By Antoine Gedroyc
We all know the stories, the glam rock stage pictures and the blazing cinematic riffs that left a mark on Rock n’ Roll history. Preparing this issue’s feature on Knaggs Guitars came with a bonus opportunity to speak with the legendary Steve Stevens. Currently working with Knaggs on a signature model guitar, Steve was gracious enough to share about this project and his gear. But first, we also take a quick journey through a fascinating life and career including a love of flamenco and classical guitar playing, which many might not associate him with. Solo albums like Flamenco.A.Go.Go and Memory Crash display a diverse virtuosity with all the Rebel Yell/Danger Zone fire Stevens is famous for.
A short 15 -20 min interview turned into 45 minutes of conversation, and a most enjoyable time for all. Steve is truly an amazing person; accessible, humble and passionate about music, instruments and people.
Guitar Connoisseur: What first piqued your interest in music? Never mind the guitar for now, let’s stick to your musical interests.
Steve Stevens: My parents were very much into music, although they didn’t play any instrument. The very 1st concert they took me to was Dave Brubeck. We always shared music in my household. My dad has a very extensive record collection. He would bring the 1st albums with Moog synthesizers home, and was really into electronics and electronic music way before it was considered to be “cool”. Our house was always buzzing with some kind of music.
GC: So when did the guitar bug bite you?
SS: Well as a kid I never really envisioned myself making a living out of this. Growing up in Far Rockaway, NY, just outside of NYC, there was a famous protest musician called Phil Ochs. Everyone in my neighborhood was really enamored with Phil. His sister was actually my first guitar teacher. The mid 60’s were the years of the singer/songwriter, and everyone around me was playing guitar. I started playing when I was just about seven and a half years old, but it wasn’t until I was 13 that I picked up an electric guitar. I would be playing folk music on a very cheap $13 beginner’s guitar. It was a really horrible guitar that came with a little booklet, but it did the job. Within 6 months of that my parents got me a better instrument, a nylon string again for about $100. Playing guitar was just the cool thing to do. We grew up about a half a mile from the beach. My older brother played, all my friends played, so in the summer everyone would be on the beach playing guitar, and I guess I just wanted to be a part of it. Playing bass and keyboards only came much later down the road, out of a necessity. You wouldn’t believe how many of your favorite albums involve the guitar player recording the bass part. There is something really special about that though. Having the same person with the same DNA playing both the guitar and bass parts make them fuse together into almost an instrument of its own. Somebody had to do it! (laughs)
GC: Take us through the “Steve Stevens” pedagogy of learning how to play. What methods of learning and practicing got you where you are today?
SS: My first real teacher, when I was about 10 years old at summer camp, was a flamenco player. I didn’t know what this particular style was called but it touched me, and the energy level, the emotion and expressivity blew me away. Still, to this day I love nylon string guitars.
GC: Do you see strong similarities between metal and other modern genres and the flamenco?
SS: Absolutely! I’ve often described flamenco as the speed metal of classical guitar myself! I started playing folk music on nylon string guitars, then studied classical and flamenco very early. It is like a natural loop to go back to the roots and record Flamenco. A. Go. Go.
GC: So what led you to pick up the electric guitar?
SS: Probably just hearing things on the radio. And I had an uncle whose job was to service juke boxes. He would bring a stack of about a hundred different 45’s; The Stones, Hendrix, Motown, all these kind of things. I thought, “Wow! if I want to sound like that, I m going to need an electric guitar!” When I was about 13 my parents got me a Univox electric guitar, a Univox amp and an Electro-Harmonix “Big Muff” as one package.
GC: So once you got the gear how did you learn to play the electric?
SS: Hmm, I would say for electric I was pretty much self-taught. I continued to have a classical guitar teacher. I went to the High School of Performing Arts of NY (The school the movie “Fame” was based on), and in order to get in, I had to play a classical piece. As far as the electric guitar goes, it was really hard to find any kind of teacher back then. You had to find older kids who would play in the neighborhood you know… Most of the time you had to listen to the records over and over; slowing them down to try and understand what they were doing!
GC: How would you weigh the tremendous amount of effort and dedication to learn electric guitar then, versus the easy access to so many videos, DVD online methods and information that is instantly available nowadays?
SS: I don’t necessarily think that it’s how you learn, but more what you learn… the material that you learn. The stuff that I was spending countless hours learning, trying to figure it out, was not what most people were trying to duplicate. For some reason I was always interested in things that were “out of the box”. By the time I was 13, there was a radio station in NY called WNEW. They had a show called “Things from England”, and they’d play the latest Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer and Yes. I really fell in love with that new genre of Progressive Rock. Those guitarists were – to me – playing all of the styles that I was learning; classical, blues, rock, jazz in a very non-academic way. I think it was just a matter of having my mind open and wanting to play other styles. Keith Emerson would talk about classical music. I remember I didn’t know who John Coltrane was until I read an interview of Allan Holdsworth talking about him, so I thought “Oh! Who’s that? I want to learn THAT!”
To this day I always tell players and musicians how important it always has been to me to learn, love and appreciate styles and genres outside of what you are going to play. People still ask me to this day things like, “How did you come up with the intro to Rebel Yell?” Well, that was me emulating Keith Emerson you know… I could say it’s my love of things outside of guitar that led me to come up with these parts. I wasn’t trying to be anyone else but myself, even though I loved listening to all these guys; Hendrix, Page, Emerson and so many others, but I wasn’t trying to be any of them.
GC: How did you and Billy Idol team up?
SS: Billy had come from an English punk rock kind of background. I think the last thing he needed was another punk rock guitar player. He’d already done 3 records with Generation X. He and his producer Keith Wilson were really looking for someone to bring something different. We just hung out as mates really at first, talking about music we loved and getting to know each other. I remember talking about Lou Reed and Bowie. This whole dynamic between the singer and the guitar player was very important. He understood that deeply. We pretty much then got right down to writing songs. He had a record to do, and I said, “Well, let’s do this!”
GC: That leads us towards the creative dynamics between the two of you. How do you work together?
SS: Even to this day, it’s always different. There is no set rule or protocol for me to go about writing songs. “Rebel Yell”, for example, was just Billy and I sitting in the studio, thinking, “Ok, we have to come up with a great rock’n roll song.” But “Eyes Without a Face” was completely different. I came up with the music, living in my parent’s basement at the time. The only radio station I could get was an “oldie station”. They’d play things like Frankie Valli, and I thought it would be nice to do something with those kinds of chords changes. I brought that to the rehearsal, and Billy had the lyrics that were just a perfect fit. I think with writing there are no rules really. You have to draw on your personal life experiences, and really listen to what the other person is trying to do. Obviously my job as a guitar player is to help the singer tell a story. I‘m not here to make myself shine– but serve the song. And if I’m doing my job well, we’d end up with a good one !
GC: Does having a lot of different amps, effects and guitars help in this creative process? Find the right pen to write the right story?
SS: You can write a song on any guitar really. It’s nice to have different guitars and gear that I’ve accumulated over the years. I just love guitars! There is nothing cooler to me than opening the case of a new guitar! It’s just doing it for me… they are great for me. I had 3 cars in my entire life, they just don’t do it for me (laughs). But guitars always did and still do to this day! I just love everything about them. I remember my first Les Paul was a tobacco sunburst Standard ‘73 or ’74, and as soon as I grabbed it I felt that this was a “real” guitar you know. It fit my hand right, the neck felt right, the body style was small. It felt just right, and better than pretty much anything I had before.
GC: Most recently you partnered up with Knaggs Guitars and started touring with a Kenai model. How did this collaboration come about?
SS: I had known Peter (Peter Wolf of Knaggs Guitars) for probably 29 years. He was involved with Hamer Guitars way back in the day. My best memories with Hamer Guitars, was going to Germany, to the Frankfurt Musikmesse (music gear trade show). He had arranged for me to play with John Entwistle and Zak Starkey. We sort of stayed in contact since, and it was only natural that he approached me when he got involved with Knaggs. I didn’t really know Joe but I owned a couple PRS Guitars. When Peter emailed me and told me Joe was one of the custom shop guys at PRS, and mentioned some of the features of Knaggs such as the “one piece bridge”, I knew exactly what he was talking about.
GC: So that quickly led to developing your own Signature model?
SS: Well I said, “Look if you’d like to go down this road with me, there are a couple of things I’d like changed, but I’d love to work with you.” The best thing about Knaggs is that they never said no to anything I could come up with. They never made excuses for anything. I wanted to have a very special custom binding on the guitar, in the spirit of a pearloid drum kit. They said sure, even though they never worked with this material before. I gave them the neck shape, profile, nut width of my favorite Les Paul, and they nailed it on the first time. I wanted a thicker body than the original Knaggs they had sent me and a few more changes. I really felt they were putting a lot of passion and energy into this, and were as excited as I was about it.
GC: Was the thicker body an ergonomic or a sound concern… or a little bit of both?
SS: Absolutely, a little bit of both. I really like a “substantial” guitar. I just can’t get used to the whole chambering thing. I am not saying they are good or bad, it’s just not my thing. I don’t think they sound the same. That’s one of the things I discussed with Joe. The selection of the “right” mahogany, and keeping the guitar right around 8 lbs was critical.
GC: The weight of the guitar for you is a very important factor?
SS: Very much so. I don’t feel comfortable with super light, featherweight light instruments. I didn’t want the guitar to be too heavy either. To me right around 8 lbs is an ideal balanced weight; not too light, not too heavy. I said, “Look I also like really heavy jumbo frets on my guitars. I‘m not going to lie, and try and make a guitar that everybody likes.” I really wanted it to stay true to my personal specs and preferences… keep its strong personality and character. That’s what I play and if people dig it, then great!
GC: So you were deeply involved in the design and specs!
SS: Exactly, it wasn’t about licensing my name or just having a decal on the back of the headstock that says “Steve Stevens Signature” (laughs)! It was made very clear from day one that the guitar should be a very high quality instrument; no cheaper Korean or Chinese fabrication, but everything is coming out of Knaggs’ shop. I really never wanted to compromise with the quality and specs. And again, they never said no to anything I was requesting. It’s going to be made in very limited numbers initially, and if there is a demand for it great! It is a superb, super high quality guitar, it’s the tool that I use, and if other people dig it too, all the better!
GC: What other main changes can we disclose vs the stock Kenai?
SS: The pickups are Bare Knuckle hand wound. I chose not to use my “Rebel Yell” (also by BK) that I love as a Les Paul replacement pickup. But I had to be honest, and didn’t like them as much with this particular build. Even though it’s a great pickup, it didn’t sound right to me in this guitar; it became a little bit too honky. The Knaggs responds differently than a traditional Les Paul, it does have more bottoms and tops, and the bridge delivers an amazing dynamic, a lot of sustain. I wanted to go with lower wound, AlNiCo magnets pickups, something a tad less brutal/aggressive, to balance the personality and voice of the instrument. We went through 4 or 5 different pick up versions, and just this week I decided the ones I felt were a perfect match.
GC: How do you A/B test so many pickups?
SS: To me, the tell/tell is the middle position, using the both pickups together. When it comes together right, it’s almost like a gigantic acoustic guitar. Lots of instruments just don’t sound right on this position. Beautiful expressivity, balance– you can play all these kinds of chords, arpeggios, single notes, and you always get an amazing clarity and tone.
GC: If we could sum it up, what would you say about this Steve Stevens Signature model?
SS: It really came together out of a genuine friendship. It didn’t come out as a business adventure. It really is the combination of an artist and a company who want to put a very high quality guitar out there. Mutual respect, friendship… a lot of successful things originate out of friendship you know! I love picking up and playing this guitar, it puts a huge smile on my face.
GC: What do you have coming up in 2013?
SS: We are working with Billy, writing new material for a new record right now. He has an auto-biography coming out so we’re hoping to have the record ready at the same time. Actually as soon as we’re done here, we’re going to work together today.
GC: Thank you very much for talking to us!
SS: Thanks for supporting guitars! To me it’s still the greatest instrument in the world; it still has magic, man!