ve always lived right off Sunset. I’m from New York and pretty much grew up there. But here I like the fact that I can leave my place, have dinner, walk around and go see my friends. There’s a lot of musician friends of mine that live in this area, there’s an awesome book store here as well, and I just like a sense of being able to walk around a little bit.
Right, it’s like a little isolated rock town in LA.
Yeah! Well, I remember the Sunset Strip when I first came out here and it was really happening for bands. On any given night, you could go see amazing live unsigned music. Unfortunately it’s not what it was, but Dayle Gloria who books the Viper Room is really trying to bring in newer bands and build followings for bands. I just think it’s cool that you’ve got somebody who’s at least willing to give new bands a shot.
Do you think there’s still hope for the scene? Obviously it’s not the same as it once was but it’s not dead either.
It’s really tough to get people down to see a rock show. The bottom line for any bar is, how much they make selling drinks. But I believe that it will turn around and there’s always going to be bands that want to play rock ‘n roll.
So, aside from this show and the Billy Idol tour which you’re rehearsing for, what else are you musically involved in at this point?
We’re just finishing up a new Billy Idol record that will come out in October and Trevor Horn produced that. I’ve worked on Sebastian Bach’s forthcoming record, I have three songs on there that I co-wrote and played on. I’ve also been working with another artist but I’m not really at liberty to say, and I don’t know what will come of it. It’s been an incredible experience and we’ll see if it comes to fruition in the future. But between all these things, I’ve been kept really busy and I’ll be out on the road with Billy Idol through to the end of the year. People ask me when I’m going to do another solo record and hopefully next year I’ll get around to doing that.
Very cool. So, I just saw you soundcheck at the Viper Room for a little bit, and for people who might be curious about your gear setup, I would like to ask you what you’re using right now.
Oh man, for this show it’s so stripped-down. It’s just like bits and pieces, virtually playing the show with one guitar, a very standard Les Paul model. But I do have my Friedman signature model amp. It’s built by Dave Friedman, and that’s the amp I’ve been touring with for the last five years. It’s available to the public now and I think we’ve sold about 50 of these suckers. That’s pretty incredible for a high-end hand-made piece of gear. With Billy Idol I have to recreate sounds from a 30-year career, everything from the punk rock Generation-X stuff to things from Cyperpunk. So I carry around a lot of gear with me but usually for a gig like tonight, I just bring one guitar, amp and a couple of pedals.
You’ve been playing guitar for a number of years. What are the things that you’ve developed in your playing, that you may be did not do when you were younger?
I have a unique perspective because I started playing guitar when I was 7-and-a-half but I didn’t even get an electric guitar until I was 13, so that whole time was spent playing folk music, stuff like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. So my foundation is in acoustic guitar which has been a blessing for me. Probably the most successful stuff that I’ve done has been acoustic-based, even with Billy Idol on songs like ‘Eyes Without A Face’. After I had done the Vince Neil record, we went out and toured and supported Van Halen, and it was kind of like the height of electric guitar playing for me on a technical level. Where do you go from there? And so I virtually stopped playing electric guitar from there and did a flamenco guitar record. That approach to my guitar playing never really left me. Even when I’m playing electric, there’s still an element of flamenco in my playing. So I think that’s one aspect, and as you mature as a player, and I’ve been playing the damn thing for so long, you come to a realization that your vibrato is your signature. That’s really what I look for in guitar players and that’s a side of my playing that I’ve really developed. I want to have a unique vibrato such that if people hear three notes of mine, they know it’s me. Vibrato for a guitar player is like breathing, and every guitar player has a different sense of it. So if anything, I play less notes now (laughs) and hopefully play those notes with more meaning behind them.
I’m glad you mentioned the acoustic guitar because I feel that even in hard rock and metal, musicians who developed on the acoustic guitar have an edge over the others. It’s physically more challenging and if you can write songs on acoustic, there’s nothing like it.
That’s very true. Every great guitar player that I know sits down with an acoustic guitar to write tunes, even Slash and guys that are really known as electric guitar players. The acoustic guitar is like a little orchestra in itself. You can hear the whole arrangement of your song writing on that instrument, whereas with electric it’s a whole different approach.
And there’s nothing to hide behind on an acoustic.
No, there certainly ain’t! (laughs)
You mentioned some of the people who you’ve played with over the years, and everybody has been different from each other. What has that taught you as a musician? I’m sure you developed traits of your musicianship while playing with each of them.
Yeah, one thing they always way is, the bigger and more successful the artist, the cooler and more humble they are. Somebody once told me a great expression recently. When you’re really good at something, you want to tell everyone. But when you’re phenomenal at it, everyone else will tell you (laughs). So the guys that I’ve gotten a chance to work with, great singers, great guitar players from Billy Gibbons to Slash, Vai or any of those guys, they’re humble! They plug in and let their playing do the talking. So that’s the one thing I’ll say I’ve learnt from it.
You jam with a lot of people and sometimes it’s impromptu. like the show you did at the Avalon last November which we were talking about, the benefit show put together by Matt Sorum. That was pretty much a last-minute thing for you. How do you prepare for something like that?
I started out with Matt ten years ago for Camp Freddy and originally I was just a guest, but when Dave Navarro was on the road I’d play the whole set. So, if Matt asks me to play a show, I usually kind of know what the set list is going to be. The last time for that Avalon show though, I got a little thrown off because Slash was the guest lead guitar player and there was no rhythm guitar player to play all the GNR stuff. So at the last minute I got asked to play that and I kind of had to go back to the original tunes and listen to Izzy’s parts. There probably aren’t two guitar players that are as different as me and Izzy Stradlin (laughs), so you have to get into that headspace of what that’s about and it’s a challenge. But it was cool nonetheless, and I’m always up for a good challenge.
So, aside from your jams and rehearsals for whoever you’re playing with, do you also practice and jam songs on your own, like cover tunes or anything like that?
Wow, I haven’t really learned a cover tune in a long time, and I don’t know if you’d call it practicing, but I always pick up a guitar first thing in the morning and try and write a song. I figure it’ll come in handy for something because I always have people asking me to work with them, write a song or get an idea started. So I keep a little recorder like what you’re using, and I always start there. If I feel like I’ve stumbled upon something that I need to work on technically, then I’ll spend an hour, sometimes three hours just working on that bit. But I just count myself really fortunate that playing the guitar as long as I’ve been playing it, I still absolutely love it. I never get tired of it, never get sick of it, and I still find new things about it.
Right, and another thing I noticed during soundcheck that I should ask you about is, you were playing acoustic parts through a clean electric sound. What difference does that bring as opposed to a regular acoustic guitar when you’re playing on stage?
Well, that one is a Godin guitar synthesizer. That’s a nylon but it also has a Roland guitar synth that it triggers. Franky had seen me do the Billy Idol show where I do a 15-minute solo with that guitar, and he said to me, “Oh man, you’ve got to bring that down and do that!” So that’s why I’m doing it. It’s more the flamenco side of things.
And lastly, my site covers a lot of metal but I do cover hard rock because I strongly feel that’s where metal comes from, and metal has its roots in rock. A lot of people distinguish them as two different genres, which is wrong. What’s your take on it?
I think metal really started in 1969, the year of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and even Judas Priest and Uriah Heep, although those guys don’t like to say that they started metal. Their music was really just souped up electric blues, and it got louder. But metal definitely started with English blues bands, certainly the first wave of metal. I still love all those records. I mean, the dawn of metal to me was John Bonham, and although Jimmy Page didn’t have a heavy metal guitar tone, those riffs are metal as fuck. Bands obviously took that ball and ran with it, then you had the second wave of metal, the resurgence of English metal, speed metal and Motörhead. But every one of the metal musicians that I’ve met loves American blues music. Metal is just a super-amped up, louder and faster version of it (laughs).
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