Why Is Guitar Icon Steve Stevens Like a Classic Hot Rod?

By some miracle of superlative talent, brand savvy, hard work, and constant creative evolution, ’80s rock-guitar hero Steve Stevens has escaped the fate of becoming a trivia answer for the nostalgic 50-plus years-old set.

By some miracle of superlative talent, brand savvy, hard work, and constant creative evolution, ’80s rock-guitar hero Steve Stevens has escaped the fate of becoming a trivia answer for the nostalgic 50-plus years-old set. In fact, Stevens appears to be as feisty and relevant now as he was when he and Billy Idol were all over MTV in the days when the channel actually played music videos. Yes, he’s still touring with Idol, and, this year, the team is celebrating the (gasp) 30th anniversary of Rebel Yell. But Stevens is also a solo artist with varied soundtrack and album credits, he plays in all-star cover bands such as Kings of Chaos and Camp Freddy, and he just released a Knaggs signature model guitar and a Friedman signature amp head. Whether you talk about his tones, techniques, or tailoring, Stevens is a stellar example of a classic design carrying on into the next generations— like a Tiffany ring or a reimagined Ford Mustang. Rock on.

How did the Knaggs Steve Stevens Signature come about?

I wasn’t looking to do a signature model, but Peter Wolf contacted me— we had worked together when he was at Hamer all those years ago—and he said, “Hey, you know that PRS guitar you played onstage for a number of years? The guy who made that guitar is Joe Knaggs, and he has started his own company.” Then, I remembered seeing a Knaggs guitar somewhere, and the first thing that caught my eye was the one-piece, kind of Tune-o-maticon- a-plate bridge. I thought that was a good idea, and I wondered why no one else had done that before. So I said, “Cool. Send me one to check out.” They shipped me a really nice guitar, but I’m old school. I like guitars that are thicker, heavier, and have chunkier necks than what they had sent. So I started to explain what I was looking for, and Peter said, “Oh, we can do that.” Within weeks they had a guitar in my hands. Peter said, “Basically, you have a guitar company at your beck and call. Whatever you want—or anything you can dream up or think of—we’ll make for you.” How could I ignore that?

But this was also a friendship thing, as well. I trusted Peter because I worked with him for so many years. In addition, a percentage of the proceeds go to the Musicians’ Assistance Program [MAP], which helps guys in recovery. They’ve helped a lot of my friends, and they helped me one time. I thought, “Okay, cool. This is a reason to have a signature guitar out there.” [See our review of the Knaggs Steve Stevens Signature on p.112]

And what about your signature amplifier?

Dave Friedman of Rack Systems is making it. It’s based on my old plexi Marshall that’s now retired from touring because it’s just not road worthy. Dave basically cloned that amp, and then he added a clean channel that’s like a Fender Twin. It’s a really good sounding amp that has a bit more bottom than top, and its frequency spectrum is a bit wider than an old Marshall’s.

It’s hard to believe it has been 30 years since Rebel Yell was released. What are some of your memories from those sessions?

When we did Rebel Yell, we didn’t have a drummer. A lot of those songs were written in the studio to a Linn Drum, and then we ended up tracking guitars to the drum machine grooves. Fortunately, Thommy Price—the drummer on Rebel Yell—is like a human time machine, so he could lock to a click and record real drums to the Linn tracks. We searched high and low for a guy who could do that, because back then drummers didn’t record with click tracks as much.

You know, I could see some of the songs on Rebel Yell released today. There’s some good classic guitar stuff on that record. By contrast, the previous one—Billy Idol—I think is really ’80s sounding. One of the things that makes the guitars sound the way they do on that record is they were all subtly processed through this extremely expensive piece of outboard gear called a Publison Infernal Machine. It was a harmonizer-type of effect that gave the guitars added sparkle and a kind of kinetic energy that I liked.

Well, there are some pretty raging guitar tones on that album.

For the rock stuff, man, I need the volume. You know, people talk about how records sound now versus back in the day, and they’ll often blame digital recording. But here’s what’s happening with a lot of guitar sounds these days—they’re totally isolated. They’re not cut live or in the studio with the amp, so there’s no signal bleed happening. Totally isolating instruments can sterilize them. When I tracked “Rebel Yell,” I was standing next to my amp wearing headphones, and the sound is all about the natural feedback that occurred with my guitar and I being in the same room as the cabinet.

One of the elements of your style that I find most intriguing is how you’ve always been able to cast these wonderfully memorable parts—great melodies, cool tones, and a tad off -kilter. How did you develop that approach?

That comes down to arrangement, and if there was ever anything that helped me truly understand good arranging, it was the years playing in a cover band doing a lot of Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page didn’t just double the bass, the guitar arrangement was always a totally unique part of the songs, and the sum of the music was so much greater because of that. It’s like an old watch. Some gears are little and they move at twice the speed of the big gear. So I learned to do guitar parts that are polyrhythmic, as well as to find something to play that’s harmonically different than the other instruments. Jimmy Page is the best teacher for that. I kind of hit on that approach with “White Wedding,” and I think I nailed it on “Rebel Yell.”

You know, I’m not precious about my guitar stuff. For the Billy Idol sound, the stuff I do is pretty simple by guitar standards—which is probably why I’m never mentioned in the same breath with Vai and Satriani—but I still believe my main strength is playing what benefits the song. And that makes me happy.

Another thing is that you can still hear the fire and youthful exuberance in your playing today, while some other guitarists of your era sound more mature, and, to be frank, kind of boring.

Here’s the thing. The records I loved when I was 13 years old—when I fell in love with pop music and got my first electric guitar—I try to tap into that feeling of listening to music at that age in whatever way I can. You almost have to block out everything about who you are as a musician to get to that point. Otherwise, you start thinking about how it’s a business and you’ve been doing this for 30 years, and suddenly you’re overthinking everything, and the 13-year-old kid is gone.

It also helps if you truly love making music. These days, the mentality of the music business has changed, and some people actually get into this industry just to be famous or rich. It’s dog-eat-dog, because people aren’t selling the number of records they once did. So now when I meet a younger band, everybody’s a mini mogul. They’re selling all kinds of things— clothes, perfume, shoes—and none of that has anything to do with the quality of their music. To be honest, if I’m writing or playing with somebody, I don’t want to know about that sh*t. Billy and I never wanted to be businessmen—that’s why we hire other people to do that stuff. We just want to be rock and roll knuckleheads and make music.

Do you absorb a lot of today’s artists for inspiration?

I listen to everything, but if somebody has Cookie Monster vocals, I’m outta there [laughs]. The stuff I enjoy listening to still comes down to great songs. I like Bruno Mars because he’s a great talent with great material. I also like Muse. And there are some brilliant guitarists around now—particularly Guthrie Govan, who is an absolutely exciting and amazing player. When I hear him play, it gives me hope.

Is there anything you do to keep yourself evolving as a player?

I continue to challenge myself on a technical level, because I never want to have an idea in my head and not be able to play it. I still try to practice, as well. You know, a few months back, Zakk Wylde sat in with this all-star Hollywood cover band I was guesting with called Camp Freddy, and his technique was so unbelievable that I was humbled. The next day, I found out Zakk had released some instructional DVDs, and I ordered the whole series. I thought, “Wow. I want some of that technique. Oh, look—he has a DVD. I’m getting that sh*t!”